Cookies, research methods, and building audits

Crunching on how building design impacts social isolation.

Do you live in multi-unit housing, such as an apartment or condo, and feel like you lack social interactions with those around you? You are not alone. 

Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness are significant health issues, especially among older adults who live alone in these settings.1 2 The negative effects of social isolation on physical and mental health make it essential to find ways to promote social connections among all of us, regardless of where and how we live. The Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) is particularly interested in opportunities to build community, social connections and resilience amongst residents in multi-unit housing.

That’s where our research comes in.

Our HNC research group, comprised of Simon Fraser University and Happy Cities members, explored how social interactions in multi-unit housing are influenced by the physical environment in 20 buildings in Vancouver and Victoria owned and operated by Brightside Community Homes Foundation and Concert Properties. Our findings may inform the design and management of multi-unit housing to better support social connectedness and improve the overall well-being of residents, particularly older adult residents.

Read on to learn more about our research tools, reflections from the field and future plans.

Why is this research important? 

Nowadays, multi-unit housing such as apartments and condos are becoming a dominant housing typology, including for older adults with limited financial resources. Canada’s population of older adults is increasing rapidly. By 2029 the senior population is projected to rise to 21% across Canada3 and 24.5% in BC. 4 Studies have shown significant incidents of loneliness and isolation among older adults who live alone in these settings.5

Given the detrimental effects of social isolation on physical and mental health6, it is crucial to find ways to promote social connections among residents in multi-unit rental housing.

Research design

We examined shared indoor and outdoor spaces through an environmental lens to identify the necessary qualities and features that make these areas successful for social interaction. Our approach builds on research that recognizes how physical and social environments influence social engagement, neighbourliness, aging in place, and intergenerational connections in multi-unit housing.

We utilized environmental audits and behavioural maps as research tools. We used three main tools:

  1. Our primary audit tool, Building Audit, captured indoor/outdoor public space qualities.
  2. Since the surrounding area of a residential setting can impact the experience of aging in place, we merged a secondary observation tool from Stakeholders Walkability / Wheelability Audit in Neighborhoods (SWAN) into our environmental audit tool to document outdoor characteristics near (within 2-3 blocks) of each housing unit.
  3. We also conducted observations using SFU/Happy Cities behavioural mapping tools. These provided a framework to map behaviours and add reflections on how people used the spaces of interest. 

We collected data in 20 multi-unit rental buildings of diverse layouts and morphologies, including low-row, mid-rise, and high-rise buildings. Our hypothesis was that interaction patterns change not only between weekdays and weekends but also at different times of the same day. Therefore, to avoid bias, we conducted the behavioural mapping process over two days (one weekday and one weekend), both in the morning and evening. Each observation took two blocks of 90-min observation with a 60-min break interval.

We collected data in the second half of 2022 and a couple of months into 2023 in selected multi-unit rental buildings managed, operated, and owned by Brightside Homes and Concert Properties. We acknowledge that our limited time window may not have captured all possible activities, such as outdoor spaces that are only used in summer.

The researchers stand together in the foyer, smiling.
Photo by Niloofar Hedayati.
Coffee and doughnuts sit atop a table.
Photo by Niloofar Hedayati.

Reflections from the field

In the early days of data collection, we encountered some challenges as residents were hesitant to participate. To address this, we organized a “Meet & Greet Hour” by providing coffee and cookies for residents on the first day of data collection in their building. During this one-hour event, we introduced ourselves and explained the aim of our study, which helped to create a friendly atmosphere and encouraged participation.

Behavioural mapping was the most enjoyable part of our data collection. We had the chance to meet people from different walks of life, giving us the opportunity to hear residents’ side of the story. The residents not only shared their stories and guidance with us but also offered us fresh cupcakes. Some even gave us sign language lessons so that we could communicate with people who are hearing-impaired. 

These experiences were valuable for the us as research interns because they emphasized the importance of creating a comfortable and inclusive environment for participants, which can encourage people to open up and share their experiences more freely. This can result in a richer and more meaningful dataset, as well as foster a sense of community and collaboration between the research team and the residents. Overall, the behavioural mapping process demonstrated that the quality of the data collected can be greatly improved by creating a welcoming and inclusive environment and building strong relationships with study participants.


In summer 2023, we plan to collect another data-set by engaging residents and staff in focus group interviews. Through interviews with staff, and focus groups and engagement with residents, we will gain a deeper understanding of how to promote social connectedness in multi-unit housing. It is our hope that our findings will inform the design and management of multi-unit housing to better support social connectedness and improve the overall well-being of residents, particularly older adults.

Watch this space for our future research results!


  1. Courtin, E., & Knapp, M. (2015). Social isolation, loneliness and health in old age: A scoping review. Health & Social Care in the Community, 25, n/a-n/a.
  2. Donovan, N., & Blazer, D. (2020). Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Review and Commentary of a National Academies Report. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 28.
  3. Statistics Canada, 2019.
  4. Wister, A.V., O’Dea, E. Fyffe, I., & Wagner, K. (2010). Fact Book on Aging in British Columbia and Canada, 17th Edition. Vancouver, BC.: Gerontology Research Centre (82 pp)
  5. Carbone, J. T., Clift, J., Wyllie, T., & Smyth, A. (2022) Housing Unit Type and Perceived Social Isolation Among Senior Housing Community Residents. The Gerontologist, 62(6), 889–899.
  6. Ibid. Courtin & Knapp, 2015.