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EVDS student project uses design to help seniors age in place

Multidisciplinary consultation results in innovative laneway home that keeps family together longer
April 29, 2015
Exterior of the laneway home in the DRI Lab

Exterior of the laneway home in the DRI Lab.

The living room of the laneway home, equipped with specialized mobility features.

The living room of the laneway home, equipped with specialized mobility features.

By 2030, four out of every five new households will be formed by people over 65, and older individuals will account for 80 per cent of the housing demand. As Canada's population ages, homes that allow seniors and those with limited mobility to age in place are becoming an increasingly important part of the housing market.

Under the leadership of architecture professor John Brown, students at the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS) undertook a unique community-based research project as part of their senior architecture studio, developing cutting edge aging-in-place design strategies for a small laneway house that could be constructed in the backyard of a standard Calgary residential lot.

Along with the students' design and construction of a full-size model, significant collaboration and consultation on the project was carried out in partnership with medical researchers at W21C in the O'Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine, Faculty of Nursing, and industry partners Homes by Avi and the Alberta Real Estate Foundation. The model uses advanced home health technology and a design that could realistically fit into the Calgary real estate market.

"Our community will certainly embrace this," says Alan Tennant, CEO of the Calgary Real Estate Board. "What this changes is that the family unit can stay together."

Most homes now are designed for people in good health

"Almost all houses are designed for people in good health and can be difficult, isolating, even dangerous places for older persons to live," says Brown. If this situation remains unchanged, the majority of today's five million Canadian seniors may be forced out of their homes and into communal settings such as long-term care facilities. This will adversely affect their quality of life and further stress an already overburdened health-care system.

"Dignity and accessibility were the main aims of this project," adds Scott Douglas, one of the students involved in the project.

While advances in home health technology have the potential to solve some of the housing obstacles facing Canada's seniors, limited commercial success has been experienced to date, in part because the technology has been developed in isolation from the expertise of architects and planners, the realities of the residential construction industry, and the priorities of the housing market.

Success requires interdisciplinary effort

Brown and his research partners believe that achieving large-scale success in meeting the needs of older persons requires an interdisciplinary effort.

"All architects have to be empathetic — you're always designing for someone," explains Brown. "One of things that is unique about this project is that in June through November, we're going to be working with people who might benefit from living in this type of home to get their feedback on the students' ideas."

"What we want to be able to do from the health-care perspective is study the features of the home that we believe will help with supporting somebody aging in the home," says Dr. Peter Sargious of W21C.

The Laneway Project is part of a home health research program that leverages the University of Calgary's research expertise in architecture, planning, product design, medicine, psychology, nursing, and computer science to create an interdisciplinary bridge between the provision of care for older persons with chronic conditions and the design of homes and communities that facilitate high-quality aging-in-place.