Discussions On Estate Life
1. Our aim
The glue between
We, Laura & Ciarán of Islander Architects, both grew up in housing estates and are fascinated with the successes and pitfalls of housing developments of this type: their territory, privacy, personalisation, play and communality, are all areas that interest us.
Our main aim for this research was to find out how people live in these estates, within our study area of Balbriggan, and engage with a group of older men and younger women to test ways these housing estates could be developed by their residents to allow them to age in place with dignity.
We were curious to see if there was appetite from the residents to make their own long term strategic improvements in their neighbourhoods. A lot of existing Irish housing estates include an array of public greens, mounds of grass, laneways, turning circles and paths that make up the in-between spaces.
We see great potential for revaluing these often-overlooked public spaces within the semi-private realm to be more useful social spaces for all ages and abilities. This focus on activating the in-between spaces could serve as a stepping stone in unlocking the latent potential of existing housing developments to become neighbourhoods for intergenerational living.
2. Our challenge
An existing neighbourhood
We chose to focus on developing a concept around adaptive reuse of existing housing estates. The immediate challenge for us was that the houses were already built, the town of Balbriggan had already expanded to accommodate these new neighbourhoods and the many different people within this suburban commuter town had already determined their sense of place within these constructs.
There are no guarantees that any two neighbours will have shared interests when moving into their semi-detached houses. Who decides whether to cut the grass verge or not, to park in the private driveway or on the kerb, who calls who when a sewer is blocked? How could we get some consensus or collective action from individual homeowners or renters?
Would community-led development be viable in this context, and could this research be useful in helping to galvanise existing residents to come together and tackle issues around ageing. Could we find ways for residents to have greater agency over their shared space?
3. Who was involved
Looking back and forward
One of the challenges for community-led housing developments is the struggle to accommodate diverse backgrounds and incomes. The intersectionality of community-led housing is often lacking. Community-led housing developments that are multi-generational also require careful management of expectations to mitigate the risk of discrimination around participation and ability. Many of our existing housing estates were not developed in this way but the lack of a shared vision at the root of their development could be an opportunity for us to try a different approach to their occupation now. The idea of developing a common ground for young and old to share was the starting point for us. We worked with two groups from Balbriggan.
The first was a group of retired/semi-retired men from the Irish Men’s Sheds Association, who generously offered to host our workshops. They took a vacant coach house and turned it into a community hub for older men, they are a great example of the benefits of community-led development.
The second was a group of female transition year students from Loreto Secondary School. They were a diverse group of students, with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, from Balbriggan and beyond. Their Community Links class work allows them to get more involved locally. We wanted to include teenagers and young adults in our discussions because, for us, this research goes beyond elderhood and is ultimately around our shared built environment. Listening to older people about their experiences living in Balbriggan was important for us to gain an understanding of what they have experienced and what they need to support them to continue to live here.
4. Why Balbriggan
Balbriggan experienced the fastest population growth of an Irish town, with a 94% increase over the last 25 years. Large tracts of rural land were converted into a patchwork of housing estates & apartment blocks, many of which were developed either speculatively through private developers or top-down from local authorities.
The challenge for us was that our recent local history shows an emphasis on house building only with the social life of the town centre altered as it struggled to support this expanding population meaningfully. The town is no longer the centre for everyone in the traditional sense. With 75% of population in Balbriggan under 44 years old, we feel it is necessary to plan ahead for this ageing population by showing how interlinked our housing needs are throughout our lifetime.
The solution can be found through adapting the existing 42 housing estates that make up the majority of our community. It’s a challenge but people have explained to us that they want simple things like better paths, better street lighting, more seating. All of these are less complicated and expensive than building new housing just for older people.
5. How we live
Community wide survey
Our initial step was to raise awareness of the ‘Reimagining Elderhood’ project by conducting a ‘How we live’ survey across the Balbriggan area. The primary aim of the survey was to understand how a wide range of people use their housing estate to support their needs now and what changes they feel are needed to support them as they get older.
The secondary aim of the survey was to gauge the appetite within our community for a bottom-up approach to collective action. A notable response is the statistic of 83% surveyed expressing a desire to stay in their current homes as they grow older. This validated our interest in future-proofing existing housing estates and when combined with the statistic of 79% surveyed who were willing to help make and maintain a community space in their estate, indicates that a community-led approach may be feasible in this context. People are invested in their communities, they want to be able to grow old in that community. But the survey also revealed that there are
significant physical challenges facing existing housing stock, such as stepped access, lack of a bathroom on the ground floor & poor levels of insulation.
