Design Trends for Seniors

5 min read

Post-pandemic Plans Are Both Opening Up and Closing In  

While the COVID-19 pandemic has hit senior housing so recently that post-COVID design has yet to fully materialize, what seems likely is that new congregate living projects will be more compartmentalized to cordon off seniors and their families and visitors in the public and semi-public areas of their residences.

And in the private spaces of their apartments, where many seniors have been confined for lengthy periods of time due to the disease, look for more balconies to be added to give them safe access to the outdoors and fresh air.

“Breaking down groups is one of the principal drivers,” says Michael D. Binette, AIA, NCARB, senior partner and managing director at The Architectural Team, based in Chelsea, MA. He has worked on Evergreen Village, an affordable assisted living facility in Indiana combining Medicaid waivers with Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity (TCA, October 2019 and July 2020), and the firm now has senior living projects under construction in Charlottesville, VA and Blue Ash, OH and in design at Basking Ridge, NJ and Bala Cynwyd, PA.

With the experience of the first wave of COVID-19 in mind, “There’s a much clearer distinction on how you look at the layers of public/private interaction in the senior facilities,” he says.

Senior design may include creating more self-contained “neighborhoods” inside larger projects to cut down group interactions, he says. In urban areas, designs may call for more stringent security features, which can also be used as health checkpoints.

And operations and design will work “hand in hand,” Binette says. So, while designing extra space for community areas, like dining rooms, may be impractical, staff may separate tables more to make the distance between seniors farther and have smaller groups in for seating. And more front desks may now become ad hoc stations to take temperatures and do hand sanitizing and other health-secure functions.

There could also be a separate health checkpoint later on, say at the entrance to a neighborhood, he feels.

“We’re seeing the ability to create additional separation in the configuration of a space. It might be a little more broken up, though not necessarily walled off. You might have segregated areas or furnishings.”

A Glassed-In Room
BASE3D’s rendering of a visitation suite room at CA Venture’s Anthology of senior living project shows an enclosed room using glass, designed by TAT, to make the space seem less confined. That project broke ground this January and will have 200 units when finished.

On the mechanical end, the industry is looking a “systems that bring more fresh air through buildings, a lot of sanitation UV.” The outside envelopes of buildings “will be much tighter,” he says, with more of an emphasis on sustainability.

In the residents’ private apartments, “the ability to bring more of the outside into an apartment will be very big,” Binette says. “The biggest shift is the idea of having balconies and a place to get outside in a protected way.”

There could well be a new geographical trend as well, Binette says, to design senior projects away from cities. Right now, “we see a higher level of desire to get out of urban environments,” he says.

The Architectural Team’s Ohio and Charlottesville projects are already under construction, but the one in New Jersey is still in the design phase. The design for that one was started pre-Covid, but Binette points out designs can be modified “right up until you put the shovels in the ground.”

Flexibility seems to be a key to senior design in a post-COVID world. Architect Victor Body-Lawson designed a project that has had to adapt on the fly to new conditions in the Foxhurst section of the New York City borough of the Bronx.

The $24 million mixed-use LIHTC project he designed for developer Home Street Partners LLC opened to its senior residents (including 30 percent of units going to formerly homeless seniors) this January, just as the pandemic was about to hit.

“We’re giving a lot of thought to it,” Body-Lawson says of readaptive uses on the fly and future designs. “We’re looking at it much more deeply.”

Revamping Public Spaces
Besides the “low-hanging fruit” of hand sanitizing stations and the like, that readaption also includes the idea of revamping public space, like recreation rooms or multi-purpose rooms, into individual quarantine spots as necessary or even into an urgent care center.

Body-Lawson has also thought about the best ways to regulate traffic flow through the building, such as having unidirectional elevators.

“We want to take existing things and use them to adapt to COVID,” he says.

Like Binette, Body-Lawson has been thinking about how mechanical design can be improved for healthy circulation and how outside space at the eight-story, 63-unit building can have more health-secure activity. HEPA filters to improve ventilation will be used, he says. There are also terraces on second and upper floors, that are south-facing to provide residents ample sunlight and fresh air.

The units at Home Street are mostly studios and one-bedrooms, with amenities designed to make them resemble market-rate units and with art and color-coding incorporated into the common areas.

The pandemic interrupted what was starting out to be a nice connection between the senior residents upstairs and young people using the first floor as a video gaming training center. Body-Lawson says the youth were benefiting from the wisdom and experience of the seniors, who could in return get some expert advice to help compensate for their lack of computer knowledge. The center, sponsored by local nonprofit DreamYard, has been closed since the pandemic exploded in New York City.

“Before the lockdown, there was a lot of synergy between the seniors and the youth,” he says.

Story Contacts:
Michael Binette, AIA, NCARB, Senior Partner and
Managing Director, The Architectural Team, Chelsea, MA

Victor Body-Lawson, Principal, Body Lawson Associates, New York

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.