A New Blueprint

by Jeff Shaw

Architects adjust their designs for incoming baby boomers, better infection control.

By Jeff Shaw

Most often, when it comes to planning for the future of the seniors housing industry, it’s considered from the angle of operations — the adjustments that must be made in programming, amenities and sales strategies for the next generation of residents.

But programming and amenities don’t occur in a vacuum. The location, design and overall physical plant of a seniors housing community all affect what activities can take place that would appeal to a modern senior. 

Furthermore, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a building’s design can impact infection control and safety in a more pathogen-conscious world.

Architects within the seniors housing space are hard at work making sure that the incoming baby boomers, the oldest of which turned 76 this year, will have what they want and need from their retirement living.

“It is clear that the incoming cohort of prospective residents is quite different from the Greatest Generation before them,” says Rocky Berg, principal at architecture firm three. “This new group comes to the door with a greater worldly experience and an appetite for choices. In response, our design solutions are tailored, flexible and smarter. 

“For example, making community spaces smaller, flexible and multi-purposed — with smarter technologies for entertainment, communications, acoustics, lighting and various creature comforts — helps optimize the available space and resources.”

Units are growing, Berg adds, and are often clustered around an open kitchen. Large master baths and walk-in closets are becoming more common.

The flip side of that coin, though, is that the communities themselves are becoming more intimate, according to Eric Harrmann, chief design officer at AG Architecture. Sprawling, 200-unit buildings with lengthy corridors are being replaced by campuses that use a collection of small buildings “that offer residents a sense of ownership and a strong neighborhood connection.” 

“We continue to explore modestly scaled buildings with a reduced unit count — like multi-story, villa-style residences that offer residents the impression of their own front door or the casetta model we developed with Capri Communities, where residents have the appeal of a single-family home with a shared communal space connecting four households,” says Harrmann. 

“With each provider, we look at their distinct market and apply lessons learned from these new building types to design a mix of housing options to best suit their unique campus, residents’ needs and market demands,” continues Harrmann.

“In addition to making communities more inclusive — making senior living communities more accessible to the greater community at large — we need to design housing that accommodates aging in place,” adds Mark Moeller, design principal at JSA Design. “Thoughtful, accessible design solutions should go above ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) and local code requirements; all future housing should be designed for aging in place. Designs should be flexible enough to accommodate seniors’ lifestyles, movement through space, storage requirements and cooking and hygiene needs. Design should be marketable to all, regardless of abilities.”

Go downtown

A running theme among architects is that more properties are being built in downtown, infill locations, surrounded by activities and opportunities for intergenerational interactions.

Michael Liu, a senior partner and design principal at The Architectural Team (TAT), predicts “a move to intergenerational projects, forms of co-housing and possibly smaller seniors housing developments that can be inserted more easily into localities and serve immediate neighborhoods.”

“I expect this approach would best work with clusters of smaller developments in relative proximity to one another to reduce administrative costs,” concludes Liu.

Jami Mohlenkamp, principal with OZ Architecture, shares his firm’s philosophy.

“We strive to design projects that blend with the communities they are in,” says Mohlenkamp. “Our goal is to have a finished product that, if you walked by, you wouldn’t even know was a senior living project. Our designs are also flexible, knowing that taste, trends and technology will change over time.”

“We are finding that incoming generations are more oriented toward urban and contemporary settings and desire a particular type of aesthetic with more amenities,” adds Steve Leone, principal with Spiezle Architectural Group. “They want greater technology integration, accessibility, flexibility and authentic settings that provide a greater sense of place for multi-generational activities, fitness and dining.”

In the Warner Center neighborhood of Los Angeles, KTGY recently designed Wisteria, a continuing care retirement community. It features a park accessible to the surrounding neighborhood, and the design includes 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.

“The community draws on its surroundings, crafting a walkable neighborhood encouraging interaction among residents and neighboring communities,” says Ben Seager, an associate principal with KTGY.

The company also designed Carmichael Commons in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. The project will be located on the campus of a K-12 school and “is specifically designed to provide numerous intergenerational and volunteer opportunities for both residents and students.”

At another KTGY project in Littleton, Colorado, 80 percent of the apartments must have at least one resident over 55 years of age, while the remaining can be of any age.

“The objective is to design communities for older adults that facilitate stronger and more rewarding connections to family, friends, the outdoors, the neighborhood and the community at large,” says Seager. “Intergenerational socialization opportunities and the possible benefits of forming informal partnerships with local retailers and community groups are exciting ways to connect seniors with the community and the younger generation.”

The shift to downtown areas also means more vertical designs are taking shape. For example, three recently completed River Tower, a 24-story expansion at Harbor’s Edge in Norfolk, Virginia. HKS Architects, through its recent acquisition of D2 Architecture, designed Ventana by Buckner in Dallas, which features 301 units in two 12-story towers.