6. Our process
Finding common ground
The participants from the Men’s Shed were males over the age of 55 up to early 80’s and the female students were aged 15 to 16. We chose to engage with each of the groups separately at first to introduce them to the idea of working together. This gave us the time to appreciate their neighbourhood priorities for their age group.
As an alternative to traditional round table discussions, we created a series of games to help the participants find new perspectives. The Veil of Ignorance philosophy by John Rawls inspired our first game. We started by asking both groups what are their Top 3 Priorities for living in a housing estate. Could these influence a new national housing policy? To help each group understand different needs to their own and encourage empathy for the other, we created cards with alternative identities to help them assess their priorities and to ensure that no one is disadvantaged unfairly by their policies. Under these new identities, the participants could decide what amendments were needed.
In bringing the groups together, we felt strongly about nurturing a sense of common ground between them. We devised a strategy in which the students interviewed the men about how they lived when they were fifteen and the men presented the similarities/ differences of their experiences of being fifteen.
Preposterous, possible, plausible, probable, preferable
The primary aim of facilitating these workshops was to bring about a greater understanding and respect between generations for more cohesive communities in the future. The secondary aim was to stress test the need for compromise in organising a community-led development.
For our second game, we asked the participants to imagine they were all part of a resident’s association within a housing estate and that their ambition was to make it a better place to age. We combined their 32 different housing priorities and defined these as Preferable i.e. scenarios they want to happen. Unfortunately, what should happen will inevitably come up against obstacles and variables. So we asked them to suggest which scenarios they believed might be possible. We emphasised the responsibility to make change was on them as the residents. Any scenarios that were not deemed possible were redefined as preposterous. Next, they sorted which of these possible scenarios were plausible i.e. could happen if money was not an issue. Finally, we asked them to determine which scenarios have a high probability of success in being implemented in the short term.
With these 6 probable scenarios, they were given maps of estates to contextualise some of their thinking and to problem solve like an architect would.
We focused our time on asking questions and listening to the answers. We received feedback from our participants, both good and bad. We have over 5500 words of minutes recorded from our workshops and over 100 responses to our survey that contain a wealth of opinion around this topic in Balbriggan. Not every idea was considered probable but some of our highlights include:
- The opportunity of older people to right-size should be made available within their neighbourhood as a housing policy, with bridging finance provided to support this.
- Residents Associations should be mandatory and they should interact directly and regularly with local politicians and government.
- A mix of housing sizes in all estates, both old and new.
- Teenagers should have a safe space to hang out that is not just a playground for younger children.
- A place for tea and coffee in each estate could bring all generations together.
- The need for more benches in our housing estates was selected as a high-priority and practical idea for improving our existing estates. We spent time with both groups co-designing what this bench could look like.
9. Next steps
The mindset of community-led action is not a guaranteed cultural condition. We have identified residents associations as our next step in disseminating this discourse locally. We will develop and fabricate a mobile exhibit that will move around several of the housing estates in Balbriggan, with a prototype of the co-designed bench to be showcased alongside it. The hope is that this temporary installation will be the sort of light touch to slowly get buy-in from the community and their trust in the vision.
10. Bio About Islander
Islander Architects is led by Laura Carroll and Ciarán Molumby. We are based in the coastal town of Balbriggan, County Dublin, in order to be at the heart of exploring the relationship the suburbs, small towns and villages have with the architecture that makes them.
We are deeply inspired by the contexts we design within and by the people we design for. The name Islander evokes the spirit of this work, of being resourceful & responding to the uniqueness of each project. The vast majority of projects come from clients living in housing estates who want to make adjustments to suit their lifestyle.
We believe the role of the architect can have more impact in society by supporting people in reimagining the structures and policies that underpin housing delivery in Ireland, by enabling people to have a say in the architecture of their neighbourhoods.
We are passionate about sharing our skills through design-led outreach, with experience teaching architecture at primary, secondary and third level. We are assistant lecturers on the architecture programme at TU Dublin and are interested in projects that can improve our built environment in sustainable ways.