FLEX - Flexible Dwellings for Extended Living

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Arts, Design and Social Sciences


This project looks into the future of our homes and explores the potential for adapting our dwellings to deal with the pressures of 21st century living - an ageing population, increasing atomization of the family, expensive housing, environmental targets, spiralling energy costs, and the risk of social isolation. These challenges suggest opportunities for collaboration between communities of research, practice and occupants who wish to explore configurable spaces, flexible materials, green living, and pervasive media. To harness this energy, we explore the boundaries of private and public living, involving the communities of Newcastle and Dundee in co-design workshops that focus on how communities might dwell more socially to better serve companionship, resource sharing and social resilience. We target people in their 40s to 60s, for whom retirement is on its way, to identify their interests and values and assess how retro-fitting a generation of homes could work to increase sociality.

We will run a specialist workshop for architects, designers, planners and materials experts to discuss the innovations that are possible in fitting up homes for different life stages and making communal living more possible. Materials prepared following this event and incorporating the learning will be used in community workshops in Newcastle and Dundee, to be stimulus for collaborative designing of future homes. Through this work we will explore the boundaries of acceptability and affordability, what local priorities would be and how far innovations can be imagined working in ordinary homes in Scotland and England. Through this process, we will come to learn both what would be welcomed in households in Scotland and England, and also some insight into methods of engaging households in making such changes.

The project discoveries will be captured in a blog, using video, and presented in an exhibition mounted in the two chosen areas. Feedback from these sources will go into the final evaluation of what is possible and desirable in modifying existing homes to accommodate a more socially resilient and supportive lifestyle.

Planned Impact

This research will develop knowledge within the community and the impact will reach a broad range of stakeholders, including community organisations and policy makers. We have identified the following possible professional beneficiaries:
* Architects/ designers and their professional bodies: RIBA, RIAS, ARB, and CSD, BIID, SBID and SBID Society of British Interior Designers / BIID British Institute of Interior Design / IFI International Federation of Interior Design Interior Architects
* House builders and housing developers (to influence development of new builds)
* Housing associations and local authorities
* Homes & Communities Agency's Vulnerable and Older People's Advisory group
* Older people groups/ think tanks/ advocacy and campaigning bodies
* Design Council CABE
* Dept for Communities and Local Government
* Cooperative/ co-housing groups/ advocacy and campaigning bodies
* Other architecture centres and organisations that engage communities in the built environment

This research has the potential to contribute profoundly to the nation's health and culture by establishing and sharing ways to combat social isolation through innovative housing design for existing dwellings. (70% of housing stock in 2050 will be stock already in existence now - Dept of Communities and Local Government Committee, 2007)

We will be bringing together design, architecture, older people's issues and a brief to retrofit homes for conviviality and sociality. This interdisciplinarity intrinsically broadens the impact of the findings by engaging stakeholders from the different areas and creating a new central hub to attract organisations with different perspectives to share their own resources. This is exemplified in the blog, which we will develop to report on and share findings of our project and others in related fields.

We are fortunate to have Northern Architecture's Carol Botten as a project co-manager and consultant. She is able to mobilise an extensive set of contacts all over the north-east, and also through the rest of Britain through the countrywide network of regional architecture centres. With the reach of these centres, whose brief is to engage communities in working to improve place and space, we have a ready-made path for turning findings into impact on professional bodies, community organisations and policy-makers.

The results will make a contribution to public policy through better understanding how communities in Scotland and England understand the opportunities becoming available to them. The research also has the potential to improve the offering from social housing organizations (and private sector housing developers, although this is not our principal audience since we are focusing on existing housing stock).

There will be a direct impact on the participants through developing understanding of their own domestic environments. This will, in turn, be reflected in the blog and therefore become shared public knowledge, for practitioner groups and academics to help understand vernacular perspectives.

Among the organisations we can have a direct impact upon are the UK Cohousing Network (http://cohousing.org.uk/) which is made up of people from established and forming cohousing groups in England & Wales; Independent Living (http://www.independentliving.co.uk/), a site for impartial information about products and services to help with mobility and independence, and our collaborator, The Elders Council (http://www.elderscouncil.org.uk/working_groups/?id=12).

The Elders Council has a specific Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods group which we will involve in workshops.The Elders Council is part of the Quality of Life Partnership, another wider network relating to Newcastle/older people which we will be able to use to disseminate, reflecting Northern Architecture's strong links here, with connections to Age UK and Newcastle City Council, among other local authorities.


