Tales from the Multifamily Sector

Seniors housing can take cues from apartment developers to improve communities.

By Meg Needle

Lord Aeck Sargent has long designed multifamily and mixed-use apartment buildings, largely for young professionals with a somewhat transient lifestyle. 

But as the apartment market continues to evolve, a new need has emerged for empty nesters seeking to downsize their household and shed the burden of home maintenance. These active seniors are not ready to move into introverted institutional settings, but instead want comfortable homes that also support their personal aspirations and needs while remaining in their home community.

We worked with the Atlanta Housing Authority to renovate several aging seniors housing buildings and senior community centers, and started our first ground-up seniors housing project in 2016 — Avenida at Cool Springs, an active adult community in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn. Tenants began moving into the property in March 2019. 

Our team was aware that the project came with a learning curve, but quickly realized that much of our multifamily experience was relevant to the active senior market. Many design elements cross over between apartment communities for active seniors and young professionals. 

Size and quality of amenity spaces

In recent years, luxury-focused developers have required grander amenity spaces to excite expectations and encourage the residents (and potential residents) to linger on-site. Pools have gotten larger, and often include soaking lounges. Outdoor kitchens and adjacent dining areas are practically de rigueur. Lobbies, lounges and club rooms are full of inviting, over-stuffed furnishings laid out in both social and contemplative groupings. Pet grooming stations and walk areas are ubiquitous. 

These types of amenities are expanded, both in size and vibrancy, to better support active senior living lifestyle. The larger (1.5 to 2 times larger than most apartment communities) amenity spaces help to support more active programming that might not be utilized by busy, young professionals. These include arts and crafts, book clubs, wine tasting, movie nights and continental breakfast service, as well as more opportunities for group excursions to nearby events, shopping and places of interest. 

These offerings bring residents out of their units and into common areas, which encourage a stronger sense of community. This is especially relevant in a 55+ community as senior apartment dwellers may be single again — having lost a spouse — and have more time on their hands, having moved beyond the nine-to-five professional grind. Active seniors are more likely to appreciate and participate in the social opportunities these programs offer.

Further, with that increased focus on amenities in mind, our senior living clients place a greater emphasis on detailing of community spaces, targeting quality over coolness. Prospective residents have been noted to observe ‘this is like being at a club or hotel; and I get to live here?’ 

There is a sense that offering these resort-like spaces makes it easier to give up a private residence for an apartment. Younger residents, likely to be employed at higher levels, may not prioritize these spaces as highly because offsite social or work activities fill those needs.

Community connection

Younger generations have embraced the ability to comfortably walk or bike to work, shops, restaurants and services. Locating projects within these attractive, walkable zones in or near urban centers, has become smart business for multifamily developers. Locating active senior developments in a similar fashion pays off for tenants in an additional way. 

Some residents may enjoy the proximity from a leisure standpoint, but it’s especially important for former drivers. Having goods, services and entertainment conveniently located within a walkable distance allows these residents to take care of their business and maintain their independence, regardless of their access to a personal automobile. 

Active seniors also have more time to ‘smell the roses,’ and having easy access to parks or other outdoor passive recreation options supports happy and healthy living.

Accommodating ride sharing

As noted in an article from Builder, “The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of drivers for services like Uber and Lyft — self-employed taxi and limousine services employees — more than tripled from 2013 to 2016, and growth is expected to continue.” In several projects designed for young professionals, we have adapted for ride-share services. These concepts range from spacious entryways to allow easier ride pick-up and drop-off to creating a dedicated “Uber Lobby” for a more urban project. 

According to an April 2018 Gallup poll, 23 percent of 50 to 64 year olds and 13 percent of those over 65 use ridesharing services. With active adult developments being located in more densely developed areas, combined with either a desire or necessity to stop driving, ride sharing is likely to grow. For these reasons, drop-off/pick-up areas are further expanded in active adult developments to additionally accommodate carpooling with friends or family, as well as group transit vehicles. With that in mind, our designs for active adult housing include an easily distinguishable, accessible, covered drop-off area located adjacent to a comfortable entry lobby. 

The reduced number of drivers also has an impact on the required parking. A typical multifamily development might target 1.6 to 1.7 spaces per unit, while 1.3 spaces per unit is more than adequate for an active adult development (even with visitor spots). From a traffic standpoint, senior apartments don’t have the same impact that young professional developments have because the residents are more likely to hit the road at off-peak times. And we’ve noticed that active adults who continue to drive put more value on their vehicles and are willing to rent covered parking options when they are available. 

Beyond the similarities

Outside the myriad ways that active adult projects are similar to those targeting young professionals, this project type requires some specific elements that we believe can’t be overlooked.

• Universal design is a greater priority. Not only are typical accessible units and FHA requirements met but our design puts more emphasis on door-to-door accessibility to better accommodate mobility appliances, such as walkers and motorized scooters that might be utilized by residents or visitors.

• Expanded storage opportunities. Many target seniors are moving to apartments as a first or second step to downsizing from responsibilities of home ownership. Over their lifetime, they may have accumulated family heirlooms, seasonal decorations and other hard-to-part-with items that the more transient young professionals have not yet acquired. Providing on-site storage space for precious items is appreciated and quickly leased up.

• Support service operational space. Services like housekeeping and continental breakfasts are a priority for active seniors. Facility design needs to thoughtfully incorporate support spaces for these kinds of services. Additionally, some residents may use home care providers, and easy access is important for them as well.

Meg Needle of Lord Aeck Sargent has more than 30 years of comprehensive architectural experience. An experienced project manager, she is involved in all phases of architectural practice, from programming through construction administration, on a variety of educational, commercial, multifamily and institutional projects. She is currently working on two additional active seniors housing projects.