Architects’ Inventiveness on Display

Building designers consider urban integration, sustainable features  and even build in vacant parking lots to reflect the future trends of seniors housing.

By Jeff Shaw

As the seniors housing industry matures in all facets, architects are on the front lines of that evolution. After all, they are the ones who design the future properties before a single shovel hits the ground.

We’ve heard for years about the possible incoming changes. Demand for urban locations will increase as baby boomers will want to live near the hustle and bustle of downtown living. Environmentally friendly design will become paramount, both to reduce utility costs and satisfy governments and residents alike. Infill developments will arise from redevelopment opportunities of vacant properties, as other commercial real estate sectors — most notably retail — undergo their own shifts.

But what do these trends look like in practice?

Below are a series of case studies from seniors housing architects that reflect these trends, highlighting a single, unique project from each firm.

Case Study #1:

Mall Madness

Suburban shopping malls present a unique challenge to the commercial real estate industry. As consumers shift their habits toward e-commerce, many shopping centers — particularly Class B, suburban sites — have high vacancy or have even closed completely. Meanwhile, they take up vast swaths of prime real estate.

The flip side of that coin? Vacant malls or underutilized parking lots may offer strong infill opportunities in areas with little open space for ground-up development.

Perkins Eastman has designed a five-story, 500,000-square-foot independent living community to be built in the parking lot of Southwest Plaza, a mall in the Denver suburb of Littleton. The shopping center totals over 1 million square feet, with Dillard’s and Target as anchors.

ACTIV Littleton will feature 252 units as well as “an abundant suite of services and programming thoughtfully designed around health and wellness,” according to Jennica Deely, communications specialist of the central region for the New York City-based architecture firm.

“This project explores the adaptive reuse potential of underutilized space (traditionally reserved for vast seas of asphalt and parking) that surrounds an existing suburban shopping center,” says Deely. “This project will include seamless connections to and convergence with retail and mixed use.”

The design will allow the operator to utilize the services of the shopping center as a nexus for the community, provide mountain views and create an “intimate, neighborhood scale” through landscape planning, according to Deely. The mall even hosts a weekly farmers’ market.

In addition to the mall, the development is surrounded by a variety of other retail and restaurant options, multiple public parks and a golf course.

Case Study #2:

Intergenerational Integration

In the Bronx, Body Lawson Associates Architects & Planners designed Home Street Residences, an eight-story, 75,000-square-foot affordable housing project for seniors. Of the 63 units, 19 are reserved for homeless seniors, two for those with hearing and/or vision impairment and four units for those with mobility impairments.

The project opened its doors in May.

“The 63 apartments inside Home Street are larger and better equipped than typical low-income housing for seniors,” says Victor Body-Lawson, founder and principal with the firm. “They feature large windows with shading devices to let in abundant daylight and views, while modulating the amount of light each apartment receives.”

“We reduced building costs and construction time by using factory-built, panelized façades and prefabricated concrete plank floors. This approach also provides for steel panels, offering several inches of space that can be filled with a thick blanket of insulation, which improves the building’s passive heating and cooling performance. That helps reduce energy costs during the winter and summer extremes,” continues Body-Lawson.

The development is situated on the site of a former vacant church, and the architects paid homage to the previous use. A schist from the church’s façade is used in the courtyard, along with a dated cornerstone from the building. Inside, furniture was reclaimed from the church, with benches and other naturally finished wood elements in the common areas made from salvaged wood wainscoting from the chapel walls.

In perhaps the development’s most unusual design element, the first floor houses DreamYard, a competitive video game training program for local teenagers.

“The goal of this project was to create a mixed-use, affordable seniors housing community for people over 55 years of age with an integral community facility that fosters interaction between resident seniors and community youth,” says Body-Lawson.

As with many affordable seniors housing communities, the waiting list is long — over 50,000 people applied through a lottery system to be the first residents.

“Home Street Residences presents a new approach to urbanism and architecture for low-income community development, with community amenities and a setting that enlivens a transitional area of the Bronx,” says Body-Lawson. “We’re doing these things through the use of better materials and finishes, using better mechanical systems and integrating a youth program that creates a sense of community and vitality for seniors.”

Case Study #3:

Green to the Extreme

The third phase of redevelopment of the Anne M. Lynch Homes at Old Colony in South Boston was announced at the start of October, with a $78.8 million loan from MassHousing kicking off the project. The Architectural Team designed the project, which will add a four-story, 51,000-square-foot, 55-unit building for low-income seniors. The ground floor features program space for residents, including a community room, fitness center, wellness center, salon and resident services offices.

