Trends: Design for the Aging

By Robert Nieminen
How will changes in the population affect the design of the workplace?


By Robert Nieminen

There is a significant change occurring in the U.S. workforce today that will have a direct impact on the design of the future workplace and public spaces. Specifically, the workforce is aging, and two demographic shifts are reshaping the composition of the U.S. labor force, according to the AARP. One is the growing number of workers age 55 and over, and the second is the smaller pool of younger workers available to replace these older employees due to a generational dip after 1964,the year the last baby boomers
were born.

While only 13 percent of the U.S. workforce was 55 and older in 2000, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that this figure will likely increase to 17 percent by 2010. Further, by the year 2050, 19 percent of workers will be 55 and over. Additionally, nearly seven out of 10 workers age 45 to 74 tell AARP that they plan to work in some capacity in retirement. Clearly, companies will need to accommodate the needs of an aging workforce, and design firms can help by educating clients and offering design solutions catered to this demographic.

"As healthy Boomers age, they will expect, as well as demand, active and creative outlets for their work and play," says Tom Cestarte, AIA, NCARB, principal of WWCOT. "Living and working environments will be tech savvy (hard wired initially with wireless communications improving) and offer active outlets for exercise and socialization. Home design is already offering, as an option at present, the smart house including passive and active environmental controls, security, Internet and audio/video communications throughout the home environment."

In the workplace, Cestarte notes that designers can accommodate the needs of a diverse workforce, in terms of both age and culture, by incorporating Universal Design (see page 55 for more) elements such as barrier-free access, lighting, careful use of color, areas for recreation, as well as environmental comfort and safety. "It just makes to design for ease of use such as barrier free access to and within home [and work] environments," Cestarte adds.

As Robert Wright, FASID, president of ASID explains in his forum article (page 54), the aging trend is officially upon us, and corporations will turn to interior designers as the experts for multi-generational work environments. "Acoustics, ergonomics and lighting will be evaluated for effectiveness for the older worker," Wright says. "Office planning will change as older workers negotiate with their employers for flexible hours and telecommuting, both being desirable work alternatives for the older worker."

A study conducted by the University of Tennessee (Kupritz, 2000) found that physical features of the work environment contribute to the organizational climate of the workplace and that aging affects the perception of workplace design. InformeDesign identified within the study several criteria for the design of workplaces to accommodate older workers and their preferences, including:

  • Design office space for older and middle-aged workers that contributes to performance, facilitates communication and individual and group work, provides an increased sense of control, and promotes computer use by: providing up-to-date-technology, ample storage, adequate space to spread out work projects, personal office space (when possible), office equipment, and reference materials and supplies. 
  • Provide a conference space with adequate lighting to facilitate small meetings and improve concentration.
  • Locate coworkers close together to facilitate supervision.
  • Use walls, partitions, doors and changes in traffic flow to create environments that allow for worker privacy.
  • Provide a flexible workspace for middle-aged workers where furniture and equipment can be easily rearranged to increase concentration, group work, good feelings while working, a sense of control, computer use, and to minimize interruptions and visual distractions.
  • Consider how different perceptions of office design features influence worker performance.
  • Be aware that the relative importance of many workplace design features is similar for workers of various ages; however, the perception of privacy, level of privacy, and how privacy is achieved can vary significantly. Additional changes to the work environment include examining the current workplace lighting and upgrading it as necessary.

Additional lighting will allow all workers to see their job tasks and each other more clearly. Non-skid flooring, the addition of handrails, and an emphasis on good housekeeping can prevent slips and falls. Communication methods may also need evaluation because verbal commands may be more difficult for an older worker to hear, resulting in hazardous mistakes.

These considerations and others will help accommodate the needs of older workers and ensure their comfort and safety in the workplace. However, as Wright notes, the age wave is no longer on the horizon—it is here, and interior designers need to prepare now to effectively manage the changes that this trend will have on future projects.