By Mike Arbour, JHP Architecture / Urban Design
In a study conducted by JLL in early 2020, prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the seniors housing sector posted its highest transaction volume in four years during the first quarter of 2020 and a record-setting occupancy rate of 88 percent. With the wide variety of independent living and assisted living options to choose from, the industry was on track for a profitable year.
What a difference two quarters can make. According to data from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) released in October 2020, seniors housing occupancy dropped 590 basis points — the largest drop in occupancy on record — settling at 82.1 percent, indicating a steady decline since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
However, according to JLL, medium- and long-term investment sentiment is still strong as experts prepare for the “silver tsunami,” with the leading-edge baby boomers now within a 10-year investment cycle of occupancy.
In order to benefit from the potential growth in this demographic, senior living developers and designers understand that the impact of COVID will significantly influence future facility design. The emotional and safety concerns of potential residents translate directly into physical concerns regarding the design of their living spaces.
The pandemic has ushered in profound changes across all markets, and the question looms large: Can senior living spaces provide the desired amenities and communal social environments while keeping residents safe?
If potential residents do not feel comfortable, they will make other choices for living space.
Focus on Future Flexibility
New designs need to focus on how to configure space to maintain optimal flexibility. Rather than focusing on “pandemic proofing” future spaces, design living environments that allow for evolution and growth no matter what the scenario.
Recognizing the timeframe for design and construction of a new project can be as long as 30 months, it is important to balance current and future needs and create spaces that can be reconfigured or repurposed without being rebuilt.
To achieve this, project designers can optimize non-load-bearing supports so that interior spaces can be easily reconfigured. They should also ensure the structural system expands around the perimeter as much as possible, rather than internally, to maximize flexibility.
Interior design also factors into consideration, as project teams may outfit a space to accommodate social distancing guidelines with the ability to rearrange the space at a later date when that concern is no longer present. Multipurpose rooms offer an additional opportunity, and auditoriums may be built without sloped floors to give flexibility to repurpose the room in the future.
New “Space Wars”
Many senior living residence designs reduced the amount of square footage allocated to kitchen and dining space in personal living quarters for several reasons, including multiple communal dining options and the preference of seniors to dine out in restaurants.
As a result of the pandemic, home cooking and dining in has exploded in popularity. Future senior living projects will need to balance the “space wars” caused by the desire of residents for increased square footage in personal living quarters to accommodate larger kitchens with pantries and dining areas, as well as a home offices. Space must be dedicated to amenities such as multipurpose gathering areas such as clubrooms and group dining areas.
Again, flexibility is vital. Consider developing two alternate floor plans, one for a long-term COVID/pandemic scenario and one for a scenario where consumer preferences revert to pre-pandemic norms.
Communal Exterior Amenity Space
Fire pits, pool cabanas and outdoor grilling and picnic spaces are highly desired exterior amenities for many residents. Moving forward, these communal amenities will continue to be important to potential residents, but for different reasons.
Rather than viewing them as places to meet their neighbors, they may become the new “family gathering space” and their preference will be to have these spaces distributed throughout the campus, with plenty of buffer landscape design to protect social distancing measures.
The Coming “Balcony Boom”
The pandemic has reignited everyone’s appreciation of the outdoors. Perhaps one of the most impactful design trends in the post-pandemic era will be the increase in private balconies or patios.
Once considered a high-end luxury amenity, future senior living designs will need to provide solutions that integrate the outdoors within even the smallest of resident apartments.
Whether it is a Juliet balcony or a folding glass door that opens to bring the outdoors inside, a “balcony boom” will be driven by demand. As real estate developers vie for potential residents, this will be the next “must have” amenity.
Location. Location. Location.
It is important to understand that there is not a “single solution” approach to providing public amenity spaces, as the location and design is highly dependent upon geographic location and the type of amenity.
For example, exterior dining options in southern states need to be fully covered and often air conditioned to ensure a comfortable dining experience.
Innovative use of shade overhangs, outdoor fans and sliding glass doors can help mitigate the situation. Exterior courtyards can also be shaded and covered to provide outdoor space for yoga and Pilates.
Support the New Daily Delivery Reality
Online shopping and food deliveries have become the new normal, and analysts predict it will continue. A study released by Salesforce Inc. indicated that 58 percent of consumers expect to do more online shopping after the pandemic than they did before it.
As a result, the number and volume of package deliveries, and its by product trash, have increased exponentially. As a result, the design of new senior living facilities needs to look at package delivery and storage options as a critical consumer amenity.
One solution is to provide a package room with shelving or lockers. Lockers are more secure but may not support the size or number of packages. Open rooms with shelving offer space able to expand and contract as needed.
Consider easy access for delivery personnel from the parking area to storage room and dedicated loading zones and access for delivery vehicles separate from normal residential parking.
Potential consumers are looking for an enhanced, positive senior living environment when choosing a property, regardless of the pandemic, and amenities are an important selection criterion.
A hospitality/resort-like experience is key. The goal for designing properties moving forward is not to overact to the COVID-19 social distancing requirements by stripping away the amenities offered, but to provide solutions that work within the new normal.
This is an opportunity for owners and designers to think outside the box and design the next generation of senior living facilities that can keep residents safe while offering the level of amenities they have come to expect.
Michael Arbour is vice president of JHP Architecture / Urban Design.