Studio idir has been Reimagining Elderhood in the neighbourhood of Ballyhackamore, in East Belfast, as part of Self-Organised Architecture’s island-wide project.
Named, idir, after the Irish word for ‘between’, our practice has a focus on connections between people, places and practices. This is grounded by Director Aisling Rusk’s PhD, which explored spatial practices of liminality (or ‘being in-between’) in divided and contested contexts in ways that erode division. In our domestic work, the inbetween is simple – it’s about boundaries and shared space in the home, connections from inside to out, old to new (and old to young!). We also seek ways in our practice to explore connections in liminal space at the urban scale, engaging in some of Belfast’s more challenging spatial challenges.
We have focused our study in our base of Ballyhackamore, which is an urban neighbourhood with a range of existing housing stock, primarily consisting of Victorian two-up, two-down terraces and larger semi-detached and detached period properties, with few apartments or social housing. Residents include a mix of families, empty nesters, young professionals and elderly. Housing demand outstrips supply, with young professionals and families seeking to move into the area to benefit from the proximity to the Glider (bus), City Airport, good schools, and excellent restaurants and cafes. These things make it appealing for elderhood too, although much existing housing stock is unsuitable for older people in its current state. Houses are old, with many either too large or too small, with too much garden or none at all, few level accesses or ground floor bedrooms, and steep staircases often unsuitable for the retro-fitting of stair lifts.
There is a post office, library, banks, pharmacies, supermarkets and grocers along the main road. Social hubs in the area, offering a range of activities, include the Working Men’s Club, Wandsworth Community Centre, Yoga Quarter and Belmont Bowling Club.
Drawing from our previous experiences of creative engagement with communities, we set out to engage with diverse Ballyhackamore locals in rich conversation around their hopes and plans for their own elderhood and the local area. We did so using the following methods:
1. Mapping and Modelling
We started by mapping and modelling the area at 1:1000. We feel that models allow people to be ‘giants’, looking down on a familiar area from a new angle, seeing new possibilities and connections. We carried out ongoing analysis of the neighbourhood, exploring land and building uses and identifying underutilised areas and sites of potential for interventions/strategic changes.
Walking is an important part of our methodology, as explained in this short video for the London Festival of Architecture. Like Rebecca Solnit in her book Wanderlust (2000), we see walking as ‘a mode of making the world as well as being in it”. As well as several team walks to explore different parts of Ballyhackamore, we undertook a walking and mapping exercise with Dr Agustina Martire during one of our workshops, where the map of Ballyhackamore was divided into different sections – one for each group – who were then given stickers to mark areas that were good and those that were problematic in relation to mobility. After the walk, the map was then pieced back together and discussed.
3. Community Co-design Workshops
We hosted three workshops for the general public in Ballyhackamore, in which we employed walking, mapping and various participative methods to discuss our ideas. In the first, along with the mapping and walking exercise, Dr Agustina Martire was invited to present the transformative co-design work of her StreetSpace studio at QUB, and Joanna McMinn, a member of Belfast Cohousing Cooperative, made a presentation on the merits of co-housing as a way of living in elderhood. Further workshops were discursive based on the work that was emerging from our engagement in Ballyhackamore. In the second, talking around our model, we asked participants to each offer one word to describe Ballyhackamore, and then had a rich conversation about the neighbourhood at the urban scale. In the final local workshop, we presented and gained feedback on our ideas for adapting local houses to better suit elderhood, and discussed a first draft of our map of observations and inspiration for Ballyhackamore.
We also hosted a fourth workshop in Belfast City Centre with elderly people from Belfast City Council’s Age Friendly Belfast programme. We discussed getting around in the city with people with a range of mobility and with some disabilities, and we discussed people’s homes, the changes they had made and their plans and aspirations for the future. Comments and ideas that were shared were posted in real time on what became an impressive wall of post-its, capturing the wisdom in the room.
4. Postcard mail-drop and posters
We designed postcard invitations for our first workshops and distributed them to c.500 houses and local cafes and community buildings. The postcards also invited locals to follow/attend events/get in touch to answer some provocative questions. We also put up posters in local cafes, clubs and shops in advance of each workshop.
5. Social media
We formed a twitter and instagram accounts called ‘re__hack’ through which we advertised our workshops, shared the proceedings and findings and ran a small #spottedinballyhack series, where we showcased existing findings and happenings in the neighbourhood. This was facilitated through Amberlea Neely of Starling Start. Our Twitter and Instagram accounts have amassed almost 250 followers each.
What Emerged: Ideas for Ballyhackamore
Ballyhackamore Neighbourhood Map
We found that many of our conversations ended more comfortably at the urban scale. People were more comfortable speaking about what was familiar and shared by all rather than the intimacy or self revelation of discussing your own home. This may have been accentuated by the fact that Northern Ireland people can be quite private about their personal lives, and because of the variety of scales and types of houses in the area that means how we live within our homes is not a shared or unifying experience. Conversation around the neighbourhood as a whole, however, was rich and lots of big and small ideas for making it better and observations on spaces that could be better utilities emerged.
