Design guidelines of public collective housing for the aging society in Japan

Satoshi Kose, from the Building Design and Use Division, Building Research Institute in Tsukuba, Japan, describes the Ministry of Construction's project aimed at solving the problem of housing for the aged, in terms of both policy on housing supply and guidelines for dwelling design. Some of the practical requirements will be: elimination of level differences within dwellings; provision of handrails to assist moving about; promotion of the development of building facilities that are suited to the needs of the aged persons, etc. Internet publication URL:


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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Design guidelines of public collective housing for the aging society:
The move toward a new era in Japan

Satoshi Kose, Building Design and Use Division, Building Research Institute, Tsukuba, Japan


With the expectation of the highly-aged society, Japan is now trying to cope with the problems that will accompany the coming of the aging society. Social welfare policy is changing, mass-communication media are alerting, business opportunities are being sought. Housing policy is also changing. Previous policy has been to provide special housing units to aged persons, to live independently or as part of an extended family. This policy is now becoming obsolete, and the Ministry of Construction is shifting its emphasis. All newly constructed housing units will be required to comply with upgraded standards for the benefit of future aged persons. Some of the practical requirements will be: elimination of level differences within dwellings; provision of handrails to assist moving about; promotion of the development of building facilities that are suited to the needs of the aged persons, etc.

In addition to the formulation of guidelines for new public housing units, rehabilitation guidelines were published for the benefit of aged persons who seek various loan schemes assisted by the governments, both central and local. The guidelines mainly focused on detached/semi-detached houses, but key issues are common to collective housing, and are expected to be utilized as well. They will contribute to the upgrading of the standards of housing conditions in Japan, thus the quality of housing stock will be improved in the long run.


Japan is expected to be the most aged society in the years to come. It is crucial to prepare for the change as the rate of aging of the population is unparalleled in the world; it will only take 25 years for the aged population in Japan to double from just 7 per cent to 14 per cent. In 2020, the ratio will be over 25 per cent.

With the recognition of the importance for the preparation of the coming highly-aged society, and to cope with the situation, the Ministry of Construction started a project on aging and dwelling design it the fiscal year (FY) 1987. The project, titled "Development of Technology for the Enhancement of Residential Environment in the Aging Society" aimed at solving the problem of housing for the aged, in terms of both policy on housing supply and guidelines on dwelling design. It also aimed at improving quality of the environment in the community scale, but this paper reports only on the issue of housing.


At the beginning of the project, many members in the committee (most are researchers and professionals in architectural design and building science) thought that special housing forms would suffice. It gradually became evident however that almost all dwellings have to be prepared for the time when the residents got older. Special housing can never be a solution when one in four persons are 65 years of age and over. There were two major reasons: First, the combined number of constructed special housing units and nursing homes of any kind can never catch up with the speed of the increase in population; second, the ultimate ratio of aged population is unbelievably high (one in four!) so that it is much more sensible to assume that almost all dwelling units will be resided in by aged persons sooner or later.

Even if the aged persons wished, they are unlikely to live with their children as an extended family, a popular form of households in the traditional Japanese way of life. Rather, the aged persons will live by themselves as a couple or alone. They will perhaps choose to "age in place" as long as they can, so that appropriate dwelling design will become vital not to hinder them from living a comfortable life. Accessible dwellings in its broader terms will become a necessity.

Survey of aged persons' capability

The crucial issue was to identify the characteristics of the aged persons for whom the dwellings should be designed. Should we expect all aged persons to become wheelchair users and/or persons who spend most of the time lying down? Or, could they be more active and have more positive attitudes to life?

Two surveys were conducted to make clear the actual situation of the aged persons who live as an extended family, and those who live in special housing for the aged.

