How to Adapt for COVID-19

Interior designers in the seniors housing sector place greater emphasis on antimicrobial materials, socially distant layouts and outdoor spaces.

By Kristin Hiller

Interior designers within the senior living space say they’ve always considered health and wellness as an integral part of their work. But today — amid the coronavirus pandemic and the vulnerability of seniors — safety and infection prevention is at the forefront of design decisions. 

Karla Jackson, principal and design director with Austin, Texas-based StudioSix5, says that COVID-19 is now a long-term design consideration for her company. 

“All materials for all levels of care will be expected to stand up to more rigorous cleaning protocols,” she says. “Space planning considerations will be different and operations will be different. The environment will have to support new ways of performing daily tasks and managing resident access to services and amenities.” 

Another consideration today, according to Jackson, is how to develop personal protective equipment stations and coronavirus-related signage that fit the aesthetic of a community and “don’t look like an afterthought.” 

Spellman Brady & Co., a firm based in St. Louis, already had specific design standards in place for infection prevention, but has put work into analyzing the need for further protocols, according to Alicia Nicolay, director of design. These design standards include finishes, furniture and even artwork. 

Nicolay says that in addition to selecting antimicrobial surfaces, using sheet product for flooring reduces the amount of seams, which are often difficult to keep clean. 

“We’re trying to eliminate as many seams and pores as possible so there aren’t crevices where germs can live and breathe,” she explains.

Melissa Banko, founder and principal of Marietta, Georgia-based Banko Design, says that her company continues to select antimicrobial and bleachable materials in its seniors housing projects. 

Other considerations include durable fabrics that can be wiped and scrubbed often, as well as carpets that can be cleaned frequently and withstand heavy use. 

“A long-term consideration related to product design is the ability for end users to clean and disinfect the furniture,” says Dean Jarrett, vice president and general manager of Martinsville, Virginia-based H Contract, which is a Hooker Furniture company.

“It will be important for interior designers and product suppliers to utilize materials that are durable enough to stand up to the rigors of cleaning and disinfecting protocols, as well as providing guidance to end users on how to properly do so,” adds Jarrett. 

New considerations

Another health initiative today is touchless technology in an effort to reduce contact on surfaces.

“Touch-free fixtures and systems, as well as a greater number of automated doors, are already being requested,” says Amy Cheever, associate principal and senior living practice leader for Cuningham Group, which has eight offices worldwide.

If operators don’t have the budget for new equipment, they should focus on adhering to more frequent and stringent cleaning protocols, says Jackson. But fabrics that are cleanable with a bleach solution “are no more costly than those that aren’t,” she says. “It’s just a matter of making the right specifications.” 

Selecting hard flooring surfaces or carpets that are bleach solution-tolerant should also not have significant impact on costs, according to Jackson.

Designers say that a new consideration as a result of COVID-19 is how to design spaces for guests to enter and exit a community safely. “We are looking at what COVID-19 guidelines mean for an entry experience that is both safe and welcoming,” says Cheever. 

“Although this may be more short term in some of the more stringent precautions, it provides an opportunity to look at how to continuously improve the experience for both health and hospitality,” she explains.

Socially distant design

As the nation adapts to social distancing guidelines, designers are reconfiguring layouts and seating arrangements. Furniture may be placed in different spots or removed from a common area entirely. 

One of the most significantly impacted areas is the dining room, according to Jarrett. 

“We have seen operators temporarily stop serving in their dining rooms in favor of delivering meals directly to resident rooms,” observes Jarrett. “We have also seen operators testing modified dining room seating arrangements, such as spacing tables further apart from each other and limiting seating to one resident per table.” 

Cheever says that COVID-19 shines a spotlight on the issue of isolation and loneliness, and she looks to design as a possible solution. 

“We are studying how amenity spaces are positioned in a building, and how they can have more access to the outdoors, natural ventilation and the potential for ease of safe distancing for both visitors and residents.”

At Benedictine Living Community in Shakopee, Minnesota, Cuningham Group designed the wellness room to jut directly out into the garden spaces. The design team and landscape architects coordinated the plants and interior finishes at the 183-unit independent living, assisted living and memory care community, which is slated to open this September.

Charla Goss, director of interior design for Austin, Texas-based Pi Architects, says that in addition to designing spaces that adhere to social distancing, a current design consideration is the creation of more outdoor areas or spaces that open up to the outdoors. Other features Pi is staying abreast of include HVAC upgrades for higher filtration and the creation of separate wings that could be sequestered if a community were to experience a large outbreak of COVID-19. 

Indoor air quality is now a consideration for designers, according to Johnny Dagher, associate principal and architect with Orlando-based Baker Barrios. “We are implementing HVAC solutions such as bipolar ionization and integrated ultraviolet lighting, which kill and control pathogens as they move through the air,” he says. 

Construction costs for HVAC upgrades or health-focused interior finishes can be upwards of $50,000 for medium to large projects, says Dagher. 

His advice for cost-conscious operators is to select options such as touchless light controls and faucets, which help reduce the spread of infection without breaking the bank.

Designers say that new measures related to COVID-19 are likely here to stay. 

Focus must be given to more rigorous infection control measures and built-in flexibility to support physical distancing, says Jackson. “That assumption applies to any area of design where people gather, but especially to seniors housing where the populations are so vulnerable,” she says.

According to Banko, the way to design for COVID-19 is to “create flexible interiors for an ever-changing world.” 

In other words, flexible spaces can either be left open or compartmentalized for smaller gathering areas.

Flex space offers perks

“Flexibility” is a buzzword in the design industry today that goes beyond COVID-19. 

Designers say that seniors housing owners are increasingly requesting flex spaces that can
be used for a broad range of activities. Creating spaces that are multi-use helps cut costs, which is a good business model for targeting lower- to middle-income seniors, according to Nicolay. 

“A lot of times there will be a space in a community that’s only utilized two to three times per week,” says Nicolay. 

“We’re trying to create spaces that can be used for multiple activities throughout the day and can be utilized a lot more. It saves on square footage and the cost to build.”

There’s a huge focus on amenity spaces and a shift toward a hospitality model in today’s seniors housing design and services, according to Banko. “Our clients want warm, welcoming communities full of amenities for their residents,” she says. “The days of sterile, institutional-feeling seniors housing are gone.” 

This hospitality model applies to independent living, assisted living and memory care communities, according to Banko. 

“The root of hospitality design is hosting — and that’s exactly what our operations and care teams do,” she says.

Banko designed a rural and equestrian-inspired theme at The Phoenix at Union Hill in Canton, Georgia, which is north of Atlanta. 

The 153-unit independent living, assisted living and memory care community, owned by Phoenix Senior Living, features outdoor amenities such as a pool, landscaped gardens, walking paths, a playground and ball field. 

For Goss, “surprising” is the one word that describes interior design in the seniors housing industry today. 

“A lot of outside folks still have images of quaint and dainty Victorian bed and breakfast-like spaces in mind when they think about senior living,” she says. 

“Today’s senior living is anything but that.”