Housing Layout and Design – Plots and Internal Spaces

Inclusive Design

Designers, developers and housebuilders often seek to create dwellings with a certain stereotypical inhabitant in mind, but this should be avoided. The designs of dwellings should be equally appealing to all users.

For example, a dwelling traditionally marketed as a ‘family’ house may be occupied by a single person or a couple working from home, who may need space to accommodate family-members for whom they provide care. Similarly, such a house may be occupied by an active older person or persons who undertakes hobbies at home and may need space to accommodate visiting relatives.

Dwellings should be fit for use by people of all ages and a range of physical and mental abilities. They should also be futureproofed – designed to allow both flexibility of use and adaptation to future standards, circumstances and technologies. This is emphatically not a new concept – the original Parker Morris Space Standards (1961) sought to encourage flexibility and adaptability in housing design. In brief: many of the core principles of inclusive design can and should be applied to all dwellings.

It is important to note that what benefits a specific group can also benefit other groups. Designing such benefits (and the features that give them) into dwellings from the outset can help to ensure that all parts of the population are catered for. Inclusive design features can support people with a range of needs including visual, hearing, mobility, cognitive and learning.

For example, designing dwellings to incorporate high levels of natural light and ventilation, often with dual-aspect windows, can offer the following benefits:

  • All parts of the internal dwelling being visible:
    • limits confusion and anxiety for people with dementia;
    • helps the partially sighted or blind to navigate around the dwelling; and
    • reduces fuel bills for people of all age groups and abilities, due to lower use of artificial light and increased passive heating from sunlight.
  • Views to the ‘outside world’:
    • enhance natural surveillance, allowing families to view children playing outside and helping older people to feel safer thanks to the perception that the public realm is being ‘watched’; and
    • reduce social isolation, as older or less mobile people can still view activities taking place outside, either in the wider public realm or private space, and feel connected to life in the community. 

Another example is the provision of appropriate sound separation. People with dementia can find it difficult to sleep and often move around their dwelling at night; this may also be the case for some of the ageing population. The provision of appropriate acoustic absorbency and the considered location of specific facilities or rooms can limit the impact on surrounding residences and their inhabitants. In addition, enhanced sound separation can also provide benefits for families with children, shift workers or those who work from home.

The provision of open-plan internal layouts offering flexibility in the placement of internal walls and doors is helpful to people with dementia, as it allows them to be able to see from one room to another, and rely on familiar visual prompts. Such internal layouts are also practical for wheelchair users and people with impaired mobility, as well as for families with children, who may benefit from open-plan shared space when children are young but who may want to adapt the space at a later time as their circumstances change. An example can be taken from Page 19 of DWELL’s findings document ‘Designing for Downsizers’.

Technology and Inclusive Design

The provision of technology in the home is important to all parts of the population, and should be considered from the outset.

Dwellings should be designed to ensure that from the time of first use, they are connected to external full-fibre broadband networks and that fast mobile telecommunications services are also available in the home. This will ensure reliable internet access and enable people to work from home conveniently and effectively, or simply keep in touch with relatives and loved ones. Designs should allow them to take advantage of existing, new and emerging technologies. The digital connectivity infrastructure inside the home should allow fast broadband access to be distributed effectively to all rooms, enabling the use of smart devices as well as a large number of sensors and automated data services. These would for instance support the provision of medical and tele-care health services particularly useful to older people and those with dementia, including remote access to health professionals and movement monitoring systems within the home. 

On a similar note, it is important to plan for emergent or specialist technological requirements such as the charging of electric cars, bicycles and mobility scooters.

Additional Measures

It is important to note that there exists a range of more detailed measures considered specifically important to people with dementia, the ageing population or those with physical or mental conditions. These are likely to fall beyond the realm of this guide (and possibly beyond the planning remit) and into Building Regulations. However, it remains vital to ensure that dwellings themselves are designed to be able to accommodate such measures if they are required. Some examples include:

  • Provision of capped services, which can be accessed should a room need to be converted into a wet room.
  • Construction to a standard that can withstand the installation of a stair-lift, hoist, hand rails etc.
  • External and internal materials that can be painted or customised for easy identification.

Many such measures follow the Building Regulations Part M4 Category 2 (Accessible and Adaptable Dwellings) which are relevant to ensuring that homes can be adapted in the future.

Houses for Older People

Flexible and adaptable dwellings allow people to remain in their property as they age, and thereby to retain their involvement in the local community. This can aid in limiting social isolation, which is a particular concern for the aging population. By allowing people to live independently for longer, suitable dwellings can also help to reduce the costs faced by health and social care services.

Research undertaken by the Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE) Homes for old age. Independent living by design. 2009 identified a desire among the ageing population to stay in their own homes, thereby retaining independence, space and choice. Dwellings should therefore be designed as homes, not places to receive and access care. The key requirements of inclusive design are that it is:

  • Inclusive
  • Responsive
  • Flexible
  • Convenient
  • Accommodating
  • Welcoming
  • Realistic

The Essex County Council (ECC) Independent Living Programme for Older People Position Statement (October 2016) clarifies the need to design ‘flexible homes for life’, where individuals needs can be met regardless of changes in circumstances.

The Housing Our Ageing Population Plan for Implementation (HAPPI) initiatives introduced the concept of ‘right-sizing’ rather than downsizing, and set out a number of principles for designing for the ageing population:

  • Space and flexibility
  • Daylight in the home and shared spaces
  • Balconies and outdoor space
  • Adaptability and ‘care-ready’ design
  • Positive use of circulation space
  • Shared facilities and ‘hubs’
  • Plants, trees and natural environment
  • Energy efficiency and sustainable design
  • Storage for belongings and bicycles
  • External shared surfaces and ‘home zones’

Research undertaken by the University of Sheffield and Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life (DWELL) identified two types of ageing population: people who are either retired or approaching retirement and remain broadly unaffected by health or mobility problems (the Third Age), and those in a period of their life where health and mobility significantly impacts their well-being or quality of life (the Fourth Age).

The same research identified a need for a range of dwelling types to meet the eight aspirations raised by the Third Age. Such dwellings should be:

  • Connected
  • Spacious
  • Accessible
  • Adaptable
  • Pleasurable
  • Manageable
  • Sociable
  • Green

This research also highlighted the importance to the ageing population of being able to live in better quality, more accessible homes located in ‘normal’ streets and neighbourhoods, where they may continue to participate in mixed-age communities.


A considerable amount of time is spent in the home. Housing is a basic human right and the quality and affordability of houses can determine the health status of residents. A Building Research Establishment (BRE) report of 2010 estimated that 20% of the UK’s housing stock does not meet a decent standard and that the cost to the National Health Service (NHS) of poor quality housing is £2.5 billion per annum.

Living in good quality and affordable housing is associated with numerous positive health outcomes for both the general population and those from vulnerable groups. As health services continue to digitalise and more health-related functions are undertaken in the home, housing should also be capable of integrating these new applications and services effectively. The correct infrastructure will need to be in place to facilitate such changes, preferably from the outset or alternatively, through simple and cost-effective adaptation and retro-fitting.

Principles for Healthy Housing

  • Improve quality of housing.
  • Increase provision of affordable and diverse housing.
  • Increase provision of affordable housing for groups with specific needs.
  • Provide physical and digital infrastructure to facilitate changes in healthcare services.
  • Provide mix of housing types rather than developing in silos, to ensure social cohesion and help to address loneliness.
  • Design housing in a way that promotes integration with the community.

Page updated: 29/11/2019

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