Designers Take a Refreshing Tactic

by Jeff Shaw

Architects and interior designers see their work shift toward updating older properties as ground-up development activity continues to wane.

By Jeff Shaw

The slowdown in new construction starts in the seniors housing industry has far-reaching consequences. 

The number of seniors housing units under construction relative to the total existing seniors housing inventory was 4.7 percent in the third quarter, the lowest percentage since 2014, according to NIC MAP Vision data. While this obviously means less work for seniors housing builders, it also means less work for the architects and interior designers within the industry.

But those designers say their work hasn’t stalled — it’s simply shifted.

“We’re seeing a lot more acquisitions and refreshes [from our clients],” said Dora Kay, vice president and senior living sector leader at Moseley Architects. “A lot of people are not doing the new builds they might have been doing in previous years. They’re really taking advantage of purchasing communities or updating their own communities.”

Kay made her comments during a design panel at France Media’s InterFace Seniors Housing Southeast conference, held in Atlanta in August.

Dean Maddalena, founder and creative director at design firm StudioSIX5, shares similar observations.

“Banks are not lending for new builds unless there is a lot of equity on the table, so investing in existing older communities, both underperforming and successful, is a good move. There are a lot of newer communities that have taken residents away from older communities that have not kept up with refreshes and cannot compete post-pandemic. It is extremely important to update an older community and reintroduce it to the market.”

Glen Baurhyte, studio director at Forum Architecture & Interior Design, notes that developers are enticed by refreshes or value-add acquisitions for a variety of reasons. While renovations typically cost less than a new build, there’s also no entitlement process.

“We have started to see inquiries about renovations of 30- to 40-year-old properties that are desperately in need of a refresh that will be demanded by the tidal wave of boomers. We are still getting inquiries on new ground-up construction, but these projects are typically not shovel-ready and are forecasting longer timelines to develop.”

But a refresh comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities.

“There are a lot of unknowns that can lie in those walls, often requiring the entire team’s focus and attention, and a larger contingency reserve,” says Baurhyte. “Also, typically, these older properties’ existing designs did not comply with current accessibility standards. That needs to be factored in by reconfiguring walls and vertical circulation, which is easier with a whole gut job than a simple refresh.”

“Starting from scratch is wonderful, but renovations let us reimagine something,” adds Shannon Remaley, principal at design firm Meyer. “It’s a bit of a puzzle, and that’s nice. How do you renovate something that feels forward thinking, but also might have to live next to something that’s outdated? How can both spaces respect each other?

“We really see a wonderful opportunity to see how the environment can change how residents and staff are living and operating. It helps with the evidence-based design — how the design can impact the care.”

Maddalena agrees that renovations are difficult but rewarding.

“It is very rewarding to refresh/renovate an existing community and see the smiles on the residents’ faces when they see their updated homes. It is not always an easy journey because residents do not usually embrace change. But after they live with it and hear all the compliments, it is usually a winning proposition.”

Architects and interior designers singled out three major areas where outdated properties most need improvement: outdoor spaces, dining areas and employee spaces.

Make outdoor spaces livable

By now, most developers understand the importance of outdoor spaces at a seniors housing community. They allow residents to gather safely and enjoy good weather, which has positive impacts on health and happiness of both residents and employees.

“The outdoor amenities have been a big trigger,” said Kay. “Quite honestly, when you’re talking about providing interest for residents that want to come to your community, when you have amenities that really pull you outdoors where you get the natural light, it’s an important concept we should be doing every day.”

“How outdoor spaces affect health and wellness continues to be a strong focus,” says Remaley. “Sustainability is another one — not just for our earth but how the built environment affects our health and well-being.”

But the existence of an outdoor space is not enough. The space needs to be segmented and usable the same way indoor gathering spaces are, otherwise it won’t be used.

“Creating right-sized spaces, even outside, is very important,” said David Fik, president of Lantz-Boggio Architects while speaking at the InterFace conference. “Maybe there’s a fire pit, maybe there is a gazebo or some kind of trellis, as well as walking paths. Create spaces that are adaptable and can work together, but also sizes that just a few people could sit and communicate.”

Forum notes that a new community it designed, Encore at Tradition in Port St. Lucie, Florida, features a 1.5-acre “outdoor amenity complex” as well as walking paths around a canal and several lakes.

