Senior Living Communities Getting Designer “Facelifts” for Flexibility

There’s a slight problem in the senior housing industry: the current stock of senior living communities is getting old (just like millions of Americans), and while many construction and development groups are eager to get building, the financing still isn’t there for new construction.

Rather than starting from scratch and building from the ground up, redesign and renovation might be the way to go—at least for now, say some architects, and flexibility is the name of the game.

Financing spigot “just about turned off”

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A struggling economy made construction financing scarce, translating to a mostly-stagnant senior housing development scene.

Despite mounting builder confidence in the 55+ housing market evidenced by a “significantly” improved first quarter index, according to the National Association of Home Builders, there’s still a lack of construction financing.

“It’s still tight. There’s the beginnings of a thaw going on, but it’s just as hard for a builder to get a loan, or acquire a property and build, as it is for a consumer to get a mortgage,” said Steve Melman, Director of Economic Services at NAHB. “It’s still extremely hard, and if it’s hard for just a conventional house, it’s going to be even harder if you’re trying to appeal to a niche market.”

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Financing, for the most part, came to a halt toward the end of 2008 into early 2009. While in 2005, developers could have “gotten any loan [they] wanted,” that’s not the case anymore.

“They just about turned off the spigot, and are evaluating projects based on potential for success,” Melman said.

Building from the ground up is, in most cases, a risky venture. But for the first big wave of senior living communities built in the 1990s that are in need of some tweaks to keep up with modern developments, it may be easier to get loans for renovating or repurposing an existing building.

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Designing and repurposing for flexibility

Designing senior living communities with flexibility is a trend many architects and senior living providers are seeing, and construction and renovations are following suit.

“What we’re seeing for immediate needs is to update their common spaces,” says Dan Hammons, a senior associate at design firm three: living architecture. “Some of them are, quite frankly, old, and they’re following a older model. Some communities are losing sales because of that.”

His firm is seeing a trend to update common spaces by incorporating natural light and more modern finishes, along with flexibility.

“We’re seeing a push toward designing spaces that can be used for different functions throughout the day, rather than just one function,” Hammons says.

Instead of separate spaces for a card room, or a theater, or a game room, a “great room” that can be used for many different activities is a growing concept.

Existing campuses do have the ability for flex, Hammons affirms, and it’s possible to creatively re-imagine uses for common spaces that can then be used as a marketing tool. This is especially important, he says, as those are often the areas that decision makers see—and weight heavily—when touring a facility.

Dining rooms, in particular, can be redesigned through different themes and finishes.

For example, one half of a dining room could be one theme, with a “showpiece” in the center (perhaps the chef’s or captain’s table) while the other half has a different theme. There could be similar color palettes, but one half of the room could have a “dressier” feel to it for those who want a formal dining experience.

In some older facilities, double or single units may have shared a bathroom with each other. Now, some are choosing to combine those units into one suite and “completely redo” the inside.

“There has to be some sacrifice, where maybe you can’t get the same number of residents you once had,” Hammons says. “But some of our clients are able to make that up by charging more [for the revamped suites].”

Newer community designs veer sharply from the nursing home model that some older communities were based on, he emphasizes. And while it might not yet be possible to start fresh, “there are lots of things you can do during the renovation process.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace