Senior Living Construction Continues Despite Pandemic

Particularly in the Southeast, where there are fewer cases, builders continue to find work with a few adjustments for COVID-19.

By B. Shane Hornbuckle, Principal, Van Winkle Construction

Feeling nervous about the economy in light of the pandemic? If you are, take heart: Not everything has come to a stop.

While other industries and markets grapple with closures and uncertainty, the design and construction markets remain strong for senior living, particularly in the Southeast.

In South Carolina, Van Winkle Construction broke ground for the Indigo at Carolina Forest near Myrtle Beach this month. We have also scheduled a groundbreaking in August for The Retreat at Carolina ParkAssisted Living and Memory Care for Shoal Ventures and The Berry Cos. in Mount Pleasant.

How could we do such a thing in these conditions? There is no single answer to such a multifaceted question, so I sat down with some other industry experts to learn what they consider the most pertinent practices, considerations and innovations regarding senior living construction in the time of COVID-19.

Implementing remote work

The construction and design fields prepared the basis for the necessary work-from-home practices as industry standards prior to 2020. The easiest examples include the implementation of cloud-based project management software, utilization of robust 3D REVIT models, and use of the all-important virtual meeting. In the current industry, digital correspondence replaces face-to-face meetings, but our overall workflow has not drastically changed.

Michael Corcoran, president of design firm Corcoran Ota Group, described his firm’s current workflow as a repeated sequence.

“Our firm produces the REVIT document files; checks the construction progress on PROCORE; reviews the site with a drone flyover; and finishes with a Zoom meeting involving ourselves, the owner and the contractor,” says Corcoran. “We have proven that we can keep construction underway while maintaining social distancing.”

Indigo at Carolina Forest

We do not want unexpected visitors on our project sites. Our existing construction protocols for separating the public from the project and project personnel is a major boon in health management, since distancing for safety is part of a general contractor’s existing considerations.

However, the safety of the design and construction teams are only one concern. The comfort and safety of the end user, particularly the vulnerable senior population, weigh heavily upon the design and construction choices within the industry. Still, the basis of these considerations is nothing new. The coronavirus pandemic merely changed the approach towards the same end goal: Provide a beautiful, safe and desirable product tenants want to occupy.

“Providing additional health and safety to residents has increased operating costs, which obviously leads to a lower net income compared to 2019 at the same occupancy,” says Peter Stewart of Shoal Ventures, though he also cited a silver lining. “At the same time, economic conditions have improved interest rates on debt for borrowers in position to take advantage of them.”

Adjusting operations for the pandemic

Shoal Ventures’ existing facilities ceased leasing from March 2020 into the first half of May 2020. According to Stewart, residents are following social distancing guidelines, and he remains optimistic. Maintaining current resident and prospective tenant confidence is the real secret of success in the age of COVID-19.

“Overall, the industry needs to do a much better job communicating the differences between nursing homes and other classes of senior living,” says Stewart. “The headlines about nursing home infections aren’t a fair comparison.

“COVID-19 definitely puts the senior population at risk, and I’m not trying to downplay that. Existing facilities overrun by the virus are obviously not safe. However, one has to judge these locationson a case-by-case basis. Differentiating ourselves is something that we in the industry plan to focus on.”

Stewart is referring to the recent news stories of coronavirus outbreaks in long-term-care facilities in Ohio, New York and other places in the United States. These incidents stunted public confidence in all senior living, but Stewart and I do not believe that’s fair.

“The Southeast in particular does not have the infection volume of the Northeast,” says Stewart. “New facilities have the advantage of vetting everyone who comes in the door from the beginning. We benefit from a fresh start, and we can tailor our facilities to handle this crisis rather than working backwards with an existing population and facility.

“We offer telehealth abilities, chef-prepared meals, visitor and staff testing, and controlled access to the facility. Residents in our communities have a significant chance of being at a lower risk of the virus, and in a better position to receive care should their individual needs change.”

Safety precautions and amenities are selling points that generate demand, and demand generates work. Design choices early in a senior living community’s development facilitate both, and these choices are omnipresent in a designer’s mind.

“The needs of our senior residents have been our primary concern for over 20 years,” says Corcoran. “They are fundamental: security, safety, health, and well-being — all in a beautiful building filled with love and community.”

Maintaining a sense of community

Corcoran Ota Group’s primary concerns tackle the more human-centric factors of current and future senior living in the time of the coronavirus, particularly as we broke ground on Indigo at Carolina Forest. Corcoran Ota Group is the named architect and interior designer on the project.

“The most important attribute to keep in mind in senior living is the desire for community,” says Amber Einarsson, a senior project manager with Corcoran Ota Group. “COVID-19 transmits through close personal contact, and the most vulnerable are the elderly, who generally desire social connectivity the most. The question we ask ourselves today is: How do we create group activities safer for the senior communities we design?”

This focus on community highlights an existing consideration for senior living — facilitating social activity even in conditions threatening to stifle it.

