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Inside the homes that are being built to help fight the UK's loneliness epidemic

Zoe Dare Hall
The design of buildings is important to increase community and stave off loneliness

In their first nine months living at Battersea Power Station, Paddy Rowe and her husband Barry say they have made more friends there than in a ­decade in their last home – a large family house in ­Putney. “When we decided to downsize, we were initially considering moving to a retirement village,” says Paddy, a former lecturer. “But being surrounded by people of all ages and backgrounds is great.”

She and Barry, a retired army officer, are renting at Circus West Village while the flat they have bought in ­another part of the development is ­being built. “I use the residents’ app all the time to network with neighbours and make friends,” adds Paddy. “I set up a book club, which now has 900 members on the app, and a group of us bring homemade canapés to regular get-togethers in the residents’ lounge.”

Battersea Power Station is among many new developments to recognise that residents’ happiness is about more than well-designed bricks and mortar. It’s also about physical and emotional well-being – whether that’s by having attractive amenity spaces such as a gym, cinema, bar and ­beautifully landscaped green spaces, or by providing apps and ­in-house “lifestyle managers” to promote social events among residents.

Paddy and Barry Rowe at Battersea Power Station Credit: JEFF GILBERT

At the root of it all – though it may never appear quite so blatantly on any property developer’s agenda – is a desperate need to tackle a social issue that blights the lives of nine million people of all ages in this country: loneliness. The problem has escalated to such epidemic proportions that we now have a loneliness minister, Tracey Crouch – part of the legacy of the late MP Jo Cox. The Loneliness Commission, which was established by Cox, says research has found that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Having a rich array of social events on tap is lovely, if you can be persuaded to leave your living room in the first place. But combating loneliness starts with thinking about how we design our buildings from the outset, says Félicie Krikler, ­director at Assael Architecture. “The built environment plays a big part in our health and ­mental well-being, of which loneliness is a factor,” she says.

The built environment plays a big part in our health and ­mental well-being, of which loneliness is a factor

The solutions can be simple, such as how you design the front doors. “Grouping them together in a development, like in a street, means you are more likely to step outside and see someone. One project in ­Holland has front doors with a glazed panel that can be left open, inviting people to chat,” says Krikler. Engineering consultancy WSP also suggests simple fixes such as allowing residents to access all floors – not just the one their flat is on, adding benches in the local area, and making it easier for slower walkers to cross the road.

In high-rise towers, it’s about building a “vertical neighbourhood” to promote a sense of ­community, says David Richardson, operations director at Chalegrove Properties, whose Landmark Pinnacle tower in Canary Wharf has a garden square on the 27th floor.

Elsewhere, “inter-generational design” can bring generations together, says Krikler. In the Dutch town of ­Deventer, there’s a development that combines retirement and student housing – a concept that has been adopted in the UK at Cambridge Hub, where PhD students live alongside older people and volunteer time in return for reduced rent. “It’s about a shift of emphasis away from simply renting an apartment, to feeling that you rent the whole building,” says Krikler. “It’s the realisation that you can have ­something much better if it’s shared.”

Communal living at The Collective

Taking sharing to a new level is The Collective in Acton, north-west ­London, which is the world’s biggest co-living space. The private rental apartments are tiny, but they come with all bills, linen changes, cleaning and maintenance included in the rent (which starts at £960 a month for a room). Residents have access to shared spaces and there are daily events from live music and guest speakers to communal Sunday brunches.

For some, the push to hang out with the cool crowd that this kind of co-living arrangement attracts may merely reinforce feelings of inadequacy and alienation. But Ed Thomas, The Collective’s 27-year-old head of community, insists that he can count on one hand the number of people who have moved in and haven’t liked it.

“It’s a way of living that promotes human connection,” he says. “You’re not forced to take part in anything, but some of those who get the most out of it are the most introverted types. They thrive in here because it’s a very safe, welcoming place.”

Communal living at The Collective

Co-living is a magnet for millennials: the average age of tenants at The Collective is 29, and Thomas adds that young people in particular can find London a lonely place to live. But some of its tenants are downsizers in their 60s, and there is even a family living there. “It doesn’t matter how old you are here,” says Thomas. “We get approached all the time by senior living developers that want to apply the same principles. People get ill far less often because they are happier.” This fact is backed up by the not-for-profit group Social Finance, which found that people who suffer from loneliness are 1.8 times more likely to visit their GP and 1.6 times more likely to visit A&E.

It’s a paradox that, thanks to social media, we are both the most connected we have ever been, and the most disconnected. Getting young people, in particular, to shut off their screens and make friends with those around them is a challenge. It’s one that the burgeoning build-to-rent sector is taking on board. Its tenants are mainly in their 20s and early 30s, and either can’t afford to buy, or don’t want to, preferring instead this newly convivial, young tenant experience.

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Moda, which is constructing 6,000 build-to-rent apartments in cities across the UK, includes health and wellness zones and abundant outdoor spaces. “Research has demonstrated that they have a real positive impact on people’s mental and physical state,” says Oscar Brooks, Moda’s acquisitions director. “We even have a rooftop ­running track on a Birmingham project, which is a first for UK housing.”

Another build-to-rent provider, Fizzy Living, has included houses aimed at young families, and is ­harnessing the power of pets as a means to combating loneliness. It actively promotes a pet-friendly policy, with pet grooming stations in developments and regular “Yappy Hour” social events to allow dog owners to mingle.

You can live with your dog in this two-bedroom flat, which has a special pet pampering area and a shared roof terrace. Price: £1,510 pcm Agent: Fizzy Living (020 8607 0555; fizzyliving.com)

“For millions of people, especially those living alone, a pet is a friend and important family member and proven to reduce stress, improve health and help prevent loneliness,” says Harry Downes of Fizzy Living. ­“Unfortunately for renters, most landlords don’t share this belief and a strict ‘no pets’ policy is the norm in the industry.”

The need for attention to wellness in housing is now starting even earlier. The current mental health crisis among university students is making some student accommodation providers ­rethink their offering. Where they used to purely focus on putting roofs over heads, now they are becoming ­involved in trying to keep those heads healthy.

This includes, in the case of Fusion ­Students, providing free massages, ­nutritional breakfasts and puppy ­petting days during those stressful exam ­periods.

Whether it’s in a luxury high-rise such as Centre Point or a huge new neighbourhood such as Kidbrooke ­Village in south-east London, the key to creating a neighbourly feel is to give residents “meaningful roles” within the community, says Marc Gomes, of property managers Rendall & Rittner. He sets up local choirs and fitness boot camps, and organises street parties and outdoor cinema nights. “A community needs to be self-sustainable, inclusive and welcoming,” he says.