Originally constructed in 1940, the 845-unit Old Colony is one of the oldest federal public housing developments in the country. Prior to the current redevelopment effort, the Boston Housing Authority said it was one of the most distressed properties in its portfolio. The first two phases of the redevelopment project were also related to affordable housing, but for families instead of seniors.

The seniors housing phase of development is pursuing Passive House certification, a standard for environmentally friendly construction.

“It is the first building in the 10-plus-year Anne M. Lynch Homes at Old Colony redevelopment to be designed to this level of sustainability, and it’s one of the first affordable Passive House-
certified projects in Boston as well,” says Nate Thomas, project manager with The Architectural Team.

The architects hope the development will set a template for other affordable housing projects to ensure sustainable construction becomes common.

“As more Passive House projects are designed and built, the process and the details will be demystified and it will hopefully become more common,” says Jay Szymanski, associate with The Architectural Team. “This project’s envelope — including walls, windows and roof — are designed to maximize the thermal enclosure and minimize air leakage. This allows for the right-sizing of mechanical systems and an overall reduction of energy use.”

Passive House certification also calls for high levels of indoor air quality, which could provide a silver lining. With infection control on everyone’s mind during the COVID-19 pandemic, Passive House standards could provide a blueprint for air filtration.

“The project includes an outdoor courtyard for the residents’ use, as well as private patios for ground-floor units to maximize available exterior space,” says Szymanski. “As far as design changes due to COVID, we are also pushing for Wi-Fi throughout the whole building for increased telemedicine use.”

Case Study #4:

Urban Development Rocks

Panorama Senior Housing has unveiled plans for Eagle Rock Assisted Living and Memory Care Center in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles.

KTGY Architecture + Planning is the architect of the new community. The groundbreaking is scheduled for early 2021, with completion slated for late 2022.

The property will feature 87 assisted living units and 22 memory care units in a five-story building and a four-story building with a rooftop deck. A ground-level courtyard and subterranean parking structure connect the two buildings.

“This site was quite challenging because we had to fit a commercial kitchen, large dining room, and a ton of other amenities in two separate buildings,” says Daniel Kianmahd, founder of Panorama. “In fact, about 45 percent of the gross area of the building is dedicated to common areas compared with 15 percent for typical apartment buildings.”

The planned community fits in with Eagle Rock’s “Rock the Boulevard” campaign, a $16.2 million makeover of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. The recently approved improvements will include wider sidewalks, crosswalk improvements, ADA-compliant ramps, landscaping, public art and parking-protected bike lanes.

“The new community is an innovative response to multiple needs,” says Ben Seager, KTGY associate principal. “First and foremost, it provides much needed assisted living for those requiring a professional, comfortable environment. The site plan makes efficient use of a tight, urban footprint. And it does all this with an attractive design respecting the close-knit community of Eagle Rock.”

Seager noted that the urban location of the project makes it unusual compared with the traditional, sprawling suburban campuses of seniors housing.

“The prevailing thought is that higher acuity residents won’t be able to enjoy the surrounding neighborhood amenities, but this isn’t the right way to think about it,” says Seager. “This infill site will be attractive to potential residents because it gives residents of Eagle Rock a chance to stay in the neighborhood they call home even as they age and have different needs. Adult children are more likely to visit their loved ones when they live in an amenity-rich area, and even higher acuity residents can enjoy the surrounding neighborhood with assistance from loved ones.”

Balancing an urban location with the privacy and security needs of seniors was a challenge, adds Seager. The design seeks to keep the ground level “activated and walkable without sacrificing the residents’ needs.” The roof deck provides private, outdoor living areas for residents.

“This new community addresses a severe shortage of this type of housing, a big part of the overall housing crisis in California and the U.S.,” says Seager.

“Seniors have few viable options for aging,” adds Kianmahd. “Retrofitting their existing homes can be very costly and create new financial burdens. And when they feel like remaining in their existing homes is their best option, it creates a bottleneck in the housing supply by precluding entry-level homes from younger families.”

Case Study #5:

Large-Scale Design

Architecture firm “three” has designed an expansive campus in McKinney, a suburb of Dallas. The project site, known as the Terrentine Ranch, is located on approximately 80 acres that include a spring-fed, 11-acre lake.

Emerald Lake by Touchmark will feature 149 independent living units, 84 assisted living units, 32 memory care units and a parking garage, all totaling 438,574 square feet. A grocery store and public park are located across the street.

