Work Package 3: Exploring the role of Building and Design

Investigating the process designing, constructing, and adapting houses to support healthy cognitive ageing.

Where the research in Work Package 2 focuses on the home from the perspective of the older people who live in them, work package 3 changes gear to explore the process of creating and maintaining supportive homes from the perspectives of the professionals involved in that process. 

The four research activities in Work Package 3 focus on capturing the expertise, experience, and practical insights of professionals involved in the housing cycle, while balancing their input against the needs, desires, and experiences of older people. 

Professional Interviews (led by Professor Vikki McCall)

Directly interviewing participants about their experience and expertise is one of the mainstays of qualitative research. Talking directly to people about their own lived experience is one of the best ways to gather in-depth information about the topic- especially if you want to know about how different factors function or work together in the real world.

The word ‘professional’ in this context refers to the person taking part, as these interviews involved talking directly to people with experience of working in positions where their role gave them an insight into how age inclusive homes designed and constructed- including retrofitting. This is particularly useful when considering complex issues like creating age-inclusive housing in the age of net zero when everything from our mode of manufacture to how we live in our homes is up for discussion.

The WP3 team interviewed 23 professionals working in architecture, planning, local authories, housing associations, and health and social care partnerships between 2022 and 2023. The interviews usually lasted an hour, and were conducted either in person or remotely online or by telephone.  Interviewees were asked a series of questions designed to draw out not only their experiences of ageing and cognitively friendly design, but their insights into the different ways in which their practice was influenced by other professionals, industries, policies or initiatives. The aim was to gain a deeper understanding of the real-world challenges associated with creating age-inclusive housing to allow the DesHCA project to highlight areas of good practice as well as areas of tension.

The team identified three key themes within the interview data: professional practices, professional relationships, and housing standards, policies, and regulations.

Professional Practices

Professionals involved in designing, creating, and maintaining were often part of a complex and varied ecosytem, meaning that changes or challenges in one area could be felt across the whole housing sector. This included key issues around recruiting and retaining staff in a variety of positions across the sector. This, then, made it more difficult to train and upskill workers in their roles, leading to limited awareness around the costs and benefits associated with age-inclusive design and adaptation.

Participants also reflected on the difficulty of creating an age-inclusive design when costs were high and funding was limited. They reported challenging situations where only some of the factors could be brought into place, such as:

  • the funding (but not the knowledgable contractor),
  • the funding (but only for a limited period of time)
  • the funding and the contractor (but not the extra housing to rehome residents when retrofitting)
  • the funding and the contractor (but not the location, meaning residents would need to move away from existing support networks and communities)


Professional Relationships

The interview data highlighted the importance of maintaining and building strong relationships between four key groups- clients, end users, external organisations, and the professionals themselves.

In each case it was vital for each person or organisation within the relationship to have an understanding of the needs, limitations, and challenges faced by the person or organisation on the other side. Understanding the needs of clients, the limitations of their budget or brief, as well as their relationship with end users and other organisations was a key component of designing and creating buildings that met those needs. It was suggested that connecting with stakeholders as early as possible was a major element in keeping costs as low as possible while delivering a high quality, age-inclusive building.

Interestingly, professional interviewees highlighted the particular benefits of bookending projects with consulations, allowing them to collect insights from potential end users before the building was designed, while also capturing practical insights from the people living in those homes once they were completed. This feedback provided professionals with an opportunity to learn and improve, allowing them to design and build better buildings in the future.

Housing standards, policy, and regulations

Professional interviewees reflected on the limited guidance avaliable for those seeking to create more age-inclusive spaces. They reflected that building legistlation and regulation was often slow to catch up to best practice- creating a lag gap between age-inclusive spaces designed with futureproofing in mind, and the minimum standard required by legislation.

This lack of consistent guidance and legislation also created instances where significant investment of time and resources might be required to transform a ‘baseline’ design into one that a client considered age-inclusive or dementia friendly, only for that work to be redone for the next client who might have a different understanding of age-inclusive, dementia friendly, or futureproofed design. This was particularly interesting when viewed in the context of wider patterns of spending where the minimum allowed by regulation often became the default, standard or even maximum included within designs. Such insights highlight the importance of regulation and guidance as both a mechanism for ensuring a basic building standard and a shared understanding of what it means for a design to be age-inclusive or dementia friendly.

The team is currently preparing an academic paper that will discuss these findings in more detail- we will link it here when it is published.

Topic Focused Ethnography (led by Professor Fiona Copland)

If you have ever heard a researcher talk about using ethnography as part of their study, you probably heard them talk about a particular type of ethnography. They may have said they did a rapid, focused, or topic-orientated ethnography, or took an ‘ethnographic approach’. 

This is because the use of ‘ethnography’ of a method, is old, well established, and sometimes very rigid in terms of what it means. 

Traditional ethnographies might, for example, involve a researcher going to a different country, or a different community, and living there continuously for a year to gain a deep insight into their topic. Modern ethnographies rarely involve the same process, however. It’s more common now for researchers to use ethnography to look at groups, organisations, or events- and to do so without moving away from home for a year or more. This can lead to some tension within the academic community, about whether these new ethnographies are ‘real’ ethnographies, leading many researchers try to avoid these arguments by acknowledging they are doing a specific kind of ethnography- such as a topic-orientated or focused ethnography. 

Doing a topic-focused ethnography involves taking a focused approach to answer a specific question or investigate how a group engages with a particular process or event. It also means that the researcher goes to the person or people taking part, rather than having the participants come to them. This allows the researcher to get an idea of how things really work in practice, rather than relying on what people say during interviews.

Researchers who are doing a topic-orientated ethnography will often use a variety of methods to capture the data they see, including taking pictures, recording conversations and interviews, or taking notes. This data is then taken back and analysed by the research team to uncover patterns and connections that may not have been captured using other, less intensive methods.

Observed a construction project being run by three organisations in Scotland to understand how age-inclusive and dementia-friendly design principles were incorporated or overlooked in the processes of designing, constructing, or retrofitting buildings to cater to the needs of older residents.

The research team collected information by visiting the physical sites and offices of the host organisations, attending both remote and in-person meetings, and conducting additional interviews where required. The team’s insights were recorded through field notes, photographs, and interview transcripts, which were then thematically analysed to highlight major themes and key findings.

Spending time alongside professionals actively engaged in home design and retrofit projects provided the research team with valuable insights into the practical application of age-inclusive and dementia-friendly design principles in the construction industry. The findings showed a keen awareness of the need for age-inclusive spaces and a willingness to apply age inclusive and dementia friendly principles to real-world projects despite significant challenges different levels.

Our analysis highlighted three key factors that influenced how age-inclusive design was incorporated into real world projects: negotiation, trust, and collaboration.

Role of negotiation

The data highlighted negotiation as a prominent theme, showcasing its pivotal role not only in the initial stages of the project, where it facilitated the establishment of agreements, formation of partnerships, and definition of contracts but also in the later stages. Here, negotiation emerged as a crucial tool enabling complex, multi-stakeholder teams to address practical challenges throughout the construction process. This became especially crucial when various stakeholders approached dementia-friendly and age-inclusive design differently,  resulting in a series of ongoing negotiations aimed at balancing the principles of age-inclusive or dementia friendly design with the wider priorities and limitations of the project.

The importance of trust

As projects moved forward, trust became crucial for effective collaboration and communication among different groups involved. The professionals we interviewed  highlighted the importance of trust in the design and construction process, noting that trust wasn’t a luxury item, but a core component of successful construction projects. A project team that trusted one another, despite their different backgrounds and areas of expertise, was therefore believed to be in a better position to communicate clearly and effectively, respond to unexpected risks and challenges, and manage the needs of clients, end users, and wider stakeholders, all of which worked in the project’s favour.

Collaborating to create age-inclusive designs

While trust served as the foundation for positive relationships and transparent communication, collaboration represented the collective effort of professionals with diverse backgrounds working together to create high quality homes for older people.

