May 19, 2022

What’s Next for Senior Living Architecture and Design After 2 Pandemic Years

6 min read

Now in the third year of Covid-19, the senior living industry is adapting to the pandemic’s many pressures in numerous ways. One area where the industry is quickly evolving is in architecture and design.

In 2022, senior living architects are designing projects with one big question in mind, according to Cynthia Shonaiya, principal and senior living market sector leader at Hord Coplan Macht architects: “How are we rethinking what we may have done in the past?”

The answer to that question varies from one project to another, but examples from this year’s Senior Housing News Architecture and Design Awards show how the industry is forging ahead. This year’s big themes included designs that prioritized more outdoor space, strengthened the social fabric of communities and made them more affordable for residents.

These are not new trends, but the pandemic has placed a spotlight on the ways senior living communities can and should change for the future, according to Gracyn Robinson, former senior designer with LWDA Design, current candidate at Brown University obtaining her master of science in healthcare leadership, and also one of the judges involved in the SHN Architecture and Design Awards.

“Prior to the pandemic, there was utilization of hospitality spaces within senior living,” Robinson said during a Senior Housing News webinar earlier this month. “And I think that we’re witnessing individuals who want to have a more intimate, private space, but that still allows and affords them the capacity to engage with the wider community.”

Outdoor connections a ‘key component’

With the pandemic and all of its restrictions on the free flow of movement, it has become significantly harder for residents to spend time outside of their communities’ walls. So, senior living designers are increasingly working to bring the outdoors to residents, according to John Cronin, principal and senior design architect with AG Architecture and a judge on this year’s design awards competition.

“Outdoor space is really becoming the key component that … just in this past year, [providers] are asking for,” Cronin said during the webinar. “What I’ve seen as part of the Design Awards is an expanding use of creating additional outdoor space — especially with this pandemic.”

One example of this trend at work is in Maplewood’s Inspir community on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in New York City. Residents need only to travel within the community to view lush greenery, with gardens extending through the floors in the community’s restaurant and lounge, a large wrap-around terrace of the 16th floor “sky park,” and a planted canopy above the community’s ground-floor entrance.

“They really [embody] the whole idea of bringing the biophilic world inside the building and connecting it to outside terraces,” Cronin said.

Maplewood Inspir, Photo credit: Evan Joseph

Senior living architects and designers are also getting more creative with the outdoor spaces they build into community plans. For instance, Shonaiya has witnessed a rise in the number of decked-out courtyards with fire pits, covered areas and other outdoor spaces for entertaining.

“When families and extended families and the general community are able to connect with the senior living [community], it’s more intentional and there are opportunities to do that,” she said.

Another example of designers putting more thought into senior living spaces is the 18-hole championship putting course at LCS’ Sagewood life plan community, which took the top spot in the 2021 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards’ “Best Independent Living” category.

While artificial turf would have been a suitable choice for the course given its location in the dry Arizona sun, architects with Todd & Associates chose to use real grass for the design.

“I’m not sure of any other place that has such a nice putting green,” Steve Zbylicki, senior design manager with LCS Development, told SHN of the project.. “It seems like it’s always being used.”

Alise O’Brien Photography

Aiming for affordability

Senior living architects are also fielding many more requests from their senior living clients for designs that can help keep costs lower for residents in order to meet the growing demand for middle-market senior housing.

That was the goal of Heritage at Lowman, a small-house pocket neighborhood addition to a 346-unit Lutheran Homes of South Carolina continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Chapin, South Carolina. Monthly rental rates for the active adult pocket neighborhood are between $2,420 and $3,141, which is well within the range the industry considers middle-market.

With 20 compact homes arranged around a shared green space, the project exemplifies the growing senior living pocket neighborhood trend. It also took the top spot in the 2021 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards’ “Best Small Footprint” category, which was a new addition to this year’s competition.

Senior living operators are putting significantly more thought in 2022 into designing affordable spaces, according to Robinson. Much of that has to do with the makeup of the incoming baby boomer demographic, which is thought to have fewer supports and less savings than previous generations.

“How we are going to accommodate those individuals that are going to be looking for housing at an affordable price point is going to take on increasing importance over the next 10 to 15 years,” Robinson said.

Affordability in senior living is “becoming quite a challenge,” given the rising cost of construction and labor, Shonaiya said. But she has also seen creative solutions to bring down costs for residents, such as the use of more energy-efficient designs and HVAC systems.

“That then brings down the cost of your utilities and affects affordability in operating,” she added. “There has been a little bit more opportunity to spend a little more upfront so that your operating costs are better.”

Robinson has also noted a shift toward utilizing more energy-efficient designs. For example, the 188-unit Presidium at Edgestone project that won the Best Active Adult category was built in accordance with National Green Building Standard certification.

“[That] is another sign that we are seeing a particular nod and adherence to the rise of, not only ESG, but also corporate social responsibility,” she said.

Shonaiya has also noted a desire among senior living operators to do more with less space, given the lofty cost of construction and materials.

As far as where the trend is headed in the future, she points to the River Parkway Senior Apartments in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, which took the top spot in the best affordable category in this year’s Design Awards.

The project looked “modern and clean,” with splashes of color enlivening the design, she noted. But as attractive as the project was, it was designed and built without relying on expensive flourishes or other bells and whistles.

“Color doesn’t cost,” Shonaiya said. “There is a lot we can do without spending a lot of money.”

Ryan Hainey
River Parkway project

Strengthening the social fabric

Social connections have taken a newfound importance with the pandemic, given that it has become much harder for people to meet face to face. Senior living communities are addressing that problem by building spaces that foster safe social interactions among residents, visitors and staff.

For instance, more operators are moving socialization outside of the community and building spaces where people can meet outside, weather permitting, according to Cronin.

Pocket neighborhoods are also helping to meet the need for increased socialization, given that they are constructed in a way that forces residents to see each other and share space.

“We’re going to see the small pocket neighborhood increasingly rise with the utilization of a community central hub for gathering and more intimate settings,” Robinson said.

Dog parks, outdoor dining areas and other shared amenity spaces are also becoming more popular.

“Anything … to help get people out outside and connected again is going to be taking on increasing importance,” Robinson said.

The industry is also moving in the direction of creating senior housing for people who want catered or niche experiences. One example of that trend at work is in the Latitude Margaritaville 55+ communities in the Southeast — and in Disney’s recent announcement regarding its forthcoming entry into the 55+ senior housing world.

“It’s bringing people out of their comfort zone,” Robinson said. “That’s going to bring an enormous value proposition.”

What’s Next for Senior Living Architecture and Design After 2 Pandemic Years