Flexible Design Helps You Adjust on the Fly

by Jeff Shaw

Developers rethink strategies to manage larger economic headwinds.

By Dan King

With today’s soaring construction costs, rising inflation and endless supply chain disruptions, developers are more mindful than ever before about project design, efficiency and affordability in senior living. In our current economic landscape, developers are rethinking everything from room sizes to how they use shared spaces to solve some of the biggest problems currently facing construction and design.

To keep senior living projects moving forward through a down economic cycle, we as architects and designers are constantly working with clients to help solve these problems from a design perspective. Through these conversations, the most pressing topics in 2023 include: 

• Unit size transformations

• Optimizing multi-use spaces

• Flexibility with construction materials

• Technology

Transform unit sizes

As the price of building materials such as timber, steel and concrete continues to fluctuate, we’re seeing owners and operators in the senior living space re-evaluate unit sizes in a bid to increase efficiency and cut down on construction costs. 

Where in the past, these properties would typically feature three to five different unit types, developers are now adopting just one or two standard unit sizes throughout new buildings. The reduction in unit options allows developers to purchase building materials in bulk, since sizing across units is now more uniform and homogeneous. 

In senior living specifically, we’re seeing owners and operators become more thoughtful about overall building design based on the type of units and care they offer. For these properties, we often find memory care services on the first floor, then assisted living services on the second or third floors, followed by independent living on top. 

In the past, unit sizes varied for each of these services, creating unique construction and design challenges. Today, our designers and architects are helping developers focus on unit size uniformity across each of those services to reduce development costs and design hiccups. 

This is a typical strategy for many of the Harmony Senior Services communities we have completed for Smith Packett, for example, where care services and unit types vary from floor to floor.

Optimize multi-use spaces

In addition to re-evaluating unit sizes throughout senior living properties, owners and operators are also reconsidering their approach to shared spaces in order to optimize utilization. 

For example, prior to the pandemic, properties often featured several multi-purpose spaces, like art rooms, fitness studios and multiple dining options to accommodate various activity and amenity needs. Many of these rooms were used only a few hours a day, creating wasted spaces that might be better optimized.  

In 2023, developers are focused on consolidating amenity spaces and creating multipurpose rooms that can incorporate a plethora of activities for residents. We’re working closely with clients to reimagine these multi-use spaces in ways that make the rooms feel special and unique to their specific uses, while simultaneously reducing the need for multiple single-use rooms throughout the property. 

For example, at Atria New City in New City, New York, we worked with Capitol Seniors Housing to design a multi-use activity space that allowed it to function as an art room and community space for lectures, then open up to a sports lounge for larger events. 

Art rooms, theaters and activity spaces still exist as selling points. But in today’s climate, developers are looking to capitalize on the capabilities of one multi-purpose room rather than creating dedicated spaces for separate amenities. 

Be flexible regarding construction materials 

At a time when material prices are constantly fluctuating, senior living owners and operators are always looking to manage costs and increase efficiency while maintaining the same level of service and design that residents expect. 

Though material costs have fallen in some trades, we’re still finding the price of materials such as steel and cement, for example, are consistently higher than pre-pandemic levels. In an effort to maintain project momentum, we’re finding owners are increasingly open to reassessing the types of materials they use on senior living properties for more innovative, durable and affordable options. 

Some owners are shifting from wood or fiber cement siding options, two materials that have been hit hard by rising inflation prices, to vinyl siding, which is a durable, low-maintenance and affordable option that comes in a variety of styles and finishes. 

The significance of other building materials — such as manufactured stone, wall coverings, dry wall, and ceiling configurations — need to be strategically placed in the design to maximize their impact. 

Utilize technology

Throughout the pandemic, new technologies and practices focused on increasing resident safety and reducing the spread of disease became a focus for senior living properties. During this time, we saw the introduction of services such as grab-and-go meals and telemedicine, in addition to new technologies such as UV lighting and anti-microbial coatings within mechanical ductwork. 

At Arbor Terrace Exton in Exton, Pennsylvania, we worked closely with developers to incorporate hands-free technology throughout the property to create safer environments for residents and staff, in addition to enhanced access to technology that allowed for networking with friends and family.

While demand for some of these services has subsided in the last year, our team is constantly communicating with senior living owners and operators about these technological advances and stands ready to incorporate exciting new technologies into the design of these buildings. 

The economic climate continues to have an undeniable impact on the design and construction of senior living communities across the country. From changing unit sizes to innovative material compromises, we as designers and architects are poised to work with these new challenges, not against, to create meaningful experiences for seniors at these properties no matter the economic climate. 

Given these ongoing challenges of economy and design, it is essential for project managers, designers and architects in the senior living space to be knowledgeable, adaptable and creative when working alongside owners and operators on senior living projects to deliver the highest quality of service in an ever-changing environment.

Dan King is a principal at Meyer. He is a nationally recognized expert and frequent speaker on senior living, active adult and multifamily architecture and design.

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