Engineering the Golden Years

  • 27th May 2024

Steve McSorley, director at Perega, highlights the pressing need to retrofit and build more futureproofed care homes, the effect that updated building regulations around sustainability are having on developers, and gives advice on key considerations during the design phase of assistant living developments

Steve McSorley

A new report from AGE UK, The State of Health and Care of Older People, in England highlights that a joined-up, collaborative approach is needed when it comes to social care for pensioners.

By 2045 the number of senior citizens is set to hit 3.1 million in the UK – double the current population – so the race is on to provide adequate services to deal with this massive surge.

Beyond suitable healthcare provision, accommodation is also an important factor, offering appropriate dwellings for a more-vulnerable demographic.

And this is a complex issue, far removed from the construction of traditional homes.

There is so much more to consider when designing these types of facilities and much of it goes unseen, especially the important role structural and civil engineers play in the process.

This encompasses not only the integrity of the building itself, but also the landscaping around it; aiming to meet strict standards and regulations, while delivering safe, secure and comfortable ‘homes for life’.

With this in mind, I’d like to seize this opportunity to offer my perspective on how our work contributes to the ultimate success of these developments and, as a result, the overall wellbeing of the individuals living in them.

Safety in structure

In any later living project, understanding the parameters and constraints of the site at the start of the project is essential.

You need to take the location’s topography into account, conducting a thorough survey and investigation to identify potential restrictions or limitations around the area’s existing infrastructure.

This is particularly important in brownfield locations, where unseen contaminants can lie beneath the site surface and cause major problems down the line if not found and addressed in the design phase before building starts.

Careful consideration must also be given to landscaping around the building, minimising inclines to create a safe and accessible environment.

This means designing thoroughfares which offer plenty of room to manoeuvre for mobility scooters to pass, also making provisions for installing ramps and stairlifts at a later stage if not needed from the outset.

A steep slope can pose a serious hazard to elderly residents who may have limited mobility.

When working on Retirement Villages’ award-winning project, Charters Village in East Grinstead, we were acutely aware of the audience and the specific criteria which needed to be considered as manoeuvring around such terrain can be challenging, and the risk of accidents therefore increases.

In any later living project, understanding the parameters and constraints of the site at the start of the project is essential. Image, saad salim at unsplash

Caring for the future

The healthcare and care system in England carries a significant environmental responsibility, accounting for approximately 4-5% of the nation’s carbon footprint.

It’s here we return to brownfield.

With available greenfield land becoming increasingly scarce, maybe it’s time to shift the focus towards these former commercial and industrial sites, which present an opportunity for later living developers, looking for plots close to public amenities while also meeting their sustainability targets.

Just to highlight this potential, the CPRE reports dormant brownfield sites in the UK offer space for 1.2 million homes.

However, as above, these sites need to be approached cautiously.

If it’s categorised as brownfield, there is a specific set of regulatory restrictions that have to be considered. For example, to achieve planning permission, the land’s quality and composition must be thoroughly assessed and, where necessary, reinforced with any identified contamination removed before construction can begin.

The overall location needs to be suitable and appropriate for a more-vulnerable client group.

Understand your audience

When working on care homes, preserving the personal dignity of those in care is of paramount importance, so engineers should approach care home developments with an empathetic mindset, prioritising resident independence wherever possible.

This equally applies to independent later living in many ways, it’s just the emphasis that is different as with independent or later living, the residents are just that, independent, so their needs are different to those requiring a high degree of care.

The development should, in both cases, seamlessly integrate with, and become an integral part of, the broader community.

Achieving this integration becomes feasible when the development aligns with the local authority’s long-term planning strategy.

Civil engineers can also play an active part here, designing transport links that neatly connect with existing road and rail links, facilitating easy access for visiting friends and family as well as resident’s attendance at medical appointments.

The close proximity to urban areas also provides residents with the opportunity for group outings and interactions beyond their living enviroment.

Civil engineers also come into play when designing the infrastructure layout, which includes utility links and connections to the grid.

They consider factors such as the location of the development, the local terrain, and the existing utility infrastructure, while planning the layout to ensure optimal efficiency and reliability.

Ultimately, engineers play a crucial role across the entire development, from the big picture to the finer details.

With AGE UK advising for an increase in ‘home first’ developments to alleviate pressure on the NHS, engineers can provide design advice and assist with planning, all while keeping a holistic view of the audience they are catering to.

Their contributions are the building blocks that pave the way for better-quality later living and care facilities.

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