What Will and Won’t Change in Senior Housing Design

Touchless tech is here to stay, but major floor-planning overhauls have an uncertain future, experts said at the Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference.
Slide from Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference

Designers of senior living communities are wrestling with the implications of the public health crisis that has tested the industry this year and brought about a temporary halt in new projects. In a poll taken on the third day of the virtual Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference, 87 percent of participants said that the pandemic will permanently change senior living design.

The result surprised Ben Seager, associate principal of KTGY Architecture + Planning, who said during a panel discussion on trends in footprint planning that the developers and operators he has spoken with exhibit a more mixed outlook. “We tend to be prisoners of the moment sometimes,” he said.


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The pandemic has generated a long list of design changes that can potentially be made to senior living communities with the aim of better infection control, Seager noted on the panel, which was moderated by Jessica Fiur, managing editor of Multi-Housing News.

For instance, visitation rooms with direct access to the outside could allow family members to visit loved ones without walking through the community, he said. Hotel rooms could even be added to allow staff members to live on-site without going home and possibly spreading a pathogen. The decentralized “neighborhood” concept of assisted living buildings, already a nascent trend before the epidemic, could also gain traction.

Seager added that these types of big-picture adaptations, which involve changing the floor plan, have major financial implications and therefore may be a tough sell for developers. On the other hand, smaller-scale tweaks to building systems and finishes are definitely here to stay. These include higher-quality air filtration, UV lighting and finishes like anti-microbial surfaces and acrylic fabric on the furnishings. Features that limit manual contact, such as touchless light switches and faucets, are easy to implement and can rein in the spread of germs.

One major space-planning trend that could have staying power is the idea of flexible common spaces, such as dining rooms that can accommodate spaced-out seating at mealtimes and can be used for other activities as needed.

Creative adaptation

Slide from Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference

A sharp drop in senior housing occupancy, which fell to its lowest recorded level of 84.9 percent in the second quarter, has spurred interest in building a more affordable product geared towards a larger potential market. One strategy that developers can consider to maximize cost efficiency is repurposing existing structures.

Seager talked about an adaptive reuse project that KTGY completed in Long Beach, Calif., by transforming an historic medical office building into an assisted living and memory care facility with 102 units. The firm saw potential in the vacant property’s thin shape, which created a perfect opportunity for a corridor down the middle with rooms on either side.

The design team was able to restore the 1929-vintage building its original art deco aesthetic, while converting former office spaces into residential units. Natural light was added to the long corridor by turning a couple of rooms on each floor into a great room.

KTGY’s client had to perform thorough due diligence to make sure there weren’t serious problems with the building, Seager added. “It was a big success because the structure was already there, and that’s the big expense,” he said. “Steel is steel and they didn’t have to pay for any of that.”

Hotel opportunity

Seager speculated that struggling hotels might be good candidates for adaptive reuse, given that they already have kitchens, lounges, dining areas, administrative areas and rooms that work. “From a design standpoint only, the hotel module makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Jerome Finis, CEO of senior living developer and operator Pathway to Living, cautioned on the same panel that while it’s worth looking at hotel conversions, the small size of the rooms could make the project challenging. “You probably have to convert two hotel rooms into one unit.”

He noted that locations far outside the city, where land is cheap and developers can build two-story communities, offer the easiest way to save costs and target senior living’s middle market. But, he observed, Chicago has seen a significant amount of infill development lately, primarily in the inner ring suburbs with great transportation and retail options.

“Retrofit and infill locations can make a big difference to allow us to meet these markets without asking somebody to get up and move 50 miles outside of town to try to find a way to save a thousand dollars a month.”