Survey of aged persons living as an extended family

The first survey was intended to understand the relationship between physical capability of the aged persons and design features of the dwellings; how healthy and active the aged persons are, and to what extent the considerations are given to improve the quality of living in the dwellings. The survey covered about 900 aged and 700 non-aged (below 65 years of age) persons. The findings were as follows:

1) Aged persons are relatively healthy, much healthier than normally assumed; about a third of the subjects can even run; about half walk without any assistive devices. Only 2 per cent of the subjects are wheelchair users or persons who spend most of the time lying down. As they grow older, however, their physical capability deteriorates, and about a half of those aged 85 and over need assistive devices.

2) The subjective evaluation of the design features in dwellings varied between aged and non-aged persons in such aspects of step and level differences as in entrances and at doors. The aged persons are experiencing a lot of troubles in those places while the non-aged do not seem to notice them as problematic. Stairs are an exception because the aged persons normally give up climbing up and down.

3) The aged persons seem to express their wishes for improvement of design only when their physical capability deteriorates and some supportive devices are needed.

4) In contrast, the accident incidence clearly indicates that the aged suffer from falls on the level even before they need some devices. Those who can walk without any assistive devices have a much higher incidence of accidents than non-aged subjects.

These findings seem to suggest that design considerations for the aged have to give priority to safety rather than to usability.

Survey of aged persons living in special housing for the aged

The second survey was conducted on those residents of special housing which is called 'Silver-housing'. The scheme is similar to British sheltered housing, with a resident warden living in the same block. Two examples, both with about 40 residents, were chosen for the survey. The questionnaire forms comprised of two parts, one on physical capability and the other on the effectiveness of the design details, which are supposed to be age-conscious.

The residents were independent when they were admitted to be in the scheme, and as only a couple of years have passed since the housing was built, no resident has needed a wheelchair or has spent most of the time lying down. Some of the design details were, however, already inappropriate for aged residents because the designers did not correctly realize the needs of the aged, or they just misunderstood the requirements. Such examples include: wrong placement of handrails; retaining level differences which have no meaning; inappropriate choice of light bulbs, etc. Another notable problem was that social services were not enough to cover the need of residents. The same problem was suggested in the U.K. because the warden was not necessarily qualified to give social services (but this was outside the scope of the survey).

Proposal of design guidelines

To avoid repeating the above-mentioned mistakes and to establish a minimum standard for future dwellings, new guidelines were requested from the Housing Construction Division of the Ministry of Construction. The new move, "Design Guidelines of Collective Housing", was prepared in March 1991 for the construction of public collective housing in 1991 and later. It is the first step toward accessible dwellings for most of the population without future needs of major rehabilitation work.

The concept of the design guidelines is to be summarized as follows:

  • elimination of level differences within the dwelling unit,
  • standard requirements for handrail installation,
  • standard detailed design for the benefit of aged dwellers such as door hardware and other operating devices,
  • requirements for equipment to support the life of the aged, including bathroom unit.

Examples of detailed design that comply with the guidelines

These points will mark the departure from the traditional design concept which has assumed young and able-bodied adults as dwellers, but resulted in many troubles to the aged persons.

In FY 1991, design guidelines for detached houses will also be established and prototype houses will be built. It is expected that the two design guidelines will be used to improve the quality of housing design with public financial support. Not only publicly constructed housing but also housing mortgage assisted by the government as the mainstream of Japanese housing construction has relied and will continue to rely on private initiative.

Conclusion: The remaining issues

The remaining problem is whether the design should be facilitated to accept wheelchairs into the dwelling itself. Current design requests that the wheelchair for outdoor use be placed in the entrance hall and be changed for a specially designed indoor wheelchair if it is necessary to use one indoors as well. It comes from traditional custom of taking shoes off at the entrance hall in Japanese houses. To keep dust and mud away from coming onto the floor, there exists a step difference at the entrance hall. Should this be eliminated as well?


1) A more detailed description of the survey and the findings are given in the appendix paper.

2) Although many persons take off their shoes at the entrance hall in Sweden, for example, they normally do not change wheelchairs nor do they have step differences there (though there may be door thresholds). Another option would be to leave the electric wheelchair there for charging the battery and use much more compact and handy wheelchairs indoors.


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