Flexible Interior Environments

By Molly Parris

In 1980, Gayle Epp, a housing planner for the City of Boston, reported on a study conducted to uncover the relationship between designer’s and policy makers’ perception of furnishability needs in elderly apartments and the actual needs of residents.  Her observations clearly highlight the contrast between what might be afforded to the elderly by architects and planners and what spatial considerations they really require.  Thirty years has allowed a new generation to line up for retirement, and housing issues will undoubtedly be confronted.

Epp’s report compared data from four source groups:  a 1977-1978 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) study of furniture patterns in 55 elderly-occupied apartments in Cambridge, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Minimum Property Standards (MPS) for furniture accommodation in federally-funded housing, architect and planner (designers) layouts, and layouts developed by Boston Architectural Center behavioral science students.  In the design of interior environments the HUD MPS was the accepted policy standard, the designers composed the expert group, and the students were the novice group.

When compared to actual furniture patterns of the elderly (from the M.I.T. study) the HUD MPS, the designers, and the student group all underestimated the quantity and arrangement of furniture in elderly apartments.  The HUD MPS required 14 total furniture pieces of various standard categories be accommodated; designers estimated an average of 17 pieces, and the students estimated 15 pieces.  M.I.T.’s study found that elderly units housed an average of 23 items.  Most items in the units were parts of larger furniture sets that were left behind as residents moved from larger family homes into smaller, affordable apartments.  For example, a full dining room table would be folded down against a wall surrounded by two or three matching chairs while the other chairs were located throughout the apartment.

Clear and different patterns emerged from the source groups.  Students and designers tended to “float” furniture pieces in the space to create better flow while actual residents placed items along the perimeter even if they impeded traffic flow.  Residents had clear areas for eating, lounging, dressing and sleeping.  The dining table was usually placed against the wall closest to the kitchen, and usually an easy chair and plant were placed by the window wall.

Implications of this study are timeless.  In the 1980s HUD found model and local building codes to be sufficient for interior space requirements.  Today, the Massachusetts State Building Code requires minimum square-footages and accessibility dimensions in lieu of furniture accommodation.  It is no secret that designers commonly use these intended minimums as maximums when designing within the constraints of public budgets.  Recalling this study reminds us of the humanness inherent in our projects and reminds designers to set aside their own perception of space needs and empathetically gain understanding of place identity.

There has been mention in the media that 2011 is the first year baby boomers are reaching retirement age.  This generation of social liberation is notably different than the last regarding health, culture and finance.  In Epp’s 1980 report, nearly all 1 bedroom units were furnished with two twin beds, while today male enhancement advertisements target an aging culture at every commercial break.  While legally considered as the elderly population, a 65-year-old may no longer be recognized as such in everyday American culture as retirement is coming later in life and people are living longer.

If this study was repeated today, the results would indicate Epp’s fundamental message with different emerging patterns.  Her study is not simply one of the elderly, but one of sensitivity to place and an awareness of unexpected spatial needs.  It remains, 31 years later, tangible and usable.

How can designers keep up to date amidst a culture’s constantly changing set of needs? Flexible environments can be created that afford a margin of unpredictability. Designers and planners can step out of how they think people live and seek to accommodate infinite options. If our goal is sustainability, our designs must adapt to evolving generations.

Epp, Gayle. Furnishing the Unit from the Viewpoint of the Elderly, the Designer and HUD. Boston, MA, 1980.
“MPS Supplementing Model Building Codes,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,