Supporting older occupants in social housing



Cold environments contribute to around 27,000 excess winter deaths each year in the UK. Older people are regarded as particularly vulnerable, owing to physiological changes associated with ageing, such as diminished capability in maintaining stable core temperature. This is exacerbated by higher levels of fuel poverty amongst those on a retirement income.

Housing constructed to Passivhaus standards offers a potential solution to problems posed by cold homes, providing warm and dry environments with stable internal temperatures. Yet, whilst these unconventional dwellings may require little energy to heat, occupants must relearn how to maintain thermal comfort for their benefits to be fully realised.

The impact

The term ‘Passivhaus’ refers to a performance-based energy-efficiency standard for buildings. In a house constructed to Passivhaus standards, heat loss is minimised through the use of high levels of insulation and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, to the extent that the need for conventional heating is almost eliminated. In consequence, less energy is used for space heating than conventional new-build homes, with accompanying high levels of thermal comfort and air quality.

Many Passivhaus dwellings are built for owner-occupiers, who have chosen to adopt the lifestyle changes required by these new environments. However, social housing providers increasingly commission homes for occupants who have not made this choice. Older occupants face a number of issues in adapting to life in a Passivhaus, including sight loss, which causes problems in operating thermostats and other heating controls; arthritis, which can make opening and closing windows challenging; and dementia, which can make adaptation to new situations difficult.

Although the Passive House Trust has developed an occupants’ manual, there has hitherto been no clear guidance available for older occupants. With the aid of an ESRC Impact Accelerator grant, in partnership with Eastlands Homes, our research details best practice. A holistic approach has been devised, spotlighting the lifestyle changes required for living comfortably in newly refurbished extra-care housing, and noting that written guidance is most effective in combination with hands-on support. The guide – ‘Maximising the Benefits of Passivhaus: A Guide to Supporting Older Occupants’ – will be invaluable for housing providers and architects involved in the design and development of older peoples’ housing.

Our research

The guide was developed via literature reviews and interviews with housing providers involved in developing Passivhaus schemes. Focus groups and one-to-one semi-structured interviews were held with 14 occupants of a housing scheme refurbished by Eastlands Homes in order to bring it up to EnerPHit standards (similar to Passivhaus). The guidance document was further refined through a workshop hosted by Eastlands Homes and is available to download for free via the Housing LIN (Learning and Improvement Network) website.

The research identified a number of ways in which particular physical and cognitive impairments, common in the older population, might adversely affect interaction with building features essential to maintaining thermal comfort in a Passivhaus dwelling. For example:

- Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR): Controls should be simple to comprehend, and be designed and positioned so that they can be seen easily by people with sight loss and operated by people with arthritis.

- Window opening: Windows should have lever handles, positioned between 750mm and 1200mm from floor level, so that they can be easily opened and closed by people with reduced strength or who find it difficult to reach up high. Tilt-and-turn windows should be avoided.

- Controlling solar gain: Where possible, fixed solar shading should be used. However, consideration should also be given to the provision of adequate daylight for occupants’ health and to assist with vision. Where moveable shades are used, they should be operable by people with sight loss, arthritis and mobility impairments, including wheelchair users. Occupants diagnosed with dementia might also require assistance in controlling solar gain, where moveable shades are used.

- Stable internal temperature: This should suit those older occupants who, owing to physiological changes, find it difficult to adjust to changes in temperature. However, some occupants, particularly those diagnosed with dementia, might find it difficult to cope with the slow response time of the MVHR unit, particularly where air heating is used.

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing