Step into the foyer of Darwin Court in south London and you could be in a bright new hotel. From here, the swimming pool, lounge, restaurant and gardens are all visible in one sweeping glance through the ample glazing. Past the curved reception desk, one room off this open-plan setting is equipped with computers, another with exercise mats. Believe it or not, this is a housing project for older people in the distinctly unglamorous setting of Elephant and Castle, and it could well become a radical model for future developments.
Not so surprising is that it was built for the Peabody Trust, one of London's largest affordable housing providers and among the most innovative agencies when it comes to regeneration. In place of a Victorian tenement building, with 150 poky, dark flats, it has a thoughtfully designed scheme with 76 flats plus - perhaps most exciting of all - healthcare, job training and fitness facilities which they will share with the local community. "It has always been important to me that the project avoided the negative connotations of older people's housing," says Dickon Robinson of the Peabody Trust. "The whole idea is to encourage residents to remain active and independent for as long as possible."
Since the entry age is 50-plus - from which vantage point old age seems a distant prospect - Darwin Court will be a mix of working and retired people. A training centre is there to help residents explore the potential for self-employment and enable them to pass on their skills and knowledge to each other. "We are also concerned that the growing pensions crisis will mean that people need to be economically active beyond the traditional retirement ages," adds Robinson.
Although he expects around 200 people from the area will eventually use the facilities, which are all on the ground floor, there is no question of communal living being forced on residents. They can bypass the main foyer and use a private entrance to their flats on the upper floors.
The architects Jestico + Whiles have arranged the five levels of flats around two lift cores, each with a spacious foyer and shared balcony at every level, "rather like the groupings around a staircase in an Oxbridge college," explains Eoin Keating, an associate. As well as the private balconies for each flat, there are two large enough for communal get-togethers. In the garden, which it is hoped tenants will start to take over, there is further scope for socialising on a generous terrace.
Individual privacy and autonomy is paramount, according to Keating. "This is emphatically not sheltered housing and we were determined to avoid creating a grey ghetto. You can no longer compartmentalise age groups."
But whatever their choice of lifestyle, the number of over-50s in the UK is expected to increase from one-third of the population to 44 per cent in about 35 years. In the immediate future, the sharpest rise is predicted in the 60 to 64 age group.
Developers of private retirement housing have not been slow to spot the importance of this growing market. According to the Housebuilders Federation, 49 per cent of single owner-occupier households are lived in by retired people.
At Pegasus Retirement Homes, the developers point out that unless there are enough suitable properties being built, older people will stay in their family homes longer than they might wish. At the other extreme from the "young active retired" - who often spend up to half the year abroad and buy as much for the security of their property as their own security in old age - are those who find they have to move because of ill health. The decision is quite often left to the family.
Take Peter Male, who, with his sisters, chose an apartment in a seaside town for his parents who were moving from London after 42 years in their home. He organised the legal work but because they were unwell and anxious about the move, he found himself relying on the development sales manager at Pegasus to smooth their path.
On site, service charges start from just under £2,000 a year and include an estate manager, while the detail of the design, such as illuminated light switches, waist-height sockets and 24 hour emergency control are specific to these developments.
Richard Thomas of Knight Frank estate agents says buyers of retirement homes are discerning and well-informed. "They will start looking several years ahead and it must be in the right location. In Cirencester, for instance, we have sold eight in the past two months."
Meanwhile, back at Darwin Court its venture into mixed use has been running for three months. Certainly Peabody's ambition to provide "lifetime homes" is more than fashionable terminology. Under one roof they have included a frail-elderly care centre where residents can be nursed in their own homes - downstairs, though, there are plans afoot to open a cybercafé.
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