HPI Architecture is designing MorningStar at Tustin Legacy in the Orange County city of Tustin, California. In addition to two central courtyards and a pool creating “serene outdoor havens for relaxation and socializing,” the property features rooftop amenities. The rooftop spaces offer a putting green, pickleball courts, bocce ball, horseshoes and a golf simulator.

“HPI designs senior living communities with biophilic concepts as a key driver in the design process,” says Nicholas Weidner, principal of senior living for HPI. “The provision of adequate daylighting in shared spaces and resident units is critical, which many older communities fail to provide. Additionally, secure and engaging exterior patio and balcony spaces are thoughtfully planned for residents and guests to enjoy.”

With newer communities highlighting those outdoor spaces so strongly, designers working on renovations have a lot to live up to. But that work can also be extremely rewarding.

Diners need options

Over the last 20 years, how food is delivered within seniors housing communities has changed dramatically. Once centered around a single dining room with set menus and serving times, most newer communities feature a wide variety of options and flexible times.

Generally, a newer community will offer a formal dining room, a bistro and a grab-and-go market. Some also feature coffee shops or bars.

“Elevating the dining experience is of high priority, with a focus on providing multiple dining-themed destinations within a community,” says Weidner. “Open kitchen concepts and demonstration kitchen areas are ways to promote interaction with the chef. Moreover, there’s a shift from a large dining room to more intimate and varied spaces to cater to the changing preferences of residents.”

This makes the dining area a top target for redesigning an older community. However, noted Fik, this is also an area that requires extremely careful planning.

“How many have seen a bistro in a community, but it’s empty at times? You’ve got to have some forethought to that. Are you going to have a full-time employee for that space? Is it in a location that’s going to be accessible? If you’re not thinking about it, it’s going to be a dead space.”

“It’s really important that the bistro be a part of activities,” continued Fik. “Socialization is the key — providing that opportunity to keep the mind moving. Be purposeful in that design.”

Connie Wittich, founding partner at Metropolitan Studio, who also spoke at the InterFace conference, noted that the dining area itself can marry with the outdoor spaces that are so vitally important.

“We’re seeing a lot of dining programs similar to resorts, where there’s movement in the eateries between the inside and outside. It becomes more flexible in creating special events.”

Build for the staff

Another growing trend, particularly in the face of the ongoing employee shortage in seniors housing, is building welcoming spaces for staff.

Traditionally a break room was the last consideration for design — simply a room for employees to eat or take a brief rest. But that led to some truly unwelcoming spaces, said Fik.

“You think about those spaces and immediately my mind says, ‘Put them in the back of the building where deliveries are made.’ That’s not the message that we want to give somebody that we want to retain — that we’ve created these beautiful spaces for our residents, but I want you to go back by the dumpster and broken pallets. There’s a subliminal message there.”

Renovating an old community is an opportunity to undo that message, continued Fik, especially for those employees who remained committed to the industry through the traumatic experiences of COVID-19.

“What they went through in COVID, it’s absolutely astonishing that the caregivers who have stayed. It would be beautiful if we could give them a space that’s equivalent to a unit where they have a beautiful view as well. I know I’m spending your money. I apologize, I’m an architect. But really thinking about the staff is very important.”

Michelle Rademacher, business development director at Forum, who also spoke at the InterFace conference, said the same evidence-based approach to amenities should be applied to staff spaces. She notes that many healthcare providers have begun offering a lavender room — a relaxation space with warm colors and pleasant scents — to staff members. She believes seniors housing should follow suit.

“That need to create a space that’s calming, soothing, that they can have a mental reset. I think everyone is having to do more with their time. We’re seeing that staffing shortage. Our design response is thinking through where there can be that area that is a joy to go to.”

Remaley suggests that action speaks louder than words, and designing to keep staff happy and comfortable is one of those actions.

“If you’re trying to communicate to your staff that they’re important, use the space to do so. Maybe you’re prioritizing staff spaces — giving them more zones and varieties of ways to take a break such as dedicated outdoor spaces. We can communicate what the priorities are with design.”

Despite all the talk of renovations, though, Brandy Abruzzo, principal at Studio 121, has reason to believe that new builds will return in the future: The design firm is receiving more proposals for ground-up designs.

“Over the last two years, clients have asked us to work on renovations and expansions, but this year we are seeing the design shift to new-build design planning,” observes Abruzzo. 

“It seems established organizations are beginning the planning and design documentation for new buildings, with the expectation that financing will loosen by the time the design and site permitting is approved. The permitting process has extended longer than any jurisdiction is quoting, and that knowledge is pushing owners to be ahead of the process.”

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