Saturday, 23 August 2014

Bright ideas

Elderly and disabled people don’t have to live with ugly adaptations to their homes. Katie Puckett finds out about a contest shining a light on good design

Leo Miller’s flash of inspiration came when he nearly burnt down his student house. For Isaac Teece, it was the realisation that if he found changing a light bulb difficult at 21, it was going to be considerably harder in 50 years’ time.

Mr Miller and Mr Teece are the winners of a competition which challenged industrial design students at Northumbria University to come up with ‘inclusive designs’ that would enable elderly or disabled people to live independently. It might seem odd that experiences of life in a student house should influence the design of extra care schemes, but that was the point. ‘We were encouraged from the very beginning to think about the problems we’d encounter when we’re older, not to divide ourselves from the elderly,’ explains Mr Miller, who used pressure sensors attached to a gas hob to detect when a pan is removed and automatically shut it off. ‘I was cooking and I turned the gas down, but not off. I didn’t notice for a couple of hours - it was only when I went back into the kitchen and I could hear it. I thought, “if my hearing had been worse, I wouldn’t have realised”.’

Adapt and conquer

The Designed for Life competition was organised by the Northern Housing Consortium earlier this year in response to the limited range of products available which are adapted for use by older and disabled people. It wanted to highlight the potential for better designed products to its members and other housing providers across the UK. Adaptations may not make the sexiest design project, but there is an enormous potential market for better quality products as the UK population ages and pressure on limited care home facilities grows.

‘Adaptations are fantastic for enabling people to live independently, but they do make a home feel institutional,’ says Tracy Harrison, marketing manager at NHC, which represents the views of housing organisations in the north of England. She recalls speaking to a woman who had moved into social housing after she lost her leg in an accident. ‘She said “yes, I am disabled but I don’t want to be reminded of that every time I look around my home”. She didn’t want to look at ugly grab rails, constantly reminding her of her disability.’

Ms Harrison was originally inspired to launch the competition by an extra care scheme led by Sue Lewis, head of supported housing services at Trans-Pennine Housing, who has been pioneering a type of social housing design she calls ‘DDA [Disability Discrimination Act]-with-style’.
‘Just because someone is old or has a disability, doesn’t mean we should turn their homes into hospitals,’

Ms Lewis says. ‘Before we started on Willow Court, we’d already done two extra care schemes and while they were very nice buildings, I still got that sinking feeling that I was entering older people’s housing. I wanted to build somewhere that I’d want to live in myself.’

As Ms Lewis, one of a group of ex-perts that guided students through the competition, sees it, the importance of function is no excuse for neglecting form. Good looking schemes don’t necessarily cost more, but they do require more care and attention to detail.

Tapping into new things

‘If someone needs a long-lever tap, we tend to put in a hospital-type tap - unless someone actually says “can we not get a nicer tap than that?” we will always end up with the same old products and standards.’

The sector needed a dose of fresh ideas and that’s exactly what Ms Lewis and Ms Harrison hoped the design competition would bring. There were two categories: the little idea for now and the big idea for later. ‘We wanted them to come up with ideas that we could use, but we also wanted to let their imaginations run free,’ explains Ms Harrison.

The students spent a day discussing the brief with an expert reference group made up of people involved in developing social housing schemes and those that live in them, and then had five weeks to come up with designs.

Mr Miller’s gas hob sensors won the big idea for later category, while Mr Teece’s brilliantly simple magnetic light fitting was the favourite little idea for now. It allows residents to take down the whole light fitting, so that the bulb can be changed on the ground rather than standing on a chair or step ladder. ‘Everyone I talked to said that changing light bulbs was a pain in the neck, so I realised there was a gap in the market,’ he says.
‘There are a lot of ways I could have tackled the problem - a pulley system [to pull the light fitting down to ground level] for example - but they were fairly intrusive and would have screamed out “this is for disabled people”. This looks just like a normal light fitting - I wanted to make it as subtle as possible but give it the functionality it needed.’

Impressing the panel

The judging panel, which also included design guru Wayne Hemingway, Kate Green MP and Inside Housing editor Stuart Macdonald, was surprised and impressed. ‘We all said we’d go out and buy the winning designs tomorrow if they existed,’ says Ms Harrison. ‘That’s the thing with the best design - you think “how come nobody’s designed that before?”’ Both winning designs are potential cost-savers: housing providers are often paying to send people out to change light bulbs. ‘And a lot of people end up in care homes, not because they have left the gas on, but because their family are worried that they will leave the gas on,’ says Ms Harrison.

Interior designer and fellow judge Alison Wright has specialised in inclusive design for almost 20 years, working with Habinteg Housing Association and Trans-Pennine to promote flexible designs that can accommodate residents at any stage in their life. ‘Designers typically start out as tall, white men under 30, and they design for their cohort. They don’t look much at the growing population of people aged 60 plus. When you challenge them, as the Northern Housing Consortium did, it’s the most incredible eye-opener. I was taken with the level of detail and quantity of sketches they came up with. The quality of ideas that poured out of their pencils was amazing.’

Both competition winners, who walked away with £500 each, are now speaking to their university’s patent office about developing their ideas, so it’s too early to estimate how much the products could eventually cost. ‘My product needs a lot of refinement before it’s even a prototype, but it might become the basis for my final year project,’ explains Mr Miller of his gas hob pressure sensor. ‘Having got a taste for inclusive design and chatted to people, I can see there’s a lot of sco-pe for creating nice looking products.’

A new challenge

The NHC competition has shown that adaptations can be both more practical and attractive. Landlords could be doing more to ensure their residents see the benefit of innovative products, says Ms Lewis who has a challenge for the sector. Though she managed to improve the Willow Court extra care scheme dramatically by trawling suppliers for functional but attractive products that didn’t cost any more, she feels housing providers could and should demand more from manufactu-rers. ‘We spend a fortune on grab rails, but we can only afford cheap, white, horrible ones. There are better ones. ‘

The NHC is planning to lead the way by launching a framework for adaptations in ‘the near future’. ‘If we used our purchasing power, we could turn that on its head. We get stuck with the ugly £5 grab rails, not the chrome ones that cost £30,’ continues Ms Lewis. ‘But if enough of us said we would buy them for £10, we might get them.’

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