Urban Infill Market is Big Opportunity for Seniors Housing

Manuel G. Gonzalez, AIA, CAASH, principal with KTGY Group Inc., a residential, retail and mixed-use design firm, is responsible for the design, land planning and production of developments as well as active adult and affordable multifamily communities nationwide. In his more than twenty years of practice in residential development, Gonzalez (pictured) has won numerous awards for his designs in the 50+ active adult market including Gold Nugget, NAHB, Pillars of Industry and Best in American Living. He recently received his fourth Gold Award from the NAHB for Dorado Senior Apartments in Buena Park. Gonzalez has also served as president of the Seniors Housing Council for Southern California, and on national committees for the NAHB 50+ Symposium and University of Housing. He is currently on the Leadership Board for NAHB Multifamily and the Editorial Advisory Board of 50+ Builder and has written and contributed to scores of articles on design for active adults. He talks to MHN’s Online News Editor Anuradha Kher about challenges, changes and emerging areas in the seniors housing industry, as well as the differences between affordable and market-rate seniors housing, which he says are both growing equally fast. MHN: What are the big changes occurring in the seniors housing market-affordable and non-affordable? Gonzalez: For a long time the focus on seniors housing was resort-style developments where the amenities were built into the community. Today, I think there are lots of opportunities to take advantage of amenities that are already in place. We are currently working on senior housing developments that are associated with universities where the residents can go back to school and study things like Irish Folklore before they take advantage of the school’s two-week trip to Ireland. We are also integrating more 55+ housing into mixed-use and lifestyle retail centers where shopping, dining and entertainment are right at their doorstep.As far as physical changes, the unit plans had been growing over the last dozen years, more so in the market-rate than the affordable. However, today’s affordable units are far more generous than when I first started designing seniors housing some 15 years ago. In light of the current economy though, plan sizes seem to be, at best, holding in that range and maybe even downsizing a little. The interesting thing now is that rooms in community centers are tending to go the other direction. The large multipurpose room is giving way to flexible, more intimate spaces so that residents in smaller groups can find a variety of gathering spaces more appropriate to their needs. And in the Sunbelt region, outdoor living areas are following the single-family market and becoming increasingly more popular.As this current generation of residents enters the senior housing market, most of them are tech savvy, so wireless communication is soon going to be a necessary standard feature. And of course the Wii and virtual golf have replaced the bingo machine!MHN: What are the emerging markets for seniors housing? Gonzalez: The one area in which I see a real opportunity is in the urban infill market. As many America’s downtowns are seeing a revitalization with sports and entertainment moving back into city centers, this can serve as the amenity for the new seniors who want an exciting urban lifestyle. There are also opportunities to partner with other types of developments like hospitality to provide the “condo-hotel” experience for the upper-end of the market. These urban solutions are also available in affordable senior housing. MHN: How is the architecture for affordable seniors housing different from regular seniors housing? Gonzalez: While KTGY has designed scores of wonderful market-rate senior communities, it seems that we win more of our design awards for affordable senior housing than we do traditional. I think that is attributable in part to the developers who are in the business for the long haul and want to maintain a reputation for quality developments because city councils and potential neighbors are often put off by the thought of affordable housing in their neighborhoods. At the same time there is often city participation in the project, and city staff will often insist on a little more stone or a little more brick that might not have been added to a regular senior housing project. So I am proud to say that you probably would not be able to tell one of our affordable communities from one that is market rate.There is still a difference in the unit sizes however. In order to make the affordable development work, unit sizes are generally at the minimum required by the affordability regulations. Market rate on the other hand is dictated by what [the customer] wants.MHN: What are the challenges of designing seniors housing and affordable seniors housing? Gonzalez: The challenges begin with the units themselves, especially in affordable plans. Interestingly enough I also see some similarities between the Gen Y’ers and the 55+’ers, in that they both like the ability to customize their units, whether it is being able to have a special color on an interior accent wall, or a window box for their own personal expression. There are also circulation issues that need particular attention, from the car to the pedestrian to the UPS trucks. Most senior residents today haven’t given up their cars, so making driving and parking easy and convenient is crucial. And while walking and hiking remain the number one activity in 55+ communities, creating walkways and paths that are both enjoyable and safe are important.Probably the biggest challenge is creating the feel of a community. You don’t always have to have a theme built-in, but where that opportunity exists, it is great to take advantage of it. MHN: As an architect, what is more challenging—designing something that is aesthetically pleasing or designing something that is more functional? Gonzalez: I don’t think you need to compromise one to achieve the other. I think designs in the 55+ market must certainly be functional by nature. Being on the smaller side of the floor plan spectrum, efficiently using every square inch of space is critical. The aesthetic challenge generally comes into play with making the construction budget work. Aesthetic value engineering needs to happen in schematic design, not after the first bids come in. MHN: We know seniors housing is a big area of growth but what is the future of affordable seniors housing? Gonzalez: There will probably always be a need for affordable seniors housing. Middle-income neighborhoods, as a proportion of all metropolitan neighborhoods, declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000 as lower-income families became more likely to live in lower-income neighborhoods, and higher-income families in higher-income neighborhoods. As these lower-income baby boomer families become lower fixed-income families, seniors affordable housing will become a big area of growth as well.MHN: Why do you like designing seniors housing projects? Gonzalez: I want to make sure there are some great choices for me out there when I retire, including affordable ones, especially if the housing industry doesn’t come back soon! But really, it is about designing good functional homes for part of our society that often doesn’t get the care and respect they have earned. It doesn’t take that much more effort to design something that accommodates aging in place or allows for the resident to express who they are. It is also a great industry. The people I have met [who are] associated with the seniors housing industry truly care about what they are creating. Whether the residents are living in a development I designed because they want to or because they need to, I want to make sure they feel a sense of community and pride in where they live.