Design Tactics for Capturing the Senior Surge

The right layouts and amenities in senior housing will appeal to both investors and residents, according to Nadel Architects' Danielle Torres.

Danielle Torres
Danielle Torres. Image courtesy of Nadel Architects

The elderly population in the United States is skyrocketing. It’s triggering massive opportunities for senior housing investors.

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people aged 65 to 74 grew by 52 percent and the 75 to 84 year old cohort grew by 25 percent, U.S. Census Bureau data shows. Thanks to longer life expectancies and critically low birthrates, aging Baby Boomers represent the fastest growing segment of the population.

As of 2021, 79 percent of senior adults owned their home, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. However, many will soon require more accessible housing as well as additional services and support. As these market forces take hold, developers and investors are taking notice—but not all senior communities are designed for long-term value.

Senior designs that make a difference

JLL’s Senior Housing and Care Investors Survey and Trends Outlook recently found that senior housing was the most desirable asset class for private real estate investors in 2024 supported by the post-COVID recovery of occupancy rates and rent growth. Assisted living, independent living and active adult communities were noted by 81 percent of surveyed investors as the biggest opportunities over the next 12 months.

Whether involving new construction or renovated properties, the success of these investments will be impacted by how the assets are designed. As people live longer and the elderly population increases, senior housing has evolved into its own architectural subsegment.

Older populations that are dealing with age-related decline present unique challenges when it comes to creating healthy and livable environments that include additional safety and accessibility features. To create long-term value it’s imperative to look for features that are not just limited to age-restricted occupants but also have a more universal appeal. For example, voice-enabled technology, automated doorways and a lack of steps are all examples of subtle amenities that provide access to the elderly and convenience for their children and grandchildren.

Universal design, a concept by coined by architect Ronald Mace with a focus on the disabled community, has evolved to include the elderly. Modern living spaces must be designed to be accessible by people of all ages with such features incorporated seamlessly throughout common areas and individual living quarters.

Among the new wave of senior housing builds, the most valuable assets will be the ones that embrace and enhance both healthy aging and social well-being. This includes increasing outdoor access and garden spaces as well as indoor green spaces, living walls and advanced HVAC circulation.

Design considerations suggested by Happy Cities include:

  • A seamless integration of shared indoor and outdoor spaces
  • Open entrances that allow free circulation
  • Clear signage
  • Designated spaces, large and small, for social connection
  • Age-appropriate lighting, heating and cooling
  • Focuses on exercise and mobility
  • Access to public or communal transportation

Another focus is the positive impact of technology on livability. Alongside Wi-Fi, modern senior residences should incorporate smart home features including personal assistants like Siri and Alexa to help turn lights on and off, get news and make phone calls.

Further, considering the increasing popularity of ecommerce and online shopping habits—especially for the elderly who are less likely to venture out for errands—easy access parcel rooms and food delivery drop-off spaces are key.

Variety is key

Increased housing costs and rising inequality within the senior segment are driving variety in senior housing design. Research by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that 88 of the largest 100 cities in the nation reported that more than half of their senior renter population is cost-burdened due to low and static incomes and rising expenses.

Because of this, household configurations are changing with multiple generations residing together or smaller more communal buildings featuring shared living rooms and kitchens. These shifts are reflected in modern senior communities which offer a variety of layouts and plans to suit a broad spectrum of needs and lifestyles.

Another key piece of the senior housing design equation is location. Ideally, new construction plans should consider the neighborhood’s walkability and transportation options. Mixed-use communities are excellent investments opportunities when they offer universal amenities such as exercise areas, walking paths and gardens.

Aesthetics are critical

Aesthetics play as much of a part in senior housing success as in any other real estate asset class. One of the first things that the children of the elderly will consider upon visiting a potential new home for their parents is how the community looks and feels.

Institutional design has been replaced with comfortable and enjoyable. No one wants to live in a hospital, nor a hotel. Casual contemporary living that provides privacy and intimacy—but not at the expense of social lives and community building—is the preferred aesthetic for long-term value.

Best-in-class design must also provide efficiency and flexibility to accommodate to the current and long-term needs of the project. For example, depending on the municipal code, building internal infrastructure for certification as both independent living and assisted living can help residents stay in the same location as they age.

The goal for developers and investors backing these projects should be to maximize resident tenures by designing for wellness, services and care. Architectural excellence in senior housing design is the result of collaborative planning with both investors and residents in mind.

Danielle Torres is a senior project manager at Nadel Architects.

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