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An insight into the UK’s care home sector – How has demand changed?

July 2021

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        It’s fair to say the care home sector has had a turbulent couple of years, bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic from the start, then losing around 20% of its occupancy, mainly through residents opting to live with family members.

        However, it was also one of the spearhead sectors in the march to recovery, implementing distancing and hygiene measures way ahead of most other sectors, driven by necessity but also by managers’ genuine commitment to live up to the “care home” title. 

        Also, residents were, thanks to their age group, the first to be vaccinated at the end of 2020, which helped make care homes some of the safest places to be.

        As far as the sector itself is concerned, the progress towards greater need for elderly accommodation will not have been affected by the pandemic. The stark reality is that we still have an ageing population, as people are living longer, and that even healthy pensioners need more care in their everyday lives, which means more will want to live in some sort of sheltered accommodation.

        Put simply, we are going to need more investment in care homes. Some estimates put that need at well over 6000 homes just to replace those that are closing down, and that’s just today’s needs – it’s going to get a lot more severe through population growth alone. But care home funding in the UK from private and public bodies will almost inevitably become a top priority, so we could be living through a golden age for such projects.

        Challenges faced in the UK care home sector

        Given the urgency of the situation, in both the short and long terms, these are the main issues pushing against the necessary rapid growth in care home spaces. 

        Construction delays and lack of resources

        With such a pressing need for new and upgraded care home accommodation, can the construction supply chains cope? Let’s not forget that other sectors will also have their demands for materials too. 

        Care homes tend to be quite large but are not civil engineering jobs, so draw on the skills of house-building tradespeople, who will also be in demand. Include the fact that Brexit might still be causing import issues for the foreseeable future, and there are some bumps in the road for a major care home building spree.

        Changing needs and expectations

        Nobody wants to see another Covid, but the sector that wants it least of all is care homes. However, many scientists say it’s inevitable, and the idea of the “once in a century” pandemic might well prove optimistic as people move around more and live closer together. 

        Should care homes look very different in the future because of it? There’s no doubt that being able to keep residents apart while maintaining care, allowing family visits and keeping the establishments social represent challenges that architects and builders might well need to address.

        Flexibility and the digital revolution

        Technology is going to influence the care sector, with digital means of caregiving expected to play a greater part in the industry. 

        Digital assistance, from distributing medicines to social elements, might cut the costs of care homes and allow fewer staff to care for more residents, but it will need to be done sensitively. 

        New builds should be taking this new landscape into account, and if residents are to be given more autonomy, for example living part time in the care home and part time with family, this will have implications on the demand for rooms, shared spaces and staff quarters.

        Quality must improve

        With an ever ageing population, care buildings will need to last longer and need less repair and maintenance, and so must have longer lifespans built into them from the off. 

        While there are of course many high quality care homes, nobody would pretend that others weren’t built to meet short-term needs and are still in use long after they should have been demolished. That’s always going to be an economic decision, but today’s builders should be leaving a legacy of high quality care home stock not only for their own retirements, but perhaps also for their grandchildren’s.

        What this means for the care home construction industry

        For constructors who specialise in delivering care homes, the future certainly looks bright, despite the challenges (who ever heard of a builder that doesn’t like a challenge?). With the exception of supply of materials, all the challenges surrounding the sector are surmountable through design. However, they will have to invest in research and development specifically aimed at providing excellent care home settings while keeping costs down if they are to remain competitive in a thriving sector. 

        Any lack of building materials brought on by excess demand and import issues can themselves be partly mitigated by choices in the design process. Perhaps the sector should be gearing itself to re-purposing and reclaiming building materials anyway, especially with the other looming crisis – climate change – on the horizon. But designing safe, efficient, warm and functional buildings with less fabric is something that saves money in the long term.

        As new materials come along (we’re still yet to discover the true potential of graphene), the whole supply chain and availability of construction materials could be due for a shake-up, and there’s nothing like a shortage to set R&D into overdrive.

        If you’re in the business of constructing for the care sector, or are looking to get a foothold in this thriving marketplace, you need to be clued up. That’s how Barbour ABI can help – we give you the insights and openings in the industry that help you to make better decisions, with construction leads provided based on the sector(s) you’re looking to target. 

        For further information and data on this topic, please see our Recreative Construction Series.

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