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Apr. 11, 2013

MHN Interview: Getting an Insider’s Perspective on Seniors Housing

By Jessica Fiur, News Editor

Dallas—You might have an abstract idea of what it’s like to live in a seniors housing facility, but do you really know what it’s like to live there? In order to learn more about the useful design elements in seniors housing, the architects at D2 Architecture in Dallas have started the Sleepover Project, which allows them to spend a day at the facilities as a “resident” to learn more about the community. MHN speaks with D2 Architecture’s Grant Warner, principal, and Keith Wilson, project architect, about what they learned from the Sleepover Project and how this will influence their designs going forward.

MHN: Describe the Sleepover Project.

Wilson: This is a project where, for a 24-hour period, an employee from D2 goes to a senior living retirement center. Typically we try to get them in an assisted living facility or a skilled nursing facility—something that we know less about from an experience point. We go and we’re given an ailment—some kind of reason why we’d be in the facility. For instance, when I last stayed they gave me the ailments of a stroke victim. So you act as a resident and experience what it’s like being a resident in that facility to better learn and understand how people use the facilities, and to take our understanding and better design our buildings in the future.

Warner: At a high level, it’s an evidence-based design research project, and at a lower level it’s an immersive experience to make us better designers for seniors.

MHN: Are these facilities designed by D2, or are you just checking out the competition?

Warner: They’re a mix of both. We go to communities we are working with and communities that we have no relationship with in order to broaden our research. Sometimes facilities that we’re not working with might have something interesting that we want to be a part of. Every community is different in senior living.

MHN: What did you find from the experience?

Warner: I think the biggest thing that most people find is that it’s an inspirational experience. It’s eye opening in how you see caregivers who care for our elders. It’s hard for architects to see that—we’re kind of detached. We’re working in an office and we’re drawing on a drawing board or a computer screen and we sometimes become detached with the users that we’re talking about. And not just the residents, but the caregivers and their families and their loved ones. [The Sleepover Project lets us] see how they experience these spaces and what we can do to make their lives easier.

MHN: Beyond experiencing the facilities as a “resident” yourself, you probably saw how the residents interacted with the facilities themselves. Did that provide any inspiration?

Wilson: Absolutely. Everyone is different and they come in with different needs or wants. I got a lot of feedback from people. They’re very open about giving their opinions about how they’re living and what they’re experiencing. You get to hear multiple points of view, so it’s very informative.

MHN: What was the most surprising thing you found out?

Warner: The most surprising thing for me, and I’ve done four of these [sleepovers], is how wonderful the caregivers are. I watched some of these nurses and nurse aides talk to the residents about every aspect of their lives, about their children and grandchildren, and they remember not only their names and careers and what they did in life and where they’re from, but they remember their hobbies and their likes and their dislikes. To me, this was extremely surprising.

Wilson: The most surprising thing from my own perspective was I’d never been in a wheelchair before, so from an architectural perspective, trying to navigate through even regular places was eye opening to me. Even trying to get through a regular doorway was difficult. Transitioning from the wheelchair to the toilet was eye opening. We as architects have to design accessibility and clearances and grab bars to aid these people. I didn’t realize it would be as challenging as it was for me.

Warner: Another surprising thing I’d like to add is we’ve been doing this for 11 years now. The first one David [Dillard, principal] and I did in 2002. I’ve been surprised to see how senior living is changing from the inside, which is really wonderful. It’s becoming less institutional, and more residential. It’s a lot more personal. It’s wonderful to see.

MHN: Have you incorporated many of the things you’ve learned over the past 11 years into your designs? What do you do with the findings?

Warner: We constantly try to incorporate them [into our designs]. The research is pulled together into booklets we keep on file that we talk about and compare. Because we’ve been lucky enough to stay in different types of communities—we’ve had a broad service from skilled nursing to assisted living to memory support to rehab to hospice, and so on—we constantly talk about it among ourselves and try to remind each other, especially from our personal experiences.

We are partnered with the University of North Texas. Their School of Applied Gerontology is interested in a partnership that would involve turning it into research papers. Right now they’re working with us, and some of their students and faculty participated in some of the sleepovers.

MHN: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Warner: We hope that others will follow in our footsteps and pursue some immersive experiences like this. And not just architects, but engineers, developers, finance people—anyone who’s involved in senior living. There are so many people that make it happen, and I hope others will become interested and try it out.

Wilson: Something that Grant alluded to earlier is that as architects we don’t experience these spaces that we design for firsthand—we’re not the end users. A lot of time we have to rely on the owners or the operators, by word of mouth, for how we can better design. So this is from a firsthand experience, and the way that you could probably learn the most is by experiencing these spaces. I’ve never gone to such great lengths to actually try to climb into somebody else’s skin as the end user to experience the space and better understand what these people go through. I think it’s a marvelous program that allows us to learn as much as we possibly can from a firsthand experience.

MHN: I’m sure the residents are so happy to be treated as people as opposed to just “theoretical residents.”

Warner: Absolutely! They’re amazing people.

Wilson: We try to do the best job we possibly can. While I was there, they treated me like I was just like them. I finally told them what I was doing, and they thought it was phenomenal. I think both the residents and the staff were very excited that we were there.

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