Seniors Housing’s New Critical Design Component: Outdoor Spaces

Landscape architecture is now a key part of space-planning, not just pandemic reaction.

By Linda Gates, Co-Founder and Casey Case, President, Gates+Associates

Long-term care residents and staff accounted for outsized shares of COVID-19 infections and deaths, according to USA Today. Facility design can’t solve a virus problem, but the dire numbers have drawn the attention of designers to explore options to minimize negative impacts and support operations.

One area gaining renewed attention is the use of outdoor spaces, both because COVID is less easily transmitted outside and the long-known health benefits of daylight, green views and fresh air.

The variety and flexibility of outdoor spaces are increasingly important features for senior living communities, not just an amenity. Amid the grim coronavirus news, administrators and health officials have identified outdoor spaces as important relief valves and healthy destinations for cooped-up seniors.

It’s not just about exercise. Residents and their families are using courtyards, patios, gardens and gazebos as the first spaces where they can see each other and maintain social distancing.

The bottom line: Operators are finding that the lack of, or abundance of, accessible outdoor real estate is a key differentiating factor for their properties.

Why the new focus on “getting outside,” as we landscape architects call it? What design iterations are taking hold even now for seniors housing projects going forward?

Most senior facilities were able to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection through operational procedures including isolation and self-quarantine, as well as protocols for strict cleaning, visitor screening and rapid response to symptoms.

Now the seniors housing industry is reflecting on its response strategies to look for ways to tweak current building designs or make changes to long-term standards — including provision of outdoor spaces.

Landscape architects need to rethink outdoor spaces to better support operational procedures and the mental health and social connections of the residents. In fact, our industry will need to be even more collaborative with the architects and project sponsors who drive design decisions.

Adjacent outdoor common areas

Whether an outdoor room or a flexible transition area, the outdoor spaces with immediate adjacency to long-term care centers are the low-hanging fruit for current and future design improvement.

As senior facilities look for available space given the restrictions on indoor capacity, many have created more room by adding awnings and umbrella spaces to adjacent patios. Retractable shades offer a high degree of flexibility for residents to enjoy sun and fresh air or convert the space for programmatic use.

Outdoor areas that extend common areas or building entrances can also serve as visitor spaces with more health safety under COVID-19 social distancing. With the increase in delivery services, senior facilities are finding a need for a special delivery space or mudroom near the main entrance to eliminate the need for delivery personal to enter the heart of the facility.

At Kottinger Gardens in Pleasanton, California, outdoor dining and living room spaces provide residents with gathering spaces similar to common-area spaces at standard apartment and condominium communities.

Adjacent outdoorprivatespaces

For better mental and physical health, all residences should have direct access to a private outdoor space such as a small patio-garden or upper-floor balcony. These private spaces should be designed to allow residents to socialize more easily with neighbors or passers-by. We all remember the community serenades from the Italian balconies!

At Mid Pen Development’s Half Moon Bay Village in Half Moon Bay, California, residents have activity areas and dedicated gazebo spaces for relaxing with neighbors.

Outdoor surfaces, materials

Shared swings are popular for visiting family at Sun Rise Assisted Living in Belmont, California. Easily cleaned surfaces are ideal for safety and for resident confidence in using shared furniture.

Architects are exploring products and surfaces that are resistant to virus transmission indoors, and similar attention is being paid outside.

We now know that the coronavirus does not tend to remain infectious on outdoor surfaces as long as it does on indoor surfaces, but outside seat-arms, tables and door handles should have similar consideration. At indoor-outdoor transition spaces, designers are also increasing the number of sinks or disinfection stations.

Neighborhood courtyards, outdoor living rooms

Small courtyards and shared outdoor living rooms are already found in many long-term care facilities, but should be considered more as a standard component.

Another planning concept that may gain prominence is to create smaller, separate neighborhoods within a senior community, thus limiting any contamination to one neighborhood. These neighborhood concepts can also foster more small-group interaction and sense of belonging for residents of larger communities.

These courtyards/shared living rooms should be designed to be comfortable and encourage residents to linger. There can be gazebo or pavilion spaces where seniors can meet with family members that feature fans, outdoor heaters or even screened-in porches for more year-round use. Highly utilized pavilions sometimes include couches, dining tables, TVs and other elements that create true outdoor living rooms.

Small community garden plots provided throughout the community at Kottinger Gardens in Pleasanton, California, offer an on-site getaway for residents.

Caregiver Spaces

Caregivers and staff also need extra consideration. They too experienced higher-than-average covid infection rates.

Long-term care facilities may create extra space for caregivers taking long shifts or required for emergency extended stays. They need their own outdoor spaces separate from the residents’ spaces, giving them true downtime so that they can do their best job.

Revised plantings strategy

The planting schemes for senior care facilities should feel personal not institutional.

Incorporating more fruit-bearing and flowering plants can provide the same shade and greenspace with much greater interest from residents and guests alike — and nutrition for snacking. An apple tree creates great shade, strawberry patches offer ground cover and seedless grapes can climb vine trellises.

As the coronavirus continues its threat, the lessons learned for designers will continue to evolve. And while COVID health concerns drive much of the current thinking, a renewed focus on outdoor spaces also yields well-documented mental and physical health benefits in sunshine, views of green space and fresh air.

It’s just plain good sense to get outside.