Senior communities take cues from resorts

Yesterday’s senior-living communities often resembled hospitals. Tomorrow’s will take their cues from hotels. “You may have to look twice at some before you realize they aren’t upscale hotels or resorts,” said Bob Lagoyda, an executive with the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. As the senior-living market grows, the institutional look is out. Tuscan villas, arts and crafts cottages and sleek high-rises are in.

“The days of cookie-cutter construction are over,” said John Grace, president of the Aging Research Institute. “From now on, if you’ve seen one retirement community, you’ve seen one retirement community.” The new emphasis on distinctiveness in senior communities offers opportunities for architectural firms that have created design teams well versed in the needs and wants of an aging population. The American Institute of Architects says it’s had a 50 percent increase in members working on senior-living projects from five years ago. Professional seminars on retirement housing are overflowing.

“Developers of senior communities have begun to pay more attention to design as consumers have become more demanding and discriminating,” said David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association. Mr. Schless expects senior living to remain a lucrative business for architects over the next 10 years as developers gear up for a generation of boomers who have always shopped with a discerning eye. The industry built 40,000 units of senior housing in the nation’s 75 biggest markets in 2006 and will step up construction as the decade ends, he said. Dallas was the second-busiest market last year, with 2,871 new units.

‘Feel of a fine resort’


A Dallas architectural firm with a lower-case name — three — has parlayed its expertise with boutique hotels, resorts and spas into a national reputation for designing upper-end senior-living communities. Lately, the firm has been overseeing the expansion of its best-known community, Edgemere in Dallas. Architects praised the original project for its re-creation of a Tuscan village, with stucco walls, earthy tones and tile roofs.

“We wanted to give it the look and feel of a fine resort, not a conventional retirement home,” said Rockland Berg, principal of three. Edgemere’s second phase will open this fall, offering residences with larger kitchens, baths and dens and with more natural light, he said.

Like Edgemere, many of tomorrow’s senior communities will mimic the spacious, well-appointed and service-oriented resorts that retirees hope they’ll enjoy after cracking open their nest eggs, architects say. “Our job as architects is to create something that wows visitors and then works well for those who decide to live there,” said Mitch Green, chairman of the American Institute of Architects’ Design for Aging group.

In particular, Mr. Green and his colleagues see these trends emerging in senior-living design as boomers come knocking:

More room. Studio apartments are becoming a thing of the past. Residents want at least one bedroom and often a den or second bedroom, said Jerry Hovorka, a vice president at Rees Associates Inc., an architectural firm with offices in Dallas. “The largest units usually go first in a new development,” he said. “People realize they won’t have as much space as in their houses, but they’re willing to downsize only so far.” Besides offering more room, senior residences need full kitchens, barrier-free showers, walk-in closets, Internet connections, more daylight inside but shaded patios outdoors, architects say.

Casual dining. Once-popular formal dining rooms are giving way to more casual alternatives. Mr. Green said residents now prefer to select from three or four dining options, such as bistros and short-order grills. “It’s all about choice,” he said. “Someone may have a taste for gourmet cuisine one night and cafe food the next.” Also catching on are “exhibition kitchens” where diners can watch the chefs at work.

The great outdoors. The residents of retirement communities have sold their homes and freed themselves from the drudgery of yardwork, but that doesn’t mean they intend to become creatures of the indoors, Mr. Schless said. “Despite all the indoor amenities, people are still looking for gazebos and courtyard benches,” he said. “Architects need to design their buildings so that residents can easily use the outdoors.” In creating the Kahala Nui retirement community in Honolulu, three’s architects surrounded the residences with tropical gardens and banished vehicles to an underground garage. “Hawaii is all about living outdoors,” Mr. Berg said. “Kahala Nui reflects that.”

Community ties. People who move into senior residences want to stay connected to the larger community where they’ve spent their lives. “They don’t want to feel like they’re retreating from life,” said Glen Tipton, senior vice president of CSD Architects, whose Dallas office devotes much of its time to senior-living communities. To avoid the risk of isolation, tomorrow’s retirement communities will be designed so fitness centers, meeting rooms, restaurants and shops are also accessible to nonresidents, he said. Architects also expect that more senior housing will be built in downtown areas and close-in neighborhoods where residents can walk to the grocery store, the park or the movies. It’s part of what designers call the “new urbanism,” and that will usually mean building up instead of out.

High-rise living. Residents at today’s sprawling senior-living communities often complain of long corridors. Unless they’re sure-footed, they may feel limited in where they can go and what they can do, Mr. Tipton said. “The retirement communities that were built in the 1970s or 1980s consisted of single-story buildings connected by covered walkways to an activity center. Those are gradually being replaced,” he said. Architects say high-rise and midrise buildings will become attractive to many seniors, who will be just an elevator ride from the dining room. “The only catch for architects is to make sure there are enough elevators, so no one has to wait long,” Mr. Berg said. Rees Associates is designing a high-rise development in Lincoln, Neb., that combines retirement living with stores, a hotel and a conference center for the nearby University of Nebraska, Mr. Hovorka said.

Service, service, service. If location is the prime consideration in real estate, service is the No. 1 factor in choosing a retirement community, experts say. Architects expect that customizing services to residents’ preferences will become even more important when boomers arrive. “Until now, residents have been moved into different rooms or wings when they require more intensive care. Tomorrow’s residents will want to remain in their apartments and have the care brought to them,” Mr. Green said. Architects will need to design communities that can accommodate health care services wherever they’re requested, he said.

Using hindsight
Besides picking up on the hot trends in senior living, architects are trying to understand how well their designs actually function once their communities open and older adults move in. For more than a decade, the profession has had an architectural competition to recognize innovative practices. But several years ago, it also began studying how well the award-winning designs held up to everyday living. Teams of architects and caregivers have visited each of the communities for a couple of days and interviewed seniors and staff about which building features have worked well and which ones have fallen short.

“The blunders are just as important to know as the successes because they help us avoid making the same mistakes,” said Jeffrey Anderzhon, an architect who has written a book on the “post-occupancy evaluations.” That 20-20 hindsight has spotted hallways that are too narrow, patios that aren’t used because they aren’t shaded and digital thermostats that may save energy but only confuse some technology-challenged seniors.

Developers will need to rely more than ever on market studies and focus groups with prospective residents to keep up with consumers’ changing preferences, said Mr. Tipton from CSD Architects. “The same-old won’t carry the day anymore,” he said. “People are living longer, enjoying better health and accumulating more wealth. They’re going to expect more.” Mr. Grace of the Aging Research Institute says the best market research may be to require architects to live in a senior residence for a week before ever sitting down to work. “Then they’ll truly understand what they’re proposing.”

The Dallas area had the second-highest number of senior housing units under construction last year, and Texas cities accounted for three of the 10 hottest markets.

City / Units

  1. Chicago / 3,188
  2. Dallas / 2,871
  3. New York / 2,150
  4. San Francisco / 2,014
  5. Philadelphia / 1,938
  6. Seattle / 1,679
  7. San Antonio / 1,536
  8. Los Angeles / 1,376
  9. Houston / 1,238
  10. Denver / 1,065

SOURCES: American Seniors Housing Association and the National Investment Center

Reprinted with permission by The Dallas Morning News. July 10, 2007