“This project has been designed with a ‘lakeside living design’ aspiration focused on the prospective residents of McKinney and North Texas,” says Rockland Berg, principal with three. “Two hills capture views to the horizon as well as the featured lake below.”

The concept is designed to meet the needs of both the current residents from the Greatest Generation and baby boomers who will be future residents, says Berg.

“It is all about outdoor lifestyle and choices. The Phase I assisted living and memory care area has an unusually high number of units to ensure licensed care capacity and allow for more variety in the care model.”

With nearly three years until delivery, there was also time to factor in changes for a post-COVID world.

“The building has separate entrances for the different levels of care,” says Berg. “Outdoor walking trails to and around the lake feature event spaces for programmed activities. A dedicated future health and fitness building is in the plan.”

Case Study #6:

Affordability Plus Amenities

In Naperville, Illinois, Worn Jerabek Wiltse Architects has designed the renovation and expansion of Martin Avenue Apartments, an affordable seniors housing community.

The original, three-story building was constructed in 1971 and features 122 apartments spanning 77,046 square feet. The new five-story building will add 66 units and total 53,603 square feet. As with the Anne M. Lynch Homes at Old Colony, plans call for many environmentally friendly design elements.

“The project is designed to include many sustainable features such as increased exterior insulation and air sealing, low-flow plumbing fixtures, enhanced efficiency to HVAC systems, installation of LED lighting to improve energy efficiency and use of low emitting materials and products to improve indoor air quality,” says Heidi Wang, partner with Worn Jerabek Wiltse Architects. “The project will also achieve National Green Building Standard (NGBS) certification for both the existing building and new addition.”

The list of challenges for the design was long. The architects needed to update the existing building to comply with modern-day building standards, which required large changes like completely moving the reception area, offices and mail room.

“A former underutilized meeting room is now a media room with home theater equipment and space for music, art, classes and health screenings for residents,” says Wang. “The lower level also includes a revamped fitness room with equipment tailored to the needs of seniors.”

For the new building, designers wanted to match the physical look of the existing property, but had to meet newer standards such as the façade including at least 50 percent masonry. The designers requested a variance and became the first multifamily project in Naperville to receive one.

“By allowing us to use a non-masonry cladding, although still a durable material with low maintenance, we were able to preserve other important design features such as the solarium and resident courtyard amenities,” says Wang. “The connection point between the existing building and new construction was also a challenge as we needed to connect at a complex location, with an existing terrace, lower-level window well and egress stair.

“By designing a one-story connector with solarium, we were able to work around these existing elements and also create a space that has now become one of the primary design features of the new building. This connector will serve as the main entry point to the new wing as well as the primary access point for the newly designed courtyard.”

In addition to sustainability, the project reflects another big trend in affordable housing. While such projects are often bare-bones apartment buildings with no amenities, newer developments have more features similar to those in market-rate buildings. Martin Avenue Apartments will now include a theater room, bistro, the aforementioned solarium and extensive outdoor living space.

“Enhancements to the outdoor amenity spaces were also a primary goal for this project and follow along with industry trends towards a greater emphasis on access to nature and indoor/outdoor connections,” says Wang.

Features include a rooftop terrace and a walking path to the adjacent park. A new courtyard will be “the heart of the campus” with a fire pit, grilling areas, outdoor dining, lounge seating and gardening beds.

Case Study #7:

Where the Action Is

Pi Architects has designed its own expansion project, adding 8,350 square feet and renovating 26,470 square feet at the Baptist Community Services campus in Amarillo, Texas.

Scheduled for completion in March 2021, the new construction is a community center that will bring together the independent living, memory care and skilled nursing areas, which are all housed in separate buildings.

“The concept for the community center is to create a place where the action is,” says Greg Hunteman, president of Pi Architects. “The shared commons encourage residents to bond over mutual experiences while creating a shared sense of place. Newly planned transportation allows residents of all care levels to participate in activities offered by the community center.”

The campus is located near downtown Amarillo, and Pi accounted for this in both the design and the implementation of sustainable features.

“The design of the community center reflects the urban downtown feel with brick details and other touches,” says Hunteman. “The campus also incorporates the existing clock tower as a landmark feature.”

The new building features a fitness center, café, bistro, demonstration kitchen and rooms for art and classes.

“In these challenging times, seniors — like everyone else — have come to appreciate that home is more than a place and wellness is more than a concept,” says Hunteman. 

“They are seeking, even demanding, communities with features and amenities that feed their minds, bodies and spirits, while nurturing their desires to live, work, have fun, socialize and even try new things. And, as a result of the pandemic, they need all of this while staying safe.”