Among the service sectors that are already benefiting the most from China’s senior housing explosion, architectural firms are enjoying the benefits from strategic engagements with Chinese developers. I recently had the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with Roger Battersby, the Managing Director at PRP Architects. Roger will be one of the guest speakers at the upcoming IAHSA annual global conference (register here!). PRP is the 6th largest architectural/multi-disciplinary practice in the UK with over 300 staff in the UK along with offices in Shanghai and Moscow. In the UK, PRP is one of the leading architectural practices in the Senior Housing and Care Sector in the UK with over 50 staff dedicated to designing housing and care facilities for older people. PRP covers the full range of facility types ranging from 24 hour Nursing and Care Homes, Community Based Health Facilities to Lifestyle Retirement Villages, CCRC’s and Independent Living projects.
The first question I wanted to ask Roger was what he saw as the biggest questions PRP has about the China senior care industry? First, Roger wonders whether, “China is ready to make the shift in philosophy from an age care sector which is focused on medical health institutions to an aspirational lifestyle housing product?” This is obviously not only a matter of economics, but also cultural preferences. This realization led Roger to ask if “China is ready to break with long-standing traditional attitudes towards caring for one’s own parents and grandparents? Or is this going to be literally forced on their nation as a result of the ‘one child policy’ renders the traditional ways as simply unsustainable?” His next comment was one I found particularly insightful given China’s preference in every other facet of its economic modernization for BIG: “Will China recognize that where housing and care institutions for older people is concerned, large scale ‘gated’ communities might well be less desirable than small scale ‘integrated’ communities?” His last question was the most probative, and also one that I feel too many are overlooking relative to what we as an industry are focused on when we interact with government; specifically, “Is there the perceived need and political will in China to develop an integrated strategy for housing and care for older people rather than simply relying on private developers to cater for the ‘market?’”
A number of people who have watched the amount of effort and investment dollars flow into this sector over the last several years are concerned, and rightfully so, about excess capacity and poorly run developments damaging the brand of senior care in China. With that in mind, I asked Roger what lessons he thought were most important for China to learn most quickly about the senior care market? Roger added that to his way of thinking, “supporting older people with low to moderate care needs in large institutional developments is neither affordable in the longer term nor desirable as people become more affluent and aspirational; so this is not a sustainable model. Length of stay in 24 hour care should be compressed to a minimum.” Along these lines he added that China needed “to move away from institutional care towards housing based solutions for those who do not need very high levels of care.” Given my own opinions about home care in China, I was pleased to hear from Roger that he believes “the integrated nature of housing for older people where care delivery and housing management are every bit as important as an appropriately designed dwelling.” Relative to the business models themselves, he pointed out that China needs to understand “the complexity of financial revenue modelling for housing management and care delivery on a flexible basis, appropriate models of tenure that will be both affordable and flexible and that appropriately qualified care staff and housing managers are available.”
Given his experience in global senior living, I wanted to ask Roger what best practices he was most interested in bringing to China? According to him, the first is “the importance of integrating housing and care facilities for older people into existing and new residential communities particularly at a time when they are moving away from the traditional family model.” Second (and a particular need in China’s energy constrained situation), “energy efficiency in the context of older people’s housing where residents tend to spend more time in their own homes at a time in life when they are more susceptible to cold and heat.” Third, “how to design an integrated continuing care retirement community where opportunity for social communion is at the heart of the community.” With this in mind, Roger is particularly keen to see “master-planning to create defined and usable outdoor spaces to ‘create places’ of human scale rather than serried ranks of south aspect tower blocks whose layout is solely to maximise ‘insolation’.” His final two points may be easy to overlook given most assume they are self-evident in China, but they serve as good reminders of best practices that still need internalization across China: “the need for better space & accessibility standards and inclusive design in all new housing if it is going to be sustainable … and … the importance of building maintenance programmes and life-cycle costs in the financial modelling for senior care communities.”
Architects are at the very front edge of the massive amount of energy and investment going into China’s senior care sector. With this in mind, it is important that China’s developers build relationships with firms such as PRP who know that facility design is only a part of what goes into the successful management of both the senior living property itself, but more importantly, the people and families who rely on the business to deliver carefully designed and overseen care for their loved ones.