High-rise home help

A 1960s London council block is receiving a facelift like no other. Julia Pierce reports on hi-tech tailored to the needs of the elderly.

A 1960s council block in south-west London may not at first seem an ideal home for new technologies, but Westminster Council has other ideas. Situated in Pimlico, 22-storey Glastonbury House is home to a community of just under 200 tenants, all of them elderly.

As with many housing blocks, while the external structure of Glastonbury House may be sound, services such as the lift and heating need an urgent update to conserve money and energy and make life easier for tenants.

Currently, the building’s heating is under central council control. Hot water is piped to this and other council buildings from a boiler at Battersea and distributed whether residents want it or not, and payment is included at a flat rate in the rent. The only way to control internal temperatures is to open the windows, causing considerable energy waste.

However, with the help of building action research group Integer, the council is turning the block into a showcase for environmentally friendly systems and innovations that can help residents remain in their own homes for as long as their health allows.

With the help of construction firm Wates, there will be additional functional improvements to the infrastructure, including heating controls. each flat will be equipped with a television feed from the Integrated Reception System (IRS) on the tower’s roof receiving both digital and analogue signals. The building will have its own private automated branch exchange connecting its telephone service, allowing residents to make free calls from one flat to another.

Because moving all residents to alternative accommodation during building would be extremely disruptive, the company is refurbishing the flats one by one as they become vacant. So far two show homes have been completed, and the plans were displayed in October as part of London’s Open House programme.

Using technologies from suppliers including Siemens, Invensys, Pace and Ortronics, flats are equipped with an Intelligent Home Control (IHC) which regulates the lighting, smoke alarms and heat and leak detectors, and can be incorporated into the alarm system. Diagnostic 13-amp plugs can be fitted to white goods to provide an early warning of abnormal power use. They also activate telephone or computer alarms if the fridge door is left open or a leak occurs.

The block’s door entry system is designed for ease of use by those who may find it difficult to move around, but balances the desire to automate systems with an understanding that some residents may find new technologies confusing or hard to use. Instead of having a speakerphone point situated next to the flat’s door, each flat’s phone is also connected to the door entry system, allowing residents to talk to visitors at the entry through their telephone. To let their visitors in all they need to do is enter their security code into the handset.

‘Eventually systems will monitor actions such as whether a person uses water during a set period. If they do not and are not away from their flat, the building system will assume something could be wrong,’ says Andy Haynes of IT business analysts I&I, part of the Integer team. ‘It will then take actions such as increasing heating to their flat to keep them stable if, for instance, they have had a fall, and sound an alarm. We are working with Social Services and GPs, and by allowing people to stay in flats we can help to free hospital beds. Between us we can keep an eye on residents and allow them the independence and other benefits of living in their own home.’

While some might argue that the cost of the technologies outweighs any benefits, Haynes disagrees, pointing to hidden benefits within the programme. ‘The cost of installing systems has to be balanced against the cost of repairs from things such as damage to the flat below if a bath is left to overflow,’ he says. ‘Replastering and painting is costly.’

The two flats feature a slightly different design: one aimed at more mobile residents and another for the infirm. Eventually Integer hopes to include technologies such as pressure-sensitive floors that light up a path to the bathroom at night if occupiers move from their bed.

While this may be one of the first programmes to deal with an inner-city high rise, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust has also conducted trials on the effectiveness of technologies in housing for the elderly and disabled in accommodation at its continuing care retirement community at Hartrigg Oaks, near York.

Technologies examined include computer-controlled systems to close curtains and switch on heating following a phone call from the owner, or close and lock all windows and doors as the owner leaves, following a key fob signal. ‘Some of the technology was displayed in a show home that was meant to be open for two weeks but ran for six months owing to public interest,’ says Julie Cowans, policy and practice manager at the trust. ‘Local residents have installed some of the items in their homes.’

Following an approach from a female resident suffering from osteoarthritis, the University of York is helping the trust monitor a complete range of in-home technologies to help her condition. However, installing these was not without problems. ‘We found suppliers were like hen’s teeth,’ says Cowans. ‘Producers making affordable technologies were few and far between. There were also a few hiccups when we discovered some things were not as reliable as we had hoped, which knocked our confidence. But we will know if the system is worth the effort in about eight months’ time.’

Cowans suggests that the ideal blueprint for a smart home could run along the lines of a burglar alarm service contract, with annual maintenance inspection and access to call-out staff if things go wrong. But she notes that the need for critical mass could dampen adoption of useful systems. ‘The market won’t mature until the supply and demand chains meet up,’ she explains. ‘The elderly and the disabled aren’t enough to support a mass market, but our research with the Consumers’ Association suggests people would be willing to take the technologies on.’

Elsewhere in the UK, the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering at Bath University (BIME) is working on an EPSRC-funded project to develop a smart home for those suffering from dementia. Some of the innovations are also part of a European project called ENABLE. Involving groups from Norway, Finland the UK and Ireland, this evaluates devices aimed at people with the condition.

Technology includes sensors for baths, basins and cookers that cut supplies to individual rings or basins if danger occurs. They then tell householders why the action was taken so they do not become confused, and text message a carer if the problem is severe. Also included is a wall-mounted panel indicating items such as a purse or glasses that are easily lost. When the touch-sensitive image of the item is pressed, a radio-frequency tag within the object emits a warbling noise allowing the resident to find it.

As dementia sufferers often become anxious about dialling phone numbers, the phone features pictures of the friend or relative that are pressed to dial. The house also features a bedside light that uses sensors to detect if a person gets up, fading in the light (rather than switching it on suddenly) to help them find the toilet, then fading it off when they return. The team plans to develop this to cope with wandering, including features such as a voice reminder that it is night and they should return to bed and the ability to call a carer if they do not do so. Local housing group Housing 21 is planning to incorporate some technologies into their care buildings, depending on the needs of the resident.

‘People with dementia tend to deteriorate when they go into care so the object is to keep them out for as long as possible,’ explains Roger Orpwood, head of engineering at BIME. ‘However, we have to take care to tailor it to people’s needs and change systems as their condition deteriorates. Using a human voice as a reminder may work for some but may send others searching round the house for the owner of the voice.’

Integer’s work has shown that even the most unlikely buildings can be adapted into an ideal home for those who might otherwise face life in care. Meanwhile, the work carried out by each of the groups has proved that, with the right degree of care and consideration, technology can be used to help the elderly remain independent regardless of their accommodation.

But despite the considerable cost benefits of this in terms of preventing accidents, repairs and the cost of residential care, with lack of wide-spread demand keeping many systems as one-off prototypes, it seems that access to such schemes will remain limited for some time to come. Only when the average household accepts technology to control fundamental functions for the home will those in real need begin to feel the benefits.