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Journal 476 was published last month with its theme of Connections. (You can buy a copy here - 100 pages of top quality writing and photography, book reviews, reportage and London history.)

Here Jonathan Mitchell of Fathom Architects talks about valuing and protecting our connections with older Londononers.  

The Mayor’s Design Advisory Group report on Ageing London identities that as our capital city’s population grows, ‘Londoners are living longer and requiring places to live that match their active lifestyles.’ The report predicts that as many as 2 million over 60s will be living in London by 2035, making older Londoners the fastest growing demographic across the city. 

Older people often migrate away from the cities they were born and raised in; sometimes choosing to sell their homes to relocate closer to family or away from the fast pace of urban life, sometimes driven by increased financial pressure. Others can find themselves relocated by local authorities in a bid to free up land for development and find a more cost-effective place to see out their retirement years. 

But isn’t old age exactly the time when neighbourhood connections - often spanning generations - should bear fruit? Aren’t older people positive contributors to healthy neighbourhoods, adding valuable knowledge, experience and support to communities? As well as working later in life than previous generations, many will use their free time to invest in London’s culture, hospitality, open spaces and act as a support network to volunteer organisations or younger generations juggling work with childcare. 

This pressure on older people was a challenge facing our client, Southwark Charities, who felt strongly that an option was needed for local elderly residents to remain in the heart of the borough. The charity creates and manages almshouses offering older people facing hardship the opportunity to live independently for longer in a safe, secure and supported environment. 

Fathom were approached to design a new almshouse development in Southwark, just off Blackfriars Road, as an active community for older people with strong connections to the local area. To maximise the number of homes on the site we needed to evolve the traditional almshouse typology of a low-level structure orientated around an enclosed courtyard, and look for a vertical solution which could provide a viable and vibrant community. 

Our approach sought to provide an active and supportive community within the almshouse building – recognising that feelings of loneliness and isolation have escalated during the pandemic - and to create strong local connections by looking and engaging outwards. We are also working with the University of Stirling’s Dementia Services Development Centre on ageing and dementia-friendly design principles, from landscape to residential units, which can help people avoid confusion, stress, over-stimulation and navigational difficulties. 

The starting point was to create the development as an inter-connected part of the city. A new east-west pedestrian route - named ‘Edwards’ Walk’ in recognition of the philanthropist who established the original almshouses on the site, Edward Edwards
– links Blackfriars Road to Southwark’s emerging Low Line. The route passes through 950 sq metres of landscaped public space, designed in collaboration with MRG Studio to encourage interaction between residents and nearby workers. The gardens are subtly zoned to serve the needs of the almshouse residents and wider community, with spaces for group or individual seating softened by seasonal planting and fruit trees. 

Reimagining the almshouse typology, the building is expressed as a 15-storey building clad in pale terracotta. Ground floor uses are marked for communal activities for residents, from a warm personal welcome at the porter’s lodge to a comfortable lounge in which to relax and socialise; with a fireplace, bookcases, games and tea/coffee making facilities. A separate dual-aspect community hall creates a flexible space for the wider community to host activities from wellness classes to birthday parties. 

The first floor hosts a flexible co-working space with desks and meeting rooms for local charitable initiatives, and the second floor provides a housekeeper’s apartment as well as three guest suites where family members or a temporary carer can stay if needed. 

Upper levels provide generously proportioned one-bedroom apartments grouped into clusters of ten across every two floors, connected via double height voids. Generous three-metre-wide corridors with seating areas, planting, expansive views and shared terraces encourage social interaction between residents. Thresholds to homes are defined by a different floor finish, allowing occupants to personalise their entrance area with plants or decorations. 

A total of 62 one-bedroom apartments is provided over 15-storeys, organised with a sliding partition between bedroom and living areas to allow additional space, daylight and views for those convalescing in bed. Each living area has a Juliet balcony with built-in window seat offering views of the local neighbourhood and the city beyond. To counter feelings of isolation, we positioned a window above the kitchen sink looking into the communal corridor spaces to encourage a feeling of neighbourliness, with the option of a timber shutter for privacy. Every home has a private shower room and washing machine, as preferred by the residents, but a communal drying room in each cluster encourages residents to venture out of their apartments for impromptu meetings. 

The top floor houses an attractive roof garden over 350 sq metres, designed with a warm and dry conservatory space for relaxed socialising, as well as a shaded outdoor pergola, BBQ and kitchen areas and raised beds for productive gardening as a group activity. 

From the landscaped gardens and civic uses at ground floor to the interdependent and supportive residents within, this development is designed to create a thriving community as a positive addition to the local neighbourhood and a valuable lifeline to the borough’s shops, businesses and institutions. 

Establishing this close-knit group of older people allows their valuable historical and emotional connections to continue - maintaining social and family networks, as well as building new ones – enriching Southwark and ensuring that their legacy in the borough is not lost.

The London Society Journal has over 100 pages of writing, comment, reviews and photographs get your copy of Journal 476 here.