Senior Housing Design in the Wake of COVID-19: Opportunities for Innovation

A look at how different design firms and compliance departments will use creative solutions to address key challenges, according to Walter Marin of Marin Architects.

Walter Marin

As an architect, I have always adhered to the school of thought that “form follows function.” For the first time ever, an invisible force contributes to our design methodology: air. We now need to adapt all spaces, including senior living facilities, to protect people from potentially dangerous air particles. The legislative response to the airborne pandemic involves different constituents, so the speed at which laws form is constantly evolving. Senior living facilities are charged with the care and protection of some of our most vulnerable populations, and therefore are following larger unwritten rules about COVID-19 and choosing to strengthen existing regulations. What will be fascinating to see is how different design firms and compliance departments will use creative solutions to address the same problem. This process is a huge opportunity for innovation across the design industry.

Air quality is a huge factor that normally falls under the umbrella of health-care-based thinking. For maximum impact, this is one element that requires advance preparation. We can install secondary air-cleaning devices and be more diligent about changing filters, but this won’t solve the problem entirely. Think of traditional cigar bars. There can be 100 people smoking, but you can’t see any smoke. This is because those spaces are designed to clear out air at an incredible rate. Similarly, when you walk through a hospital, it is almost impossible to find a smell. This is because hospitals filter 100 percent of the air in and out to avoid the spread of germs. This method is an expensive option, but it is one that we will see increasingly utilized for gyms, dining rooms and any spaces where lots of people congregate—including senior living facilities.

Design elements

Similar to the concerns faced by college dormitories, the primary question in senior living facilities is how to reduce contact amongst different groups. The exchange of people going in and out of these spaces is quite a puzzle. During the pandemic, many seniors have been unable to receive visitors for their own safety, which is very isolating. As designers, we need to create a space where two sets of populations can exist––that is, the isolated seniors and their loved ones who want to come and visit––without sharing air space. This might be a lounge or a special zone where family can visit and have contact in a safe way, without risking transmission of a virus, similar to how a newborn might require an incubator with a controlled environment. Additionally, the mask is here to stay. In the future, visitors will not be able to enter these facilities without a mask, whether to prevent a virus like COVID-19 or even the common cold.

Moving forward, we will see design elements traditionally used in health-care spaces being increasingly adopted into senior housing. This includes the massive influx of personal protective equipment. To better protect residents against any future pandemic, senior living facilities will need to equip each room with greater quantities of PPE and health-care materials to avoid shortages. Visitation will also start to mimic hospital procedures. Already, designers are developing innovative solutions such as flexible lobby zones with testing capabilities. This ensures the health of the visitor before they enter the space. Many designers are also working with senior living clients to renovate existing spaces in order to provide health-care services in-house.

Healthy materials 

Material selection in senior living spaces is yet another design element that will be heavily influenced by the pandemic. In hospitals and medical facilities, materials are carefully chosen to ensure that surfaces do not retain germs. Interestingly, much of this thinking is influenced by shark skins. Shark skins are textured surfaces and have evolved that way to avoid bacterial or fungal growth. Germs will not grow in the indentations of a textured shark skin, and the same is true for human surfaces. Choosing a textured finish for furnishings and high-touch areas is more efficient than treating smooth surfaces with a temporary cleaning chemical. Surface material is something that we take for granted, but everything that we touch, from the concrete we walk on to the table we sit at, is chosen for a reason.

So what will the senior living facility of the future look like? The rest of society may see an easement of new regulations as greater segments of the population are vaccinated and we start to return to some level of normal. These guidelines will not disappear when it comes to senior living spaces, due to the high-risk factor of the residents. Likely there will be one set of rules that the facilities operate under for “normal” times, and another, stricter, set of rules in place that can be easily adopted in the event of another health crisis. The opportunity for innovation in the design of senior housing is boundless. Through a process of trial and error, we will begin to see which methods work and which do not. As an architect, I freely admit that this innovation may not come from the professional designers, but from the essential staff and managers of these facilities who are charged with protecting our most vulnerable populations, and who deal with these problems on a daily basis.

Walter Marin is the founder & senior principal of Marin Architects. Born in Latin America and raised in the heart of New York, Marin is the son of an immigrant cabinetmaker, raised with an appreciation for craftsmanship that led to his lifelong love of the built environment. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 1982 and worked with well-known architectural design firms, including the Howard Golden firm, prior to establishing Marin Associates in 1985. 

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