Research Reveals Housing Design Elements Supporting Healthy Aging and Social Well-Being

Feb 7, 2024

The Canadian organizations Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC), alongside Simon Fraser University (SFU), have collected evidence on the importance of social connection for older adults living in multi-unit housing. The project culminated in a report “Age-friendly, socially connected multi-unit housing: Design ideas and research findings to support aging in the right place.”

This report identifies good design practices for new and existing multi-unit buildings. In addition, it discusses common challenges and barriers to social connection and aging in the right place, related to policy, programming, and design. Although this research focused on older adults, the principles, strategies, and actions benefit residents of all ages. In particular, there is growing interest in multigenerational communities that allow residents of all ages to ‘age in place.’ When designing homes with our aging in the right place principles, people of all ages and abilities benefit.

Some of the key research findings and design elements include the following:

  • Important spaces for social connection: The research and engagement found that lobbies and mailboxes, outdoor spaces such as courtyards, and flexible indoor spaces are crucial social spaces for residents.
  • Importance of neighborhood (third) spaces: Residents who live in proximity to community amenities—and frequently participate in neighborhood activities and social interactions—reported a stronger sense of community belonging.
  • Co-location: Through observations, researchers saw a significant increase in activity in indoor amenity spaces that were adjacent to a lobby. This proximity to the entry point of the building helps generate activity in the space since it is on people’s path of daily travel.
  • Social seating: At buildings where benches are strategically placed near entrances and transition areas, we observed residents spending time in those spaces, creating more opportunities for social interaction. In outdoor spaces, the quality and availability of seating are critical for older adults. If a space does not have seating, it likely won’t be used.
  • Social lobbies: Researchers found that comfortable seating areas and well-organized, accessible mailboxes serve as focal points for social interaction. The most common activities we observed people doing in lobbies were lounging, greeting neighbors, and observing the public realm. Pets helped facilitate social encounters. In intergenerational buildings, researchers observed many interactions between children and older adults.
  • The power of pets: Outdoor spaces that are pet-friendly encourage interaction among residents. These spaces were frequently used by pet owners, which helped spark connections and conversations.
  • Community gardens: Community gardens increase the use of outdoor shared spaces among older adults. The gardens provide a reason to visit the space, which can provide older adults with motivation to go for a small walk or connect with neighbors.
  • Laundry rooms can be social: Laundry rooms that provide good lighting, particularly natural light, and a comfortable seating area serve as an area for spontaneous social interaction. Researchers observed residents using these spaces to relax or read while doing their laundry.
  • Small-scale social spaces: Of the 20 buildings that were audited, only three had small-scale social nooks. Although some of these social nooks were well-located (adjacent to the elevator lobby) and had access to natural light, they tended to be underused by residents. Researchers observed that having accessible and comfortable seating and a reason to visit the nook (such as a bookcase) were critical to the success of the space.

More information can be found in the full report here.