Urban Contemporary Design Is All the Rage

Architecture takes a decidedly upbeat modern turn to attract new residents and appeal to their adult children.

By Jane Adler

Driven by shifting consumer demands, senior living building designs are in the midst of a makeover.

Gone are details that echo the past such as Victorian flourishes, rocking-chair porches and homey touches like window curtains and grandfather clocks. 

The next generation of residents doesn’t want to live in a place that reminds them of where their grandmothers lived. The adult children shopping for senior living don’t want their parents in a setting that looks like it’s meant for old people either.

Today’s look is contemporary and forward leaning with clean lines, open floor plans and big hotel-like lobbies. Sophisticated designs with an urban vibe are thought to have more appeal to younger seniors, a group the industry eagerly seeks. 

Urban infill sites are prized locations. Developers, owners and operators want to be close to the population centers where seniors and their adult children live. 

Infill locations also offer the benefit of nearby amenities such as restaurants and shops. Senior living properties don’t necessarily have to provide everything a resident might want because the services are already available in the surrounding community. 

Sprawling suburban campuses isolated from the general population no longer hold as much appeal as they once did. Sidewalks that connect retirement communities to the larger neighborhood are replacing earth berms separating the two.

Small infill sites demand vertical designs. High-rises are becoming more common. Mid-rises are even more prevalent. Building up rather than out presents its own challenges, along with some opportunities.

Inside, chopped-up common areas with a room for every purpose are out of style. Flexible, multipurpose spaces are popular. Operators want common spaces to serve a number of uses and appear busy at all times. Seniors want opportunities to socialize. 

Another reason for design flexibility is that owners know the residents will change as they age. Spaces may have to be repurposed. Game rooms might be converted into clinics. Independent living units might be reconfigured into assisted living suites. 

“The market is changing,” says Dan Cinelli, principal at architectural firm Perkins & Eastman. His office is located in Washington, D.C. “It’s a tsunami coming fast.”

Active adult goes urban

The design evolution sits at the intersection of several trends: the rise of the new active adult community; a preference for urban infill projects; and the need for flexibility to meet future market demands. 

The emergence of the new active adult segment is having a big impact on design. These rental properties are situated in urban locations and geared toward seniors, primarily widows in their early 70s — not frail elders in their 80s or older who need assistance. 

The active adult segment was long the domain of the Del Webb brand and its imitators. These self-contained suburban communities offered for-sale houses and club-like amenities such as pools and golf courses. 

The new rental active adult model is attracting some serious interest. The Carlyle Group has invested in two active adult brands, Avidor and Overture. A number of projects are open or underway. The developers are Greystar and Trammell Crow/High Street Residential. 

Minneapolis-based ESG Architecture is working on all of the Avidor projects, and designed one Overture project. Site selection is key, says Aaron Roseth, president and principal at ESG. The sites are infill locations in strong neighborhoods with an affluent population. The site must be pedestrian-friendly and connect to a network of sidewalks. Nearby transportation is a plus. 

A 17-story Avidor project with 169 units is under construction in Evanston, Illinois. The downtown location is near stores, restaurants and two train lines. “The site meets all the criteria,” says Roseth. 

Monthly rents for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment start at $4,600, according to a website of apartment listings.

The first Avidor project recently opened in Edina, Minnesota. 

The building design takes its cues from the residents it aims to serve. They’re savvy, educated consumers coming from lovely homes who expect to live in a place that matches their lifestyle, according to Melissa Metzler, partner and director of interiors at ESG.

“We’ve created a hospitality-based, contemporary setting,” she says. “Residents may be leaving a beautiful home, but they’re moving into something aspirational.”

What’s an aspirational property?

Something better than home. “It’s experiential,” explains ESG’s Roseth. The property is a place where the resident can stay active and connected to the wider community. “It’s not like retiring on a porch with a rocking chair,” he says.

The Avidor main lobby is active and welcoming. It includes a concierge, great room, and a bar and restaurant. Other building amenities include a pool, fitness area, business center, display kitchen, pet wash and dog run, and electric car charging station.

The units are 15 to 20 percent larger than typical multifamily units. A two-bedroom apartment at Avidor spans approximately 1,100 square feet. Residents need the space for their large furniture, including a big dining table for family get-togethers, notes Roseth. 

Kitchens and bathrooms are large. Units include walk-in closets and lots of storage space. 

Seattle-based Urbal Architecture is designing three active adult projects. Marvelle at Southcenter in Tukwila, Washington, opens early next year. The community will include 166 units. 

Twenty years ago, designs were all about making senior living properties feel like home, observes Chad Lorentz, principal at Urbal Architecture. “We are shifting to highly amenitized hospitality-type designs.” He cites the example of the change in dining venues. Closed kitchens and buffet lines are being replaced by bistros and open food stations. 

Lorentz attributes the shift to changing consumer preferences. The next generation of seniors is not as tied to its homes as previous ones. They travel and stay at swanky hotels. They’re tired of caring for a house. And they expect more. “They want something better,” says Lorentz. 

