Design of Active Adult Properties Must Appeal to Multiple Generations, Say InterFace Panelists

by Jeff Shaw

As a concept, the term “active adult” supports the notion that age is just a number.

As an evolving subcategory of seniors housing, active adult is a property type that means different things to different people. For that reason, designers and builders of this asset class face the unique challenge of visualizing and delivering communities that appeal to a broad range of renter profiles.

Effective, consistent branding is one of the biggest challenges within the active adult sector, which is very much in its infancy relative to other commercial property types. As such, it’s critical that these properties, from their ambiances to their amenity packages, have a sense of versatility, a feel of a community in which 30- and 60-year-olds would feel equally at home.

The ways and means through which that wide-ranging appeal can be achieved accounted for much of the discussion among a panel of architects, designers and a builder who spoke at the InterFace Active Adult conference on Aug. 4. Held at the Westin Galleria hotel in Dallas and hosted by Seniors Housing Business and the InterFace Conference Group, two business units of Atlanta-based France Media, the event drew more than 300 attendees in its debut.

Panelist Dean Maddalena, founder and president of Austin-based StudioSix5, was among the first to touch on the need for versatility and flexibility in active adult projects. He noted that many of his firm’s active adult projects are located within master-planned communities with traditional multifamily, retail and restaurant uses. Consequently, those renters live in close proximity to younger people.

“With every senior living project we do, but especially with active adult, we’re not designing just for 55-plus or 62-plus, but for every generation,” said Maddalena. “Every generation is utilizing and occupying this space. They’re sharing dog parks with millennials, making friends with different age groups, inviting them over for happy hour. So, these have to be cool spaces that speak to the brand.”

Rocky Berg, principal of business development at Dallas-based architecture firm Three, echoed the idea that the successful lease-up of an active adult project can be linked to how visitors and other neighborhood residents perceive it.

“At all ages, active adult is a referral-based business, and it’s becoming more so every day,” said Berg. “Early in the process, you have to understand who your prospective renters are and how the marketing and operations side of the project will see them and respond to them.”

Design Strategies

Ratios are key pieces of the design puzzle for architects of active adult projects, particularly in terms of the ratios of livable space and amenity space relative to the overall size of the building.

While noting the age-old real estate maxim that every project is different, the panel did agree that the ratio of living/amenity space to total building square footage in active adult is different from other product types.

“In the typical seniors housing world, we might have 65 percent efficiency in terms of rentable [space] to total square footage, whereas in traditional multifamily we’re usually in the low 80s,” said moderator Ben Seager, associate principal in the Irvine, Calif. office of national architecture firm KTGY.

Before inviting the panel to weigh in, Seager posited the idea that the proportion of amenity space in active adult falls in between those of traditional seniors housing and multifamily in these metrics.

Maddalena responded that in general, the proportion of amenity space in active adult communities is getting smaller. He cited his company’s first project in Plano, Texas, which featured some 16,000 square feet of amenity space. Now, he says, that figure is dropping.

“We’re finding that residents still want to go to nearby restaurants and form groups and clubs that order dinner together,” he said. “Initially, we built salons, but we found that when people from the neighborhood moved in, they still wanted to stick with their original stylists. So there’s just no need to build those.”

The design and construction panel at the InterFace Active Adult conference, from left to right: moderator Ben Seager of KTGY; Dean Maddalena of StudioSix5; Rocky Berg of Three; Chris Palkowitsch of BKV Group; David Dillard of HKS; and Drew Blaylock of ARCO Living Group.

Panelist Chris Palkowitsch, partner and senior architect at Minneapolis-based BKV Group, agreed that the percentage of amenity space relative to total building size within active adult projects is getting smaller. He also noted the importance of designing these spaces with numerous types of renters in mind.

“While it’s somewhat unique from one project to another, we are finding that the percentage [of amenity space] is generally getting leaner,” said Palkowitsch. “We’re also designing projects with those market-rate elements in mind to appeal to 30-year-olds, but also being purposeful in how we put those elements together so that it’s more intergenerational.” 

Neighborhood Reliance

Piggybacking off the discourse of designing for multiple renter demographics, panelist Drew Blaylock, director at St. Louis-based general contractor ARCO Living Group, offered his two cents on the ideal allocation of space for amenities within active adult communities.

Central to his analysis is the notion that projects that are located in urban settings don’t need as many onsite amenities, since the surrounding neighborhood fulfills some of those requirements.

“For that ratio, we usually see a sweet spot of 75 to 78 percent,” said Blaylock. “But it’s definitely a balancing act. If you’re in a great location that’s very walkable, that location can trump how much amenity space you need.  So, that’s something we look at with the developer and architect.”

But panelist David Dillard, senior living practice leader and principal at HKS, an international architecture firm based in Dallas, offered a cautionary warning on becoming overly reliant on neighborhood walkability.

“People who do walk out the doors into the surrounding community at age 57 aren’t going to do that as much 10 or 15 years later, so there’s a trajectory with these active adult projects that we have to design for,” said Dillard.

Dillard cited an HKS-designed project, The Villages Dallas, as an example of an all-inclusive development that has everything that renters need. Consequently, the development  avoids reliance on the surrounding retail, restaurant and entertainment scene.

In addition to multifamily, The Villages Dallas features shopping, dining, office, hospitality and wellness uses, as well as a suite of amenities that appeal to renters of all ages.

“With six food and beverage venues, including a rooftop concept and a swim-up option, you can move there, make friends and never have to leave,” said Dillard. “Very few places have everything you need very close. Sure, you can find that in downtown New York or Chicago, but Dallas isn’t always walkable, especially during the summer months. So, we’re pulling away from that dependency on adjacent uses and put everything right in the middle.”

The degree to which active adult communities should attempt to leverage the surrounding uses varies considerably from submarket to submarket. In general, the panel agreed, projects in suburban settings with more sprawl and less urban density tend to be best suited for the “everything-in-one-place” model.

“Different consumers want different experiences,” concluded moderator Seager. “Ultimately it depends on where you are and who you’re marketing to.”

— Taylor Williams

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