Interviewees explained that collaboration was a vital component of the construction process, as each project required collective approach, where professionals with s specific set of technical knowledge, analytical skills, design expertise, and collaboration skills could come together to create something that not only aligned with the various legislative requirements and guidelines involved, but also met the needs of the clients and end users involved.

Unlike negotiation, which involves reaching agreements and addressing barriers, and trust, which is foundational for positive relationships, collaboration emphasised the role of teamwork and challenges involved in coordinating a large number of highly specialised industry professionals to achieve a common goal. This kind of multi-stakeholder collaboration particularly important where the aim is to create more dementia friendly or age inclusive homes and spaces, as each design will require architects, contractors, engineers, and other specialists need to work closely together to ensure that the design not only meets the aesthetic and functional requirements but also addresses the specific needs and challenges associated with aging and cognitive decline, all while staying within the limits of the project budget.

The WP3 team is in the final stages of writing a paper that will provide more detail on each of these themes, and how they work together to influence the creation of age-inclusive homes. You will find it linked here and in our resource section as soon as it is available.

Virtual Reality Design Consultations (led by Dr Martin Quirke)

Many businesses use offer design consultations as part of their process. These consultations usually involve inviting a client or customer to talk to a member of the team so that the client can ask any questions that they have, and give feedback on whatever the team has produced for them so far.

Depending on the business, these consultations could involve looking at a product that is being developed or checking in to see whether the service being provided is meeting the clients needs. As a result, these meetings might involve presenting that information to the client in a variety of ways, including bringing physical objects, paperwork, or designs to the meeting to go over together.

A virtual reality design consultation, then, involves following this process, but presenting the information to the ‘client’ using virtual reality.

The DesHCA project invited participants to take part in three phases of VR design between June 2022 and July 2023.

49 housing professionals and 40 older people took part across phases 1 and 2. Each participant was able to explore the DesHCA designs using a VR headset or 3D viewer and give their feedback, noting what they did and didn’t like about the design. These personal VR tours were followed by a group discussion to allow them to reflect on the DesHCA models as well as the future of age-inclusive homes and designs.

A further 49 participants took part in phase 3, where they reviewed designs as a group to highlight remaining areas for refinement and outstanding issues.

Data collected over this process included audio recordings of participant interviews while they toured the VR model as well as recordings of group discussions. Each recording was analysed and coded to ensure that final designs reflected the perspectives of both older people and professionals.

The VR process allowed the team to identify several key, foundational principles for age-inclusive homes. These include:

A Need for Flexibility:

Participants stressed the importance of flexible home design that could adapt to their changing needs in the short, medium, and long term. This means creating homes that are truly future-proof and capable of changing to suit a variety uses as peoples habits and needs change from day to day, month to month, and year to year.

Room for Many Lifestyles:

Participants highlighted the variety of ways that someone’s lifestyle could change over time. Age-inclusive home design should therefore include enough space for residents to explore a variety of habits, hobbies, and preferences over time, especially in situations where multiple people live together.

My Kingdom for A Cupboard!

The process of refining designs highlighted the importance of ample, easy accessible storage spaces in each area of the home. These spaces not only allow for organisation of belongings, but are a necessary part of encouraging social connection and visiting as they allow people to keep private belongings, medical aids and equipment out of view.

Space for Sharing

An age-inclusive home should include space for socialising, including the ability to prepare and share a meal with others. This is particularly important in given the high rates of social isolation and loneliness among older people.


Participants highlighted the growing role of technology within their home. Innovations and gadgets were often used to connect with others, relax, or make daily tasks more accessible, and as a result we argue an age-inclusive home is also a home that makes it easier use, charge, and maintain the technology people wish to use.

You can see the final results of this VR process in our Design Viewer and read more about how you can use age-inclusive design to improve your home in our Hints and Tips booklet on our resources page. The WP3 team is also in the process of a Design Brief that will give more technical information on our designs, and an academic paper outlining the practicalities of this VR process and what we’ve learned from it. You will find them both linked here, and in our resource section as soon as they become available.