In discussion with our mentor, Anthony Engi-Meacock from Assemble, we agreed that focusing on the smaller and more achievable changes would be of more benefit to local people than the grand and radical ideas that we certainly couldn’t deliver on in a project of this scale. Instead, we decided to catalogue the good things that are already happening in the area, some simple changes that could make it better, and a few more large scale ideas that could be transformative in the longer term. We decided to create a foldout paper neighbourhood map that conveyed these ideas but also had the space to add more, acknowledging that this is not a finished process but one that will always be evolving with the input of more local residents. The map, with a key, is one side of an A2 page and the other side explains each of the observations and interventions with an accompanying illustration, and space for whoever picks it up to draw some more.
Taken collectively, this map presents a form of plan for the area that responds to our multiple conversations, and outlines a series of potential interventions that could allow the town to cater more creatively and diversely for enriched elderhood in Ballyhackamore. Often it’s the simplest things that would make the biggest difference – like more benches or signposting to more of the seats that are already there, to allow a breather on a long walk home from the shops, and a public toilet block, or even just shops and restaurants putting up a sign to indicate that the elderly are welcome to use their toilets.
House Adaptation Concepts
At the start of the project, we had anticipated that our designs might involve quite radical interventions such as hypothetically compulsory purchasing one or two houses in strategic locations to create linear parks and walking routes in which housing for elderhood could also be built. However as we spoke to people and heard people’s overwhelming desire to stay in their own houses and areas as long as possible, and as our focus shifted towards more achievable and immediately useful approaches, we decided to focus on ways in which the predominant existing local Victorian and Edwardian housing stock, as follows:
Social Spaces in Alleys behind Terraces
For those that live in terrace housing, we felt that the greatest potential for improved quality of life in elderhood was the transformation of the terrace back alleys into social spaces. This concept draws from our previous investigation with Starling Start, entitled 9ft in Common. We suggest lowering yard walls or adding windows and wider doors in them, painting back gates a cheerful colour, growing flowers in the alleys and putting old garden furniture out there to create a place to sit. The terrace could feel so much bigger and more welcoming when there is a whole other (weather-dependent) social space to its rear.
Subletting Semi-detached Houses
Inspired by the talk from Ava Housing Association in Dublin that was organised for us by SOA, we decided to apply their model of adapting houses into an accessible ground floor apartment for an older individual house owner and an upper storey apartment that they could rent out. This has the twofold benefits of giving them company and a source of additional income in retirement. What is clever about this model, from a Planning perspective is that the house remains one house unit, meaning it is easily reversible and doesn’t require Planning permission, and because it is for one person living alone to let to another individual, there is no densification issue in the area, because it only results in a fairly standard two people, and a maximum of two cars, per household. It also responds to the shortage of affordable small rentable homes for the increasing number of people living alone.
In Ballyhackamore, the semis are older and narrower than the Dublin ones that Ava have worked on, and therefore bring their own challenges. Some have two storeys above them. We took the drawings for a typical semi in the area that we happened to be designing an extension for, and used these plans to design the accessible and upstairs apartments within it.
Intergenerational Living in Detached Double-fronted Houses
A fair number of the larger houses in Ballyhackamore have older couples living within them, whose children have grown up and now have families of their own. We also find that an increasing number of our clients from across Ireland are approaching us to design ways for three or more generations of the same family to live within the same house footprint, where they can be together, but with some degree of separation. We repeatedly heard, from our engagement, that people wanted to live in a bungalow in their elderhood, but couldn’t find one. (Bungalows cannot offer a sustainable answer for dense urban living). Putting all of these observations together, we felt that a useful approach to take with the larger houses in the area, that have the space to do it, would be to demonstrate, through design, that a nice independent, accessible ‘granny flat’ – essentially a bungalow – could be added to the rear of one of these larger houses, leaving the rest of the big house freed up for the children and grandchildren. This can be a mutually beneficial living arrangement, with grandparents on hand to help with grandkids, adult children there to lend support to their ageing parents, and young children bringing joy, entertainment and sense of purpose to their grandparents.
Again we took as an example one such house that we have on our books as a current project (although intergenerational living is not part of that clients’ brief).
After the Dublin exhibition and panel discussions at the Making Neighbourhoods seminar in June 2023, the works are being exhibited in each locality. In Ballyhackamore, this has, at their invitation, been timed to coincide with the Eastside Arts Festival in East Belfast, which means that it will appear in their programme and be able to avail of the wider marketing for that event.
Film in Belmont Church Tower
The Reimagining Elderhood 20 minute film, capturing all three projects in Ballyhackamore, Balbriggan and Cork, will be screened in the local Belmont Church Tower Building which is owned by the National Trust but underutilised by the local community. An idea emerged through one of our workshops that the community could buy that back as a community space, and the screening within that space is a small demonstration of that building’s potential. The film will be followed by a discussion panel with members of our own team along with SOA and, hopefully, the other Reimagining Elderhood projects.
