Architect John Fieldhouse transformed his over-55s retirement flat into a fashionable apartment and set a benchmark for future design. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by James Hardisty.
It takes vision to reimagine a bog-standard over-55s flat in a social housing complex as The House in the Garden designed by Marcel Breuer for Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art in 1948. Yet that modernist masterpiece was the starting point for architect John Fieldhouse when he hatched a plan to transform his tiny one-bedroom home in York.
The result is a contemporary, uplifting and storage-filled space that sets new standards of design for the retirement development market. John’s clever solutions have addressed many of the problems faced by those who downsize into shoebox-size spaces, although his most ingenious idea may be seen as too radical for some retirees. To combat the lack of sound insulation in the 1987 block, he designed the ultimate sound-proofed escape, a freestanding double-glazed sleeping pod.
“The flats have a pre-cast concrete floor, rather like a giant piece of Rowntree’s Aero chocolate. It’s strong, light and quick to install but because of the voids it creates an echo. I can hear my neighbours’ TV, voices, bumps and bangs. There are no noisy people in this development but, because of the sound leaks, I found it impossible to sleep or work.
“I had to design a solution because it is impossible to retro-fit acoustic insulation into a building like this,” says John, now a published writer of short stories.
His pod, also known as the “Meditation Space”, “Thinking inside the Box” and “The Writer’s Retreat”, is based on a four-poster bed. It has a soundproofed base, headboard and canopy made from a sandwich of mdf with a filling of acoustic insulation. The three remaining sides are made from double-glazed patio doors and the structure sits on a 25mm cushion of recycled foam.
The bespoke unit cost £5,000 and would, says John, be completely unnecessary if developers and building regulations paid more attention to acoustic privacy.
“Building regulations are inadequate when it comes to sound insulation. Noise can be a big issue in flats. It affects people’s health. My pod was expensive but it has changed my life. I can sleep and if it’s too noisy in the sitting room during the day I go in there and read or write.”
Layout, lack of storage and poor lighting and heating were other bugbears when John downsized to buy 50 per cent of a shared ownership flat in the Joseph Rowntree development.
“You don’t have to be a social scientist to work out that in this era of increased longevity most residents are going to be spending at least a quarter of their lives in these places.
“So why are so many over-55s apartments so badly designed? Housing providers assume that the owners or tenants don’t work from home or have any hobbies and have no need for built-in storage.
“They think there is no need for bookshelves and assume that people will have downsized their possessions so radically as to arrive on the doorstep with no more than two suitcases.
“Why don’t they provide an environment that can be turned into a home instead of expecting the resident to behave as if they’re living in a hotel room, a B&B or a monk’s or nun’s cell?” says John, a youthful 67-year-old, who ran his own architecture practice in London and Yorkshire before retiring.
He began his major revamp by creating a moodboard, using Breuer’s MoMA house as inspiration. As the property is part-rented, there were limitations and a stipulation that the 450 sq ft flat “must be returned to its original state” when he leaves, but over the past five years he has carried out ingenious adaptations.
Where possible, he has installed wall-fixed shelves and cupboards rather than freestanding furniture. As floor space is at a premium, he designed a wall of sloped shelving in the sitting area with large shelves at the top and smaller ones at the bottom so they don’t overwhelm the room. The shelves also stop short of the floor, which enhances the feeling of space and allows room for a wheelchair.
He has covered the floors with loose-laid varnished MDF tiles. “MDF is durable, warm, a good sound insulant and easy to mop clean,” says John, who also spruced up the kitchen and added steel storage racks to keep work surfaces clear of clutter.
The noisy and dusty warm air heating system was replaced by a combi-boiler and radiators and he applied an architect’s logic to the problem of lighting by supplementing single pendants with task lights.
“The central light in the kitchen meant you were standing in your own light when you were preparing food. It’s essential to have light directly over where you’re working, particularly if you’re partially sighted. If you’re looking in the bathroom mirror, the light from the pendant is behind your head when you need the light on your face,” says John, who ripped out the old bathroom and created a contemporary shower room with shelves and more storage.
The walls in the flat have been repainted in a mix of neutrals and primary colours and decorated with artwork and even the internal doors have also been livened up with relief patterns. The furniture features design classics, including a Marcel Breuer sofa and an Isokon Penguin bookshelf. John’s table and Panton Chairs fit perfectly in the corner of the living space and match the bright red emergency pull cord, the only clue that this is a retirement flat.
It could easily be mistaken for a trendy pad in a warehouse conversion in Shoreditch – just the type of place that baby boomers and Generation X would love to live in.
“The decor is not for everyone but the concept is something that could be copied,” says John. “Developers have a tendency to design to square footage and produce empty rooms with no thought as to how people want to use them and that needs to change.”
* The fitted furniture in the sitting room, hall and bathroom was made and fitted by Roko Furniture of Selby, rokofurniture.co.uk.
The fitted bedroom furniture and free-standing pod was made by Baumer Joinery, baumerjoinry.com, and installed by Liberty of York, libertyyork.co.uk.
Mason Clark Civil and Structural Engineers provided a proof calculation to ensure that the existing structural floor would accommodate the additional loadings, masonclark.co.uk.
The sliding patio doors were supplied and fitted by Euroglaze UK of York.
Electrics were by Graham Fawcett of Selby.
All painting and decorations by John Fieldhouse.