“A vertical project like Ventana offers variety, a very important word with our customers,” emphasizes David Dillard, a principal with HKS. “The short trip from dog park to sky lounge is an example. Likewise, the capacity to walk around the fourth-floor dining venues and lounges and enjoy different views at different times of day breaks the day — indeed the seasons — into a kaleidoscope of varied impressions and atmospheres.”

Similarly, Ryan Cos. designed Clarendale Six Corners, a 10-story building that stacks on top of retail, parking and amenity spaces at the bustling Six Corners shopping district in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood.

“Clarendale Six Corners is perfectly connected for an urban experience,” says Chris Teigen, national director of architecture for senior living at Ryan A+E Inc. “The community will focus on ‘connected living,’ offering unique amenities, an elevated hospitality experience and unbeatable support in a walkable urban environment.”

The amenities within the buildings are also shifting, as wellness spaces such as meditation rooms and memorial gardens become more commonplace.

“We recognize that this incoming generation is more attuned to a different kind of well-being with physical, mental and spiritual goals,” says Eric Krull, executive vice president with THW Design. “Their perception of quality of living is very much defined in the way seniors housing can strengthen their need for familial ties with the broader community.”

Not only are these trends what incoming seniors want, but it’s also important for keeping residents healthier, allowing them to stay in the community for longer, according to Victor Body-Lawson of architecture firm Body Lawson Associates.

“Closer access to healthcare and top food offerings such as fresh markets and shared gardens will make it easier for seniors to stay healthy while also enticing them to be active. 

“These and other offerings will be more integrated, so seniors will take fewer steps to get what they need.”

Plan for technology

Building a community that can grow and advance alongside its technological infrastructure has become a key element to how a property is built, point out designers. A strong internet connection will only become more important, and that must be designed into the physical plant itself.

“As with all multifamily environments, building a strong, scalable infrastructure that will accommodate ever-developing technology — whether it be for the consumer market, wellness or medical care — is a must,” says Dean Maddalena, founder and president of design firm StudioSIX5. “If you don’t, the value of the community will decline. Those who prepare for the evolution of technology will leave those who don’t in the dust.”

Body-Lawson says that the incoming generation of prospective seniors housing residents is more technologically savvy than previous generations. “We’re preparing for that and incorporating that into our projects. For example, using geofencing with thermostats, we are enabling residents to more easily control the temperature in their units. We ensure units have adequate broadband, and that all residents can easily get on the internet from various places on their properties. We are also using lighting systems that are automated.”

“Systems like these are increasing connectivity between residents and property management,” concludes Body-Lawson.

Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) — a term for the network of technologies with sensors that work together like, for example, a smartphone controlling the lights and temperature in a home — are changing the way operators manage their units, according to Dillard of HKS. These are the sorts of technologies that mean a strong internet infrastructure will be crucial in the future.

“The immediate driver is the tragic staff shortage,” says Dillard. “But, like Zoom, this is a pandemic-generated way of coping that will outlive the pandemic itself.”

Post-COVID adjustments

COVID-19 changed seniors housing operations, clearly, but physical design can also impact infection control within seniors housing communities. Several of the architects noted they are including enhanced ventilation systems in their designs to filter and purify the air more effectively, for example.

“Many of the changes we are making focus on indoor air quality — more turns of air, more outside air intake and more attention to positive-negative pressure exchanges that can send infected particulates into otherwise protected spaces,” says Dillard. “We also like compartmentalizing neighborhoods, particularly in assisted living and memory care, that confine exposure of residents to only a dozen or so of their peers.”

The trend of flexible activities spaces, which was also already underway before COVID, can also assist with infection control.

“The communities we have designed did very well through the pandemic because of the flexibility we build into the common areas,” says Maddalena. “This allowed each community to adapt to its specific needs.”

One of the main ways to manage infection control was already a trend in design: Outdoor common spaces where residents, staff and families can interact safely. These include sun rooms, porches, patios and outside dining areas, among other concepts. Fans and outdoor heaters can keep these areas accessible for longer as the seasons change.

“You will see new seniors housing buildings that emphasize the use and integration of outdoor spaces, including rear yards, open terraces and rooftops, all offering special amenities such as water features, outdoor courtyard access and roof terraces that seem to be extensions of living spaces and recreation spaces,” says Body-Lawson.

Harrmann of AG Architecture notes that these outdoor spaces do need more consideration now that they’ll see more use. This means including features such as outdoor structures and built-in heat lamps.

“We have been more sensitive to how we create outdoor activity space and the thoughtful adjacencies to indoor amenity spaces,” says Harrmann. “These added details to the outdoor experience extend the seasonal use and provide a safe environment for residents to connect with family and friends.”

The trend isn’t going away anytime soon, according to Leone of Spiezle.

“Outdoor spaces will continue to flourish and become more fluid as extensions of interior spaces, allowing people to find relief, breathe some fresh air and be more social.”

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