Exhibition in a Welcome Space
We found that loneliness and loss of sense of purpose can be experienced by people in their elderhood, and, of course, at other stages in life. Noticing that there are always some redundant shops along the main strip in Ballyhackamore, we had the idea that a pop-up welcome space could offer a place for people to drop in and have a conversation and rest their weary legs. We once again decided to demonstrate that by creating our own pop-up welcome space as a fitting location for our local exhibition. This space, a few doors down from our office, is a former bank that will soon become offices for a property developer with a pop-up cafe unit at the front (designs that Studio idir will soon be taking forward). For now, it’s a vacant space and the owner, Tealrock Properties, has kindly agreed to lend us a space at the front to showcase this important work. We will be open during daytime hours for 7 days as a drop-in space, offering a seat and a cup of tea and a biscuit while people pick up our free neighbourhood map and explore and discuss the exhibition, and we will also programme a number of events in the space.
Walk, Mapping Workshop, Climate Fresk
In the Welcome Space, again as part of Eastside Festival programme, we will host a counter-mapping workshop for local people. The purpose of this engagement is to tap into counter-narratives of different user groups about Ballyhackamore, to give a deeper and richer understanding of the place. The term counter-mapping refers to the use of maps, even a simple sketch on the back of an envelope, or lines hand-drawn over an official map, to delineate and formalise claims to place by non-dominant individuals groups. In drawing their maps, participants will be tapping into potentially unfamiliar modes of communication that can unlock new creativity, and are illustrating important counter-narratives for that place (Peluso, 1995: 384).
We will ask participants to draw their own memory map of Ballyhackamore, highlighting the areas they like and don’t like, things that have gone that they miss and areas of potential for new growth and development. The maps will then be on display in the Welcome Space throughout the week. We will also carry out a guided walk, visiting the various points on our Ballyhackamore Map, discussing their potential and seeking feedback on the ideas and observations presented.
Finally, we will invite local resident David Hackett to host the second ever Climate Fresk in Northern Ireland. Climate Fresk is a powerful tool for providing a quality climate education within a 3 hour workshop. It is accessible to anyone and can be scaled quickly within an organisation or community. In the current climate emergency, we feel a responsibility to make climate education and action a part of all of our work, where possible. It is everyone’s concern.
The outcome of this research has been informed by the discussions we have and the needs and desires that have arisen through our conversations. We believe that the unique skill architects bring to these conversations is being able to quickly and convincingly illustrate spatial solutions and ideas as they arise, making them tangible, and to provide accessible catalysts for further discussion with a wider group of participants.
One of the workshop participants has engaged Studio idir to make changes to their own semi- detached house in the neighbourhood to prepare for a less mobile elderhood for him and his partner, with ground flower shower room and the potential for a bedroom, so that they can stay living in their house and neighbourhood well into the future.
We have also been invited to deliver a workshop for elderhood with QUB Streetspace as part of Belfast 2024, Belfast City Council’s ambitious cultural celebration for our city. The workshop will feed into the Open Botanic Festival, exploring ways to make our streets more friendly and accessible to elderly people.
The local parish priest, Father Conor McGrath, who, at the age 32 when appointed, was the youngest parish priest in Ireland, requested a meeting to hear about our ideas for the green space in front of St Colmcille’s church. It is a garden with grass, flowers and benches that anyone could walk in and take a seat within, if they knew it was there and knew that they were welcome. Fr Conor confirmed that anyone is welcome to sit there and welcomed our ideas for a sign, or even an additional gate to make it easier for people to enter. We are arranging to have the same conversation with the minister of Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian Church which similarly has benches out its front. Fr Conor suggested that he would be willing to have the same sign, as a show of cross-community solidarity that should make it clear that anyone, no matter their faith, is welcome to use these existing rests for the weary in the town. Studio idir plans to design and deliver these signs as a tangible lasting legacy of the Reimagining Elderhood Project in Ballyhackamore.
It has been a rich and valuable experience to be a part of the Reimagining Elderhood project. While the small scale of the project and its funding, and the short timeframe, put some necessary limitations on the extent of work we could deliver in the time (and we of course put much more time and resource in, because we were so invested in the process), it is a powerful example of the work that architects can do when they are given some creative freedom to both define their brief or area of focus and the means in which they deliver it. It has been a real privilege to have the opportunity to look at Ballyhackamore, with its residents, and think about big and small changes that would make it better.
We are very grateful to SOA for this opportunity and to Anthony Engi Meacock for the invaluable advice gained from his own experience carrying out award-winning design work in partnership with local communities.
For us, perhaps the biggest two takeaways from Reimagining Elderhood are, firstly, the rich debates and dialogues we have engaged in and the relationships we have developed with like-minded practitioners across this island, that will continue long beyond the project. Secondly, this project has reinforced our recognition that a neighbourhood that is better for elderhood truly is better for everyone.