Interior Designers Seek Perfect Balance

Seniors housing specialists must consider physical and aesthetic needs of many parties, and design choices can even help with infection control.

By Jeff Shaw

Interior design for seniors housing is a tricky proposition. A room’s layout, lighting, colors and furniture must be both aesthetically pleasing and functional for a wide range of users. That list includes the residents, care staff and visiting family — all while still at a price and style that pleases the building’s owners.

“There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen,” says Melissa Banko, principal and founder of Georgia-based Banko Design. “We’re designing for a very sensitive and specific demographic. All good design should consider sound, light, color, texture and safety, but it’s amplified in seniors housing. You have to be overly sensitive. They’re really going to notice if you nailed it or not.”

Stephanie Stuart, principal at Phoenix-based Stuart Design Co., notes that designers must “marry” the technical, medical needs with a hospitality and residential approach — all while “pushing the seniors forward and pulling the adult children back” when it comes to a modern versus traditional look.

“Lighter, brighter colors give a more transitional or modern feel, but we keep furniture forms more traditional,” says Stuart. “You don’t want sharp edges on the furniture. You want soft lines to give that residential feel.”

Banko Design will often create custom furniture for projects and is currently creating a senior-friendly furniture line with furniture manufacturer Fairfield Chair Co. Florida-based Forum Architecture & Interior Design similarly chooses manufacturers “that have this market nailed down,” according to Becky Trybus, a senior interior designer and Certified Healthcare Interior Designer with the company.

Melissa Keeney, director of design for St. Louis-based design firm Spellman Brady & Co., cites three main challenges:

• Designing for multiple generations and user types

• Designing a space that’s both durable and cleanable for high-traffic, daily use

• Designing for social engagement that draws residents out of their rooms

“On top of all that, our design must also promote a client’s brand identity and support its mission and values,” adds Keeney.

Invisible touches

When it comes to blending hospitality, multifamily and healthcare, perhaps the most important design features are the ones nobody notices consciously.

“A lot of people think interior design is just what you see, but so much of it is what you don’t see,” says Trybus. “Every detail, whether it’s something that is noticed or not noticed, exciting or very mundane, it all plays a part in how design supports us.”

For many designers, this means flooring, wall colors, lighting and natural wayfinding in the hallways — features that aren’t noticed directly, but nonetheless affect a resident’s mood and lifestyle.

Stuart recommends using color cues that residents don’t think about but still subconsciously communicate location. For example, carpet patterns can change in front of elevators and each floor can have different colored walls to indicate which floor a resident is on. 

“It doesn’t have to be a big, blaring, neon sign,” says Stuart. “Accent walls are also very effective. You get to a wall and ‘Oh, here’s where I turn for the dining room.’ There are these color clues that you’ve been working with subliminally that help you stay on track.”

Liza Kapisak, director of interiors with Minneapolis-based BKV Group, notes that these sorts of natural wayfinding can even reduce obtrusive signage that makes an environment feel clinical rather than residential. “Make sure wayfinding is clear to minimize reliance on signs, so residents and family can easily move throughout the building.”

Interior design can even help with health. Things like handrails, door handles instead of doorknobs, and adequate but pleasant lighting are all features that residents shouldn’t necessarily notice. They simply work well for the space.

“Look at something as simple as a handle on a door – we have to take a look at what types of handles are appropriate for people that might have issues with gripping,” says Trybus.

Diana Spellman, president of Spellman Brady & Co., notes that room design can help prevent falls — and beyond simple concepts like clear pathways. She says many bathrooms are designed with storage too far from the shower, for example.

“If the towels and robes aren’t right next to the shower, the moment that caregiver takes a step away that resident is going to fall,” says Spellman. “We make sure those bathrooms have good storage right where it needs to be.”

Back to basics

To a certain extent, seniors housing interior design has always focused on infection control. Operators dealt with flu season long before COVID-19 arrived on the scene.