Open floor plans and uncluttered spaces are in vogue. “The pendulum is swinging toward more contemporary styles,” says Andrew Alden, senior designer and senior associate at AG Architecture based in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Building materials vary from stone, wood and metal to stucco and vinyl products. 

The new senior living buildings on infill sites look less residential and more like commercial or multifamily buildings with flat roofs. Architects are careful, however, to incorporate local preferences into their designs. A building in Miami is likely to feature bright colors, for example. A property in New England would use more neutral tones. “Architects are good stewards of design,” says Alden. “They try to match the local vernacular.”

Red brick dominates the housing stock in Arlington, Virginia. When designing a new project for Artis Senior Living, it was important to incorporate brick into the design, according to Clint Brackman, vice president at Architecture Incorporated, headquartered in Reston, Virginia. “We created a warm and inviting façade,” he says. The developer is expected to break ground on the six-story project next year.

The small site challenge

Infill sites, only an acre or two, require vertical designs, which create some pros and cons. 

On the plus side, higher buildings mean better views, at least from the top floors. These units can carry premium rents, sources say. 

Rooftop gardens can compensate for a lack of outdoor space at ground level. Also, rooftop bars and restaurants can be a big draw.

Architect Cinelli imagines a vertical Main Street, an idea forecast in the Clean Slate Project, a reimaging of senior living by Perkins Eastman. A mid-rise residential tower for seniors could be added onto an existing, underutilized shopping mall that houses a variety of community activities. Vacant retail space could be repurposed for amenities such as a public library, senior day care services and co-working spaces.

A vertical footprint gives residents closer access to common areas, according to Rocky Berg, principal and founding member at Dallas-based architecture firm three. Sprawling, low-rise buildings have long hallways that can become a chore for residents to navigate. A vertical design positions units and residents near elevators, an easy way to access common amenities. “It’s an upside,” says Berg.

Construction costs for mid- or high-rise projects are as much as a third more than low-rise projects, says Greg Irwin, partner at Irwin Partners Architects based in Costa Mesa, California. He adds that construction costs are also rising, though he can’t say by how much because the pricing is so varied depending on the project, location and availability of labor. “It’s a balance of how many stories you have to build up in order to make the project pencil out financially,” he says. 

Some designs include mixed uses as a way to offset the cost of infill projects. A project by Irwin still in the planning phases will have a ground-floor restaurant and medical office. “We’ll see more mixed-use properties,” says Irwin. 

LivGenerations Ahwatukee has a restaurant open to the public. The project, which offers independent and assisted living, and memory care, is situated near a multifamily development. The restaurant has become a popular lunch spot, according to LuAnn Thoma-Holec, principal at Thoma-Holec Design based in Mesa, Arizona. Her firm managed the project’s interior design.

Other projects have restaurants open to the public. But designers warn that the venues should have a separate entrance for the public. Residents may complain about outsiders coming into the building, says Alden at AG Architecture. 

Land-challenged infill sites are surrounded by other buildings, which can restrict natural light. Big bathrooms and big windows make a huge difference and help a space feel much bigger, says Alden. “We look at ways to bring natural light deep into the building.”

A creative solution is a biophilic wellness nook. The name comes from the biophilic design movement, an approach that seeks to increase the resident’s connection to the natural environment. 

The wellness nook — well suited for memory care wings — sits in an interior corner. A skylight brings in natural light, which changes as the sun follows its daily path. 

A vertical “green” wall features plants and grow lights. The eight-by-eight foot space includes a comfortable chair and space for a wheel chair. A resident can rest in the space, or meet one-on-one with an aide or therapist. “Engagement is important,” says Alden.

Multi-purpose spaces  

Developers are asking for flexible spaces. 

Ocean Hills Assisted Living and Memory Care, a 114-unit project in Oceanside, California was designed with a dining venue about 40 percent smaller than what would have previously been built. 

The extra space can be used for multiple purposes, such as a private dining room, overflow dining, a card room, or activity room. Big doors that can be left opened or closed to separate the flex space from the dining venue. “Operators can create unique programming opportunities for residents,” says Irwin, who worked on the project. 

Marvelle at Southcenter, the active adult project, was built with a catering kitchen that can be converted into a commercial kitchen if the community eventually needs to provide meals and assisted living. “The infrastructure is there,” says Lorentz at Urbal Architecture. 

Open common areas that can be subdivided are preferred. That presents a design challenge, according to Berg at three. Support columns must be minimized, which means plumbing, HVAC and electric systems housed in the columns need to be strategically located in the building’s core or put off to the side. “It’s more thoughtful space,” says Berg. 

The goal is to make spaces as adaptable as possible. That includes a robust technology backbone, says Greg Hunteman, president at Pi Architects, headquartered in Austin, Texas. His company operates a mechanical, electrical, plumbing and low-voltage studio. Building systems and smart home technology is integrated into the project during the planning stages. 

Looking ahead, residents will require more and more internet bandwidth to operate their devices and stream content. Telemedicine and online medical records will require additional devices and connectivity. “We can’t future proof everything in a building, but we can make it as flexible as possible,” says Hunteman.