Growing Old Gracefully

I think that one of the benefits of age is that you see how things change over a period of time. It seems no time at all since I was 40 and yet I have grown used to how I have weathered. The body doesn’t have the same elasticity, the skin ages and some muscles seem to atrophy. Internal organs don’t work as well as they used to and a cap replaces the hair on your head.

What I do notice is how buildings built only 30 years ago decay, not all because of a lack of maintenance, but a result of cost cutting in the specification. Housing associations and local authorities as well as private developers, expect that new housing should have a guaranteed life of 30 years and assume that further investment in maintenance and upgrading, will prolong the life of buildings. The procurement of our housing is often driven by promoting ‘best value engineering’, a euphemism for cost savings driven by limited budgets and the desire to build more units rather than better units.

In fact we are driven by ‘worst value engineering’ which looks no further than 30 years. Please understand, if you are now in your 40s, that 30 years will past very quickly, a blink of an eye.

We need to think much more for the long term. I see metal close doors on houses that are hardly 15 years old and which are rusting because they were powder coated, not galvanised; I see plastic gutters which become brittle and deformed with age; I see insulated overcladding schemes which leave in huge cold bridges; plastic windows which need replacing because the catches are damaged and the frame cannot be repaired.

The effects of climate change in Scotland will incur additional resources on maintenance. Since 1961, winter and autumn rainfall has been increasing by as much as 50% in the west of Scotland and 24% in the east. Increased periods of heavy rainfall will result in more localised flooding as well as saturation of stone walls which will increase the risk of timber decay in our older tenement stock.

Strategies for housing improvement should look at the needs of the housing and not rely on one-trick solutions such as window replacement programmes which don’t tackle stone or gutter repairs; insulated overcladding schemes which leave external balconies untreated, with no internal changes and no improvements to poor environmental conditions – all of which will affect the long-term viability of the housing stock.

We need to ensure that the housing we build, or improve, becomes an asset to the community, not a future liability. The more we think of the needs of future generations, the more likely will housing become an asset.

John Gilbert