“Our firm has always been motivated to design with infection control in mind,” says LuAnn Thoma-Holec, principal with Thoma-Holec Design, based in Arizona. “Our surfaces have always been able to handle disinfectants, and our carpet is always solution-dyed, never printed.

“However, we have changed how we think about access to the outdoors, the limitations of apartment space, and touchless equipment and furnishings that are flexible and easily able to accommodate social distancing.”

Banko notes that before the pandemic many designers were trying to outdo each other with flashy, modern finishes to appeal to the adult children. The onset of COVID-19 led to a “reset to wellness.”

“We make sure we’re providing spaces that are really going to feed the health of our residents,” she adds.

This focus on flashy amenities, in some cases, ended with rooms sitting unused. The pandemic has led to an increased focus on flexibility of spaces. Theaters doubled as Zoom rooms for visiting remotely with family. Small sundry stores on-site allowed residents to get basic needs without having to go to the store.

Keeney recounts a room designed by Spellman-Brady that could serve as a coffee shop in the morning, a café in the afternoon and a bar at night. This allowed for three separate dining venues without any of them being dark for the majority of the day.

This multi-purpose approach to design requires careful consideration, though, she adds. The lighting must be adjustable so the coffee shop is bright in the morning and the bar is dim in the evening. Cabinets should be able to hide the glassware and wine bottles until the space converts into a lounge at night.

“That’s one shift that we’ve seen — not necessarily having more venues but utilizing space and having flexibility and adaptation,” says Keeney. “This also allows us to lower square footage, which lowers costs and makes it more affordable to middle-market residents.”

“We all know that we can have a purpose for a room with a specific theme, and often once residents occupy the space, it evolves into other functions,” adds Thoma-Holec. “So why not create the multi-functionality within one space on purpose? For example, can a laundry room also be a gardening room? Can the mailroom also be a tech den or a package retrieval room with a business center?”

Stuart notes one trend in seniors housing that is particularly well suited to deal with a virus outbreak: the small-house model. This concept separates residents into smaller groups with shared spaces and a consistent care team. With fewer people in contact with each other, this setup makes it harder for a widespread outbreak to occur.

“People are happier and healthier in a small-house model with a smaller group, more of a family-style connection,” says Stuart. “They stay happier, healthier and more independent, but it’s also safer for disease control and managing the whole operation.”

What the future holds

COVID-19  accelerated interior design trends that were already gaining momentum prior to the pandemic. Features that are becoming even more prevalent as a result of COVID-19  include touchless lights and blinds, telehealth technology and easy access to comfortable outdoor spaces. 

“We’ve been really sensitive about making sure there’s access to the outdoors,” says Spellman. That includes visitors, who should have a place to meet family members without extensively walking the hallways and potentially exposing residents to illnesses. “Good interior design supports the emotional needs of everyone in the environment.”

Thoma-Holec even predicts the advent of smart floors connected to lights and nurse call systems that notify staff of resident movements or automatically turn on the lights when a senior gets out of bed.

“Technology will continue to evolve and change. We will see technology provide services that we cannot even imagine today.”

Kapisak notes that health and wellness were always important to baby boomers, but today the spotlight is on healthy living like never before as a result of COVID-19. “We’re predicting a continued growth in health and wellness, expansion in the fitness spaces, but also in products that limit infection spread.”

This flows into the flexibility concerns as well, she adds. Expect to see workout spaces that can be divided into smaller rooms with moveable walls, allowing for individual workouts with a physical separation from other residents.

Banko says it’s prudent for operators to make some adjustments as necessary in the wake of the pandemic, but she warns that it’s possible to overreact and implement changes that won’t be needed in the long run. The bottom line is that it remains important to stick to the basics, Banko advises. Remember the flashy amenities that sat unused prior to COVID-19?

“Let’s not do a huge pendulum swing. By the time we get some measures implemented, we could see it’s an overreaction and have to undo what we just did.”