Populations around the world are ageing rapidly, the Finnish high among them. While this reflects positive developments in longevity, it also sets great demands for providing suitable housing. Firstly, there is a growing need for accessible dwellings, which many similarly ageing housing stocks fail to meet. Secondly, an especially significant increase is happening in the proportion of the oldest old, people over 85 years of age. As a result, intensive sheltered care—housing with care staff available around the clock—is ncreasingly needed to care for those in poorest health. At the same time, in many countries urbanization makes new construction a largely infeasible solution, both ecologically and economically. Often the fastest graying areas are the ones which already have an overabundance of dwellings, especially in public housing—just not the right kind. In Finland, as in e.g. Sweden, this most notably concerns the vast 1970s apartment building stock. Compounding the accessibility issues and general renovation need in these buildings, they also house a disproportionate share of older people, many of whom have lived in the same apartment for decades. Thus changes are necessary to allow successful ageing at home in older people’s familiar living environments, as well as to enable sustainable use of the existing housing stock.
Research by ASUTUT member Tapio Kaasalainen and colleagues addresses the above joint challenges of population and housing stock ageing from the perspective of spatial renovation potential. During the initial stages of the work, a typology of apartment layouts was formed. These confirmed the presumed spatial homogeneity of the stock and illustrated the range of designs found [1, 2]. Eighteen plan layouts were found to cover over 80% of the studied sample, corresponding to approximately 480 000 dwellings in the contemporary stock. The six most common layouts alone reached a figure of 65%, or roughly 390 000 dwellings. A concurrent survey of the structural properties of these buildings also revealed similar uniformity in the construction systems used .
Notably for renovation, the combination of highly repetitive layouts, dimensioning, and structural solutions enables identifying widespread issues and possibilities in the stock through a relatively limited set of representative cases. Taking advantage of this, it was possible to map the recurring accessibility issues in the most common apartment types, and produce a set of generalizable accessibility improvement models to address them . A test application of these to a random set of actual apartments showed high potential for the concept, particularly if supplemented with additional plans for especially difficult situations . Thanks to the typological approach used, this provided strong evidence that the vast majority of the studied stock is very reasonably adaptable to suit the needs of older people living at home.
As mentioned in the beginning, population ageing is also bringing on a growing need for intensive sheltered care. In Finland this is mainly arranged as group homes, in which a cluster of small apartments shares a collection of immediately connected common spaces such as a kitchen and a living room . Noting the excess housing volume already present in many of the quickest ageing areas, the issues with relying on new construction alone are clear. Moreover, most group home residents suffer from some degree of dementia. This makes moving from one’s familiar living environment to a group home elsewhere problematic, even more so than it already is for many who have stayed put for up to decades.
Converting (parts of) existing apartment buildings into group homes could offer a way to both make better use of buildings with vacancies and avoid long distance relocations in old age. Furthermore, this increased use might enable better upkeep of properties otherwise at risk of dilapidation. Recent work comparing the layouts and dimensioning of typical apartment building floors to current group home designs indicates such repurposing to be a highly viable option spatially . Due to the relatively generous room sizes of the discussed era, few changes to load bearing structures would be needed to accommodate modern group home designs. Renovation based designs would often end up more spacious than is typical for new construction. However, considering how cramped many of the existing group homes studied were, this could be considered a positive for usability and quality of life. Moreover, even less efficient utilization of otherwise obsolete spaces has clear benefits over continued disuse.
In conclusion, both sustainable housing practice and meeting the needs of the ageing population require addressing the vast number of existing buildings. Although the repetitiveness of 1970s mass housing is rarely viewed favorably, this is one instance where it is beneficial. With recurring designs and issues, widely applicable solutions are also possible. To develop these and bring them into practice, it is vital to be aware of the spatial reserve present in these buildings, as well as the potential this reserve holds. With such knowledge the existing buildings can be taken into consideration as not only what they are, but also what they could be.