Freedom and belonging: an age-old dilemma

By February 4, 2021No Comments

Roland Karthaus of Matter Architecture asks whether we can build housing that resolves people’s desire for independence and their need to belong, particularly with regard to ‘intergenerational’ housing.

A sense of belonging is a deep human need, linking us to other people and the places we inhabit. Yet we also prize our independence; our ability to move freely and not be tied to one place throughout our lives. COVID has brought these potentially contrasting desires into sharp focus, as we find support through our communities during lockdown, whilst simultaneously suffering a lack of freedom, highlighting its importance.

Historically, belonging and independence have often been in tension – the age-old story of a young person leaving their village to seek fortune in the city is about both gaining and losing something significant. This is due to seemingly strong relationships between belonging and dependency; people being anchored in a community as much out of need as desire.

Today, our housing largely reflects this; social housing remains strongly associated with dependency, whilst those who can afford to choose independence instead, seeking ‘executive homes’ or ‘urban living’ in secluded, concierged apartments, apparently not needing the same social bonds. But this is an artificial distinction, more so than ever, as COVID has shown us; we all need to belong in communities and we also all value our independence and mobility enormously.

Before COVID, loneliness was already being understood as a life-threatening disease, but we’re now beginning to realise how our housing options are making this worse through categorisation and segregation. People need choice and we need different types of housing, but increasingly, the way housing is organised and located is either by dependency (subsidised and supported) or by separation (exclusive and gated). As social beings, we have far more in common than our differences and we want to be a part of communities but not bound by them. So, how can housing reflect this?

From ‘intergenerational’ housing to housing we share

Before the pandemic, my architecture practice, Matter, used a grant from Innovate UK to research and rethink the idea of intergenerational housing. It’s an umbrella term used to describe housing schemes with programmed interaction between older and younger people, usually not within a family. We were interested in this because it focused on belonging, generated through living with people of different ages, as was more common in the past. We analysed many examples from around the world and we found that although they have clear health and wellbeing benefits, they are also flawed.

Part of the problem relates to dependency, as many schemes are based on younger people ‘helping older people out’. Whilst both parties gain something from the experience, it’s often quite transactional, reinforcing age-related differences rather than their similarities. There are exceptions, but at the conceptual level, we concluded that thinking about housing as being ‘intergenerational’ is itself problematic. Amongst people who are not related, there are no generations – only a continuum of age. And we all both have similarities and differences that might or might not be age-related. This might sound pedantic, but presuming relationships are determined by age merely reinforces the idea that ageing is a negative process of increasing dependency.

There’s clearly something important driving this idea, though, so we set out to create a model for housing that would have these same benefits without the negative implications. The research publication on our website describes both a process and a suite of illustrations for doing this, developed with a range of industry partners. Another important conclusion was that intergenerational housing isn’t actually a thing – it’s about relationships between people – but our research found that the design and configuration of housing is a necessary if not sufficient basis for this kind of social interaction. So, you can have more or less intergenerational housing, but not housing that is intergenerational by definition.

This notion of belonging was a starting point for us, but in exploring design and configuration we gradually uncovered other areas relevant to the Quality of Life Framework and identified key ways in which they can support intergenerational living. Nature, wonder, movement, health and control all have significant roles to play in all housing, but they have specific resonance within the concept of housing that encourages a social sharing across a range of ages (or ‘intergenerational housing’ until we find a better name). Our work was conducted whilst the Quality of Life Foundation was doing its own research and developing these themes, so the words we’ve used are different, but it’s clear that there are common qualities that support our human needs to be both independent and to belong and that these are essential to good housing. We’re looking forward to developing this conversation further.

Matter’s research, Rethinking Intergenerational Housing, is published as an interactive resource at

Roland Karthaus co-founded Matter Architecture with Jonathan McDowell in 2016.  Matter’s projects cross all building types and scales, for public and private clients. This breadth provides a rich cross-fertilisation of ideas and knowledge for their projects, which have won numerous international and national awards, and been widely published.  Roland leads on the practice’s research in health, wellbeing and specialist housing as well as teaching at the University of East London and in 2018 he won an RIBA President’s award for research.  He is a member and sometimes chair of several design and quality review panels and of the RIBA Planning Advisory Group.  He is a Fellow of the RSA, a Design Council Built Environment Expert and a High Streets Task Force Expert.