The offsite route to accessibility

Chris Sutton from On the Level discusses the challenge of delivering accessible living for an ageing population, and the benefits of offsite bathroom construction

One of our greatest societal challenges is how we meet the needs of an ageing population. We all welcome the opportunity to live longer, yet with improved longevity comes the pressure to provide appropriate and accessible living space for older people. From care home beds to specialist social housing, adapting existing homes to building granny flats, we are struggling to deliver enough bespoke accommodation to meet the requirements of the older generation. How might offsite construction and modular pods help speed up delivery, while offering better quality and more accessible spaces for our ageing demographic?

Our population is definitely ageing. According to the Office for National Statistics, by 2066 there will be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over – a population roughly the size of London. In 2016, people over 85 accounted for just 2 per cent of the population, but fast forward 50 years and that is forecast to rocket to 7 per cent. As we live longer, our health needs become more complex and the places we live must adapt to our changing demands. In the UK we are already struggling to provide appropriate accommodation for our existing population. As it continues to grow as well as age, how do we respond to the challenges that presents? Many argue that Britain faces a social care crisis. Research published by Newcastle University in the Lancet medical journal last year found there will be an additional 353,000 older people with complex needs by 2025, requiring 71,000 extra care home beds. Yet this need to ramp up delivery of care home provision comes at a time when the construction industry is already under enormous pressure. A research paper by Heriot-Watt University on behalf of the National Housing Federation indicates that England faces a shortfall of four million homes and needs to build an additional 340,000 a year until 2031. The construction sector will struggle to meet the challenge given the skills shortages and low productivity. To provide an adequate supply of care home places in the midst of a housing crisis, it will require some radical changes. One solution is to exploit offsite construction. The manufacture and pre-assembly of construction components within a controlled factory setting can revolutionise the provision of accessible accommodation for our ageing population. It speeds up delivery, reduces costs, minimises waste and ensures greater quality control. The Government has recognised the value of this new approach, whilst a Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) white paper revealed that 42 per cent of construction firms employing over 100 staff believe they will be using offsite methods in five years’ time.

When providing accessible residential care for older people, features such as modular pod wet rooms can bring significant benefits. They can form a bespoke part of a larger offsite construction project or be slotted into an existing building as part of a wider refurbishment. Bathrooms are one of the greatest potential hazards for older people and a great deal of thought needs to go into their design. Wet room floor solutions from On The Level for instance, provide made-to-measure environments, which prioritise accessibility. They are far quicker to install than those constructed on-site, incorporate an innovative waterproofing system, and allow the security of level access showers. What’s more, these modular solutions could easily be installed into people’s houses. Many older people wish to delay going into residential care for as long as possible and would prefer to stay in their own home. Adaptations such as installing a wet room pod, tailored to meet their specific needs, would mean they could live independently for longer. A customised bolt-on bathroom annex is a quick and easy way to make a home user-friendly. Providing homes that are fit for purpose is critical when confronting the challenges of an ageing population. This is also true in relation to social housing. The UK is in dire need of more affordable quality homes, which can stand the test of time. As the Government grapples with the need to boost social housing provision, features such as pod wet rooms can help future proof a home and ensure it meets the needs of occupiers with limited mobility. We need more strategies to ensure that as people grow older, everyone in the UK will be able to live somewhere which meets their needs. That will not only involve delivering more new-build homes but adapting existing properties. Those in the offsite construction sector must rise to the challenge and play a pivotal role in the provision of appropriate living spaces. Offsite and modular construction businesses must take the opportunity and be ready to work with Government and the wider construction industry to increase offsite capacity, investing further in manufacturing capability and developing modular construction techniques that can address the needs people at every stage of life.

Chris Sutton is business development director at On the Level