Could Architecture Keep You Young? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Could Architecture Keep You Young?

Could Architecture Keep You Young?

By Tracy Moran



Because growing old doesn’t have to be isolating.

By Tracy Moran

Over the past 22 years, retiree Bruce Coldham has watched three cohorts of children grow up in his beloved Pine Street Cohousing Community in western Massachusetts, and he has every intention of living beside his young, middle-aged and older neighbors for as long as possible. 

With a host of bold new plans for multigenerational living, you too might spend your golden years cavorting with tykes you’re not related to. Thanks to the housing crisis of 2008, increasing urbanization and an aging population that will see roughly 98 million golden oldies in the U.S. by 2060, the debate about how and where we age is taking center stage. Designers are increasingly looking at how intergenerational housing and retirement facilities can be combined in healthy, interactive and transparent ways. Meanwhile, older ideas like cohousing — a Scandinavian innovation that features generations growing up side by side and sharing common space — are getting a new life. 

H.O.M.E., a low-income senior housing provider in Chicago, offers free rent to young adults who agree to help the senior residents at the organization’s three sites on the North Side.

Studies by the Pew Research Center show that approximately 51 million Americans — nearly 17 percent of the population — already live with other adult generations, often within their own families. Since the most recent housing crisis, millennials have struggled to break out on their own, and many have ended up living with parents and grandparents. Some families are retrofitting their homes to accommodate these adult children; many new builds connect single-family homes with granny-style apartments that cater to aging loved ones. After 25 years of slow and steady growth, the cohousing movement also has seen a recent uptick in interest, according to Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States. An additional 130 projects soon will come online to join the existing 162 communities, a trend Alexander expects to net huge growth over the next decade.

More ambitious projects are in the works. German-born architect Matthias Hollwich, of Hollwich Kushner in New York, spent years designing his approach to a new way of aging: the sculptural Skyler Tower, a 1,000-person mixed-use skyscraper with health care, nurseries, offices, studios, duplexes and hubs for retirees. The concept is that a person could live well at any age in Skyler, which Kushner hopes will be a model for how cities can encourage intergenerational living from birth to death.

Danish planners, meanwhile, hope to put their futuristic retirement plan into action by 2022 at a Copenhagen-based facility called Future Sølund. The project aims to tear down barriers between those in senior living and the community around them, offering a nursery, a kindergarten, 150 dormitory-like apartments for young adults, 35 ground-floor apartments with private gardens for independent senior living and 360 homes in a full-care senior facility. They’re throwing out the isolated, gated-community retirement model for a whole new generation of facilities, says Mads Mandrup, a partner at the design firm C.F. Møller, which is in charge of the project. It will be a rethink, he says, of “how we integrate [retirement living] into the city, not just as a building, as architecture, but on a programmatic level.”

No young families will live on site, but Future Sølund will offer social interaction for residents and nonresidents alike via services, shops and child care. That way the “city’s not moving around the building, but in and through it,” Mandrup explains, adding that this will serve as a model for how northern Europeans will cater to their aging populations for decades to come. Similar but smaller projects are being planned in the Netherlands and Norway.

Mixing generations within retirement homes, of course, isn’t a new concept. Since the 1990s, Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle has housed both a retirement-living community and day care for 125 children who mingle with the retirees. For more than three decades, Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.), a low-income senior housing provider in Chicago, has offered free rent to young adults who agree to help the senior residents at the organization’s three sites on the North Side. The combination of younger and older generations, says program director Janet Takehara, is intentionally intergenerational, “but through the lens of primarily housing seniors.” In the next five years, H.O.M.E. plans to expand to the South Side and West Side of Chicago. In a similar setup at the Humanitas retirement home in Deventer, Netherlands, university students live rent-free in exchange for interacting with and helping the facility’s seniors.

For seniors, the potential advantages are huge. The Cornell Legacy Project has found that active, involved older adults with close intergenerational connections consistently report much less depression, better physical health and higher degrees of life satisfaction. They tend to be happier with their present life and more hopeful for the future.

The biggest challenge may be combining openness and security. Future Sølund will attempt it with different access levels — public, semipublic and private — to ensure residents feel safe but not confined, Mandrup says. Security aside, not all seniors want to hear noisy children every day or 20-somethings with a penchant for partying. Even within the normally intergenerational cohousing movement, there has been a trend in recent years to create “senior cohousing” for 50-plus adults only — no children.

Mandrup and his colleagues, however, hope that by creating a community center–style retirement facility that’s woven into the fabric of an existing urban site, they can make intergenerational living and retirement attractive for all ages.

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