First Impressions are Everything in Senior Living

by Jeff Shaw

Facades can make a big difference for potential residents.

By Eric Greene, Erland Construction

There’s generally only one chance to make a good first impression, and this is becoming even more relevant in the senior living industry.

Over the last two decades, senior living communities have been typically built with brick, stone and composite siding. But today, Baby Boomers and their adult children are beginning to perceive these traditional façade materials as old and dated, a piece of the past, and even cold or unwelcoming.

When seniors and their children are looking for a place to live, they want to find a community that looks warm and inviting, and, most importantly, reminds them of home.

This trend is only going to continue with the growing demand for senior living. The average age of a person living in a senior living community is about 83 years. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University predicts that the 80-and-over population will double between now and 2035 from 12 million to 24 million.

With a rise in the country’s older population and a desire for more welcoming communities, a contemporary shift in design aesthetics is starting to take hold.

Curb appeal makes a difference

Consciously or not, many will consider the outside or the “curb appeal” of a building before even looking inside, so the façade has a major impact on how a building is viewed by the occupants and the public at large. 

As the younger generation helps their parents select a new residence, the materials used on the façade are essential. Choosing the right materials was an important decision for Avita of Newburyport, a new memory care community that Erland built for Northbridge in Newburyport, Mass.

“There is so much emotion involved with a parent moving into senior living. We want to present in such a way that families recognize a Northbridge community as the right choice for their mom or dad,” says James Coughlin, CEO of Northbridge. “Northbridge views each of its properties as a community asset. It’s critically important that we ‘fit’ in the community we serve and present as residential, not institutional. We want it to be inviting to our residents, families and each community.”

This 50,000-square-foot building features 70 private and semi-private apartments configured in “neighborhoods,” a therapeutic activity and recreation center, and beautifully landscaped grounds with three courtyards for residents to enjoy the outdoors.

“We focus on creating environments that bring in significant natural light into the community, allow residents to want to spend time in common areas with friends, and allow access to outdoor spaces that provide comfortable seating and areas to garden,” says Coughlin.

Since a lot of emphasis during the design process is placed on the interior, the real challenge is how to make the outside of the building match the inside. A more diverse group of façade products are now being considered, including full-depth brick, thin brick, stone, split-faced block, ground-face block, composite siding and trim, exterior insulation finish systems, aluminum storefront and paneling, precast panels, various rain screen systems… the list goes on.

Picking your materials

In addition to the appearance of the façade, other key components to consider when selecting façade products include their compatibility, longevity, impact on the construction schedule and life-cycle costs. Additionally, site access requirements with a keen focus on worker safety should be considered. There are an increasing number of façade systems and materials introduced each year and understanding how these systems work together is critical to designing and constructing a façade that is water tight, high in insulating value and low in maintenance costs.

The initial cost of these veneer materials and systems varies greatly and can range from $15 per square foot of surface area to more than $80 per square foot of surface area. In order to understand the total cost of façade systems, the temperature constraints and access requirements during installation need to be considered.

Some materials are more conducive to being installed during adverse weather conditions. If the façade is being installed during cold weather, will the exterior of the building be tented or heated? Wet trade materials, such as masonry mortars, require adequate heat until they are cured whereas non-wet trade materials like composite siding do not require any tenting or heating, which can significantly reduce cost.

Since the selection of façade materials drives the look of the exterior wall, the thickness of foundation walls and the sizing of the structural components, it is extremely important to choose the façade system very early on in the design process. A well-thought-out façade design will convey the intent of the building owner, and also inspire new residents to move in and will allow current residents to feel proud of their new home.

But how do you ensure that you will pick the best materials? A good construction manager will analyze the various options and help answer this question.

Erland uses a “façade matrix” to help clients and architects compare façade options as an initial design step. The matrix includes the square footage of each material, its associated cost per square-foot and any other details relevant to that specific product. What is often selected are several different materials to create the desired results at the best possible cost.

After the selection process is complete, it’s highly beneficial to bring on a third-party exterior envelope consultant as part of the team. As good and well versed as architectural firms are, a second set of eyes that will review the façade and even roof details is well worth the effort. This is actually required as part of Erland’s quality program.

First impressions are important in today’s senior living market, because it’s the first step in helping families feel confident that they’ve made the right move for their loved ones.


Eric Greene joined Erland in 2008, leading the expansion into the Connecticut market. He successfully built Erland’s presence there, forming a diverse portfolio of complex, $40+ million projects. Greene has now taken ownership of growing Erland’s presence in the senior living market throughout the Northeast.

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