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Title Dundee exhibition 
Description Exhibition installation at University of Dundee for two weeks, where a structure embodying the learning from the FLEX project was available to walk through and read about. AT the opening evening, members of the groups who participated in the research were invited to return and hear about the outcomes and we were pleased to welcome many back, with their stories of what they had done since they met us. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact More public and university interest in the findings. Our participants were able to reengage in the work, report back and learn about the wider outcomes. 
URL http://flexhousing.wordpress.com/flex-exhibitions/flex-dundee-exhibition/
Title FLEX newspaper 
Description Community materials in the shape of a newspaper that told the story of the project and its findings in pictures and short articles. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact Sent to 2000 organisations in the world of architecture, co-housing, planning and urban space. 
URL http://flexhousing.wordpress.com/flex-exhibitions/flex-dundee-exhibition/flex-newspaper/
Title Film on Ageing and Agency 
Description A film made on how to rethink the relationship between ageing, designing technology and the sense of agency that empowers rather than sidelines older people. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Too early to say. 
Description The FLEX project looked at ageing well at home, working with experts and lay people in an array of housing arrangements to consider what small changes communities can make to ensure their neighbourhoods best support engaged lives for older people. After a fact-finding workshop with specialists in architecture, co-housing, interiors and ageing, we set up 'high tea' in local cafés in Newcastle and Dundee to ask people on the approach to retirement to reflect on their changing needs and the nature of social wellbeing.

FLEX identified the value of sharing space and resources to people as they age, not only out of economic effectiveness, but because sharing acts as an antidote to isolation at a time in life when social engagements can diminish.

We learnt about barriers to meeting others and sharing as one ages: fewer serendipitous opportunities, awkwardness, fear of intrusion and risk-aversion.

Participants noted that even thinking about maintaining sociability was a first step to addressing the issue now that many venues that lead to casual encounters, such as pubs, corner shops and pension queues, are disappearing.

FLEX also looked at the design of both the social and physical fabric of people's neighbourhoods. It concluded that what is needed is 'porous design', allowing for awareness of others and serendipitous meetings - but only as and when required.
Exploitation Route Questions raised by our findings that would repay further attention include:

* how to promote and incorporate new elder communities;
* how to customize existing civic spaces to meet the requirements of a future elderly audience - helping us feel 'at-home' in our area or when venturing beyond it;
* how to develop more porous boundary devices and
* how to mitigate the risks (from embarrassment to actual vulnerability) of adopting a more social approach to others in the neighbourhood.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Creative Economy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

URL http://flexhousing.wordpress.com/flex-exhibitions/flex-dundee-exhibition/flex-newspaper/
Description The work here has informed our community partner Northern Architecture's policy around ageing and the distribution of the newspaper produced to show findings was circulated to 2000 regional (north-east) and national (UK) bodies that are involved in architecture and housing. RIBA requested that we give evidence in their review of ageing this year (2014) and requests are still coming in for findings and the newspaper (see linked material). There was direct local impact on tea party participants in Newcastle and Dundee, who were sufficiently motivated by participating to return and inform us of their subsequent activities at the follow-up events in each city. The methodology was then applied to meetings in Sheffield between older people and the council as they sought ways of increasing actual contribution from elderly populations in the bid for Ageing Better, a city-wide collaboration of major healthcare and social housing consortia. At present, the Co-I is looking at a joint project with Falmouth University and a number of interior designers to take ideas forward and the PI has just run a very successful Design for Sharing project, supported by the Sustainable Society Network of the Digital Economy and bringing in many practitioners to discuss social models of sharing. Since 2014, the project has led to work with practitioners on the sharing economy in a range of contexts, including the EU Policy Lab, Brussels. Through the projects that this work fed into, it is having a big impact on research direction and outcomes.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction
Impact Types Societal

Description EU Policy Lab Collaboration on Sharing Economy
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Method taken up by Sheffield City Council
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Sheffield City Council adopted our engagement design for working with older people in an inclusive way, so that numbers of older people were active participants in the design of the policies that are now being implemented as part of the council's Ageing Better programme.
Description Submission to RIBA review on design for ageing
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact We contributed to a review at RIBA of how to handle architectural design for an ageing population. The outcomes of the review are still to be reported.
Description DE Culture and Community Network +
Amount £6,800 (GBP)
Organisation University of Leeds 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2015 
End 03/2016
Description Leverhulme International Fellowship
Amount £19,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2014 
End 03/2015
Description Pilot Funding
Amount £47,400 (GBP)
Organisation Imperial College London 
Department Sustainable Society Network+
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2013 
End 03/2014
Description Small Grants
Amount £15,000 (GBP)
Organisation Imperial College London 
Department Sustainable Society Network+
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2014 
End 11/2014
Description Invited Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I was invited to give a public talk at the University of Malmo as part of their Medea Talks, which are aimed at a professional public and also put online for others to view. I described the Connected Communities projects in some detail as part of a more general talk on futures and participation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://medea.mah.se/event/medea-talks-ann-light/
Description Invited Talk at Makerspace Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This talk introduced multiple research projects to the practitioner audience and helped them see how research into social design could be relevant to their work. It was followed up by invitations to talk in Belfast, to collaborate with the EU Policy Lab and other venues.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Tea party to share findings 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited ageing and housing experts from Newcastle area to mingle with older people and ageing advocates at tea party to share findings from FLEX project.

Higher profile and invitation for further talks and participation
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013