Housing-and-ageing for architects: Beyond design

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Architects design buildings, but it is fair to talk about (and expect) their participation in shaping housing-and-ageing outside of architecture. After all, these are professionals who have never self-excluded from graphic design, branding, copywriting, sculpture, social science, economics and philosophy. Architects also engage in shaping housing-and-ageing beyond design in the same way that every person does – by talking about hopes, fears, differences, assumptions, beliefs. Further, their direct role in developing housing outcomes and narratives is an inescapable participation in reproducing the social and economic norms of society and the communally-created imaginaries of what a ‘good’ life and ‘good’ old age is.

Within design, in their disciplinary lane, architects have all the tools to help make housing more sustainable, healthier, longer-lasting, more usable, more adaptable to changing household needs, and (although I know it is developers not architects who set profit margins and it is The Market that forces the developers’ hand) more affordable. Affordability is not purely a binary calculated by cost of purchase. Long-term affordability is supported locally through housing diversity, where homogeneity limits it.

Architects also have a powerful tool and philosophy of Universal Design. This is the design of places, spaces and products to ensure inclusion, regardless of ability. It is distinct from accessibility standards because inclusion is integrated from the outset. Universal Design is the welcoming address, not the ramp added on the side.

Integrating inclusion is not a tick box exercise. This is where architects of housing-and-ageing move beyond design and into the intentional practice of empathy. Empathy exists on a spectrum from practical (solving a problem) to radical (building equality).

Three types of empathy provide a framework for architects involved in housing-and-ageing:

Them empathy

Me empathy

Us empathy

Them empathy requires that we consider someone with experiences outside of our own by asking: how would this space make someone with [insert cognitive, physical or social difference] feel?  It is an arms-length empathy but gleans immediate results in the built environment, moving from an unthinking and narrow focus on an assumed customer archetype to an expanded base of potential future users. This cognitive empathy builds diversity of user into design decisions. Without it, exclusion underpins the built environment.

Me empathy is emotional, triggering feelings for another person or people. It is the thought of that could be me, and, for a momentary sensation: I feel that is me. Without this deeper empathy, marginalisation of subsectors of society is accepted. Empathy for old age is unique because we will all get there – that will be me. The great trick of positive ageing suggests that future experiences of this future self are individually controllable, through self-vigilance, sensible decisions, and investment / insurance (eg. homeownership). Here, empathy is too easily split: that won’t be me! we vow. Melbourne essayist Melanie Joosten locates this split in “an invisible turning point where we stop respecting the old and begin punishing them for existing.” [1] This split empathy individualises risk, and allows blame to be apportioned to others’ choices, enabling a kind of ‘bad faith’ confidence in individual agency.

Us empathy moves beyond big ‘me’ feelings for another’s (‘them’) experience of the world. This is empathy beyond the emotional triggers of a particular case or experience that we see or that we conjure in our minds. Us empathy is radical empathy for an unknown and unknowable situation or person, from our future selves to the future whole world.

Because this is empathy for something unknowable, without a target, it moves us to consider consequence, kinship, interdependency, sustainability.

Australian architecture practice Sibling delivered a prescient and practical ongoing research and interactive project in 2018 called New Agency [2]. In framing the project, the practice asked two key questions that help define this bigger and more intentional form of ‘us’ empathy:

How will you grow old?
What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

This is empathy for our future selves and for those around us and after us. It is not an emotion, Sibling’s questions challenge a move beyond personal to communal consideration of a more intentional and diverse imaginary of a good old age.

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Back to housing. Housing is central to a practical philosophy of old age. It is what scholars Power and Mee [3] call an ‘infrastructure of care’; a physical, psychological, social and economic assemblage that reproduces social difference through its materialities, markets and governance. As housing systems change so too do the possibilities of care. The housing we have ‘patterns’ practices and ideas of care. This includes practices of care as a clinical service (supported by certain physical and financial housing arrangements – requiring ‘them’ empathy). It includes ideas about how we want to live when we get older – what is likely to be important in the fabric of our daily lives (flexing ‘me’ empathy). And, it includes a conception of care as life-long relations and interdependencies, nothing less than the building blocks of society, where decisions exercise empathy for unknown biologically-delinked descendants and environments too.

[1] Joosten, M. (2016). A long time coming: essays on old age, Scribe Publications, Melbourne. p.45

[2] Sibling. New Agency: Rethinking the future of ageing. http://siblingarchitecture.com/projects/new-agency/

[3] Power, E. R. & Mee, K. J. (2020). Housing: an infrastructure of care. Housing Studies, 35(3), pp. 84–505.