“Dining is generally considered the primary communal activity,” says Daniela Cardona, also of Corcoran Ota Group. “But other activities such as arts and crafts, movie nights, bingo and card games play an important role. Yes, social distancing is important, but we must be judicious about it. Our designed spaces must support these policies without inhibiting the social and mental health of occupants.”

“Going forward, we’ll be more sensitive to promoting community engagement in a safer way,” adds Melissa Banko of interior design firm Banko Design. “We’ll create flexible spaces that can be compartmentalized or wide open, and we’ll create smaller gathering spaces within larger spaces. Creating flexible interiors for an ever-changing world is the answer.”

It really is all about accessibility, and I mean that literally. I have observed it in plans and pricing regarding temporary partitions and separate gathering areas with limited seating in each area rather than solid, permanent walls.

These versatile design choices facilitate spaces for manned health-screening areas, barriers enforcing separate access for residents and visitors, and controlled social contact. They also maintain the owner’s freedom to change the space as needed rather than force renovations once the coronavirus is a thing of the past.

Porches, patios are key amenities

When I asked if COVID-19 played a role in the presence of balconies, ramps and added exterior doors on plans and renderings for The Retreat at Carolina ParkAssisted Living and Memory Care, project architect Mike Nixon of SGA|Narmour Wright Design confirmed.

“As designers, we need to be thinking of not only the interior spaces, but also exterior spaces,” says Nixon. “As a multi-discipline firm, we begin our projects by looking at both architecture and landscaping to create a connection between the indoors and the outdoors. For example, our most recent projects include some sort of direct access from the unit to the outdoors.

“Units with this amenity can perform self-isolation, but have access to a courtyard, private porch or deck. This allows friends, co-residents or family to have social interaction at a safe distance, as well as supports activities such as gardening, exercise or bird watching to maintain resident engagement and overall health. Allowing for easy access or private access can eliminate the need to walk down halls that could be closed off during a lockdown.”

Existing facilities are not far behind in pursuing these upgrades. Renovations of older facilities to include porches or patios are completely possible, increase a community’s value and better prepare owners for today’s health needs.

Other proactive renovation options include a re-evaluation of a facility’s staff rooms. Rather than act as small break rooms, transforming these spaces into temporary, on-site housing for staff mitigates exposure risks.

Are such renovations feasible in the time of COVID-19? Yes, but not without forethought. I asked Van Winkle’s project managers how they felt about reconciling “before coronavirus” designs and buildings with “during coronavirus” guidelines.

“In the current conditions, occupied sites are even trickier to manage and navigate than in the past due to health concerns,” says Andrew Luther. “Sites with residents require more stringent monitoring and separation in light of COVID-19 — but with proper management, it is possible.”

Luther is project manager on another of Van Winkle Construction’s current Senior Living projects, Canterfield of Kennesaw Independent Living in Kennesaw, Georgia, also designed by Corcoran Ota Group. The project is currently under construction alongside the development’s existing assisted living facility.

Material choices can help prevent infection

Einarsson expands the list of possible improvements to include finishes, appliances and upgraded technology. “We have antimicrobial coatings for handles, knobs, and switches. We have hands-free technologies for light switches, door locks, hydration centers, and even toilets.”

The mind boggles at preventative measures for everyday appliances, but the need for innovative precautions in materials do not stop there. Material quality and durability are more crucial than before, as increased wear and tear from today’s heightened hygiene needs call for an even more robust environment. Carpets and furniture are high on the list for consideration.

“We specify antimicrobial and bleachable materials, durable fabrics that can be wiped and scrubbed, and carpets that can withstand the rigors of a busy community and frequent cleanings,” says Banko. “Banko Design always considers cleanability, longevity and durability when designing a project. It’s one thing to make a building pretty, but if it falls apart in a year, then the project is a failure.”

All these answers are a long-form way to say that, while other market segments are coming apart at the seams, Southeastern senior living is not.

From a general contractor’s perspective, if we can move earth, we move earth. If we can pour concrete, we pour concrete. If we can build, we build. Our biggest concern echoes the industry’s biggest concern: When and where is the next project going to be?

Still, not everything is roses. COVID-19’s crippling of face-to-face communication extends to the professional world, even in places of prosperity. During our discussion, Corcoran put it better than I ever could.

“In the olden days, we were a team. We all worked together — architects, engineers and contractors — at the office, trailer or construction site. We all nurtured the junior members of the team, solved whatever problems arose onsite, and got the job done together.

“We have proven we can keep construction underway in these conditions, but at what cost? All in-office mentoring has ceased. We miss the action on the construction site, and the sweet aromas of freshly poured concrete and newly sawn lumber.”

While we may long to return to the site as a team, we still have plenty of work to do. Until then, we plan to keep surviving and thriving, with or without the coronavirus.


Shane Hornbuckle joined Van Winkle Construction in 1992 after earning his bachelor’s degree at Oglethorpe University. He oversees the company’s sales, marketing and promotional initiatives.

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