4 Senior Living Design Tips to Prepare for the Unknown

Senior living design is a balancing act: Providers must create communities to suit the markets where they are today, but also position them with an eye toward a future that is in many ways uncertain. With an approach that emphasizes longevity and timelessness, that can be achieved.

Gone are the days when communities used dated finishes, designated space for soon-to-be obsolete technology and individual rooms to serve singular purposes. Now, providers are finding that in order to maximize a community’s lifespan, they must design it to be adaptable, neutral and mobile so it can flex with market demand and demographic preferences.

“It’s about sustainability,” says Rocky Berg, principal and director of Senior Living Business Development at three: living architecture. “From the senior living perspective, most of our clients hang on to their properties. As a long-term holder, they’ve realized that [when they] built their last project out of concrete or block or didn’t think about future phases, they bottle-necked their phases and were handicapped with a property that became out of date too quickly.”


Dallas-based three: living architecture focuses not only on the senior living industry, but also on the hospitality and residential sectors. Not surprisingly, the firm has seen noticeable similarities over the years between its work in senior living and its work on resorts, spas, hotels and the like.

From hospitality to senior living, it’s not about building bigger, but building smarter. Take, for example, the continental breakfast space at a hotel that can double as a bar at night, and 15 years from now could be easily transformed into, dare we say, a hologram theater.

“The hospitality folks have led the way in that thinking — moving to the concept of smart rooms,” Berg says. “If I can design a singular space, but smarter, it’ll cost more, but I won’t have to add another 400 square feet to accommodate two separate rooms. I’m reducing the square feet of the building so the clients will use it in a smarter, better way.”


Austin-based studioSIX5, an interior design firm focused on the senior living sector, has been drawing up such flexible spaces for the past four to five years, and has worked on as many as 70 projects using the concept of flexibility as a foundation, says President Dean Maddalena.

And for Maddalena, building smarter spaces is no longer optional for senior living providers.

“It’s mandatory right now; you can’t build dedicated spaces anymore,” he says. “Construction costs are zooming, so you’re trying to reduce the amount of square footage, and you don’t now what’s going to happen five years from now, so you have to have spaces to accommodate that.”

Here are four ways senior living communities can be designed to withstand the test of time:

1. One Space, Multiple Uses 

The ability to cut back on a senior living community’s size while maximizing its use is paramount. Providers can do so by designing rooms or spaces to serve multiple purposes.

“As we’re designing, we develop three uses for each space,” Maddalena says. “That way there’s built-in flexibility that gets the [provider] in the mindset of different ways to use the space.”

These “smart spaces” can then flex with the operator and its needs.

“Rooms can be built for multiple uses (multi-purpose rooms, dining venues, theater, classroom, fitness) and the use of layered lighting and the ability to acoustically tailor the room (adjustable sound board panels, curtains, surfaces to bounce sound) make it easier for the operator to use it for different things,” Berg says.

One easy way to build in such flexibility is to install movable screens on a ball bearing or floor track, which can be easily adjusted by both residents or the community’s staff. Using these screens, spaces can be divided — or opened up — to serve different functions.

2. Convertible Units 

Many providers have turned to convertible units to adapt to the changing needs of their residents and respond to demand shifts in their markets. One such provider is Capital Senior Living Corporation (NYSE: CSU), which has used conversions to drive occupancy at its communities by as much as 24%.

“We’re seeing a trend in providers building independent living communities but licensing them as assisted living,” Maddalena says. “Their model is to age in place, so they’re actually building to meet all the codes and requirements for assisted living, but initially it’s utilized as independent living.”

This is also the case for communities looking to shift units from assisted living to memory care. While the two care types typically have similar units, memory care apartments don’t usually have kitchens. The solution? “Plug and play millwork,” Berg says.

“One example is using a kitchenette that is removable so that the space can convert from AL to MC,” he says. “Operators can change a group of units to mimic demand in the marketplace for one care level over another.”

Not only are providers converting units to higher — or lower — care settings, but they’re also looking for ways to combine or divide units, based on demographic preferences.

For studioSIX5, this means placing units based on the future demand forecast.

“We’re always looking at placing apartments so you can have a one-bedroom apartment next to a studio, so that if needs change down the road, you can combine them into a two-bedroom apartment,” Maddalena says. “During the Great Recession, there was a need for smaller units, so if you had built that flexibility into the community from the start, you could have broken down a two-bedroom into separate units.”

The key to doing so is planning ahead and using knock-out panels.

“Pre-plan separate units where a shared wall can be knocked down to combine units if a prospective client wants a larger apartment,” Berg says, noting that providers will also need to think about how to hide the second kitchen or entry.

3. Interior Decor 

Gaudy wallpaper, ornate guard rails, brash finishes — it’s easy to imagine some of the interior design faux pas of the past. But providers are learning from their mistakes, and are now shifting to a more neutral and timeless palette.

“During the ’80s and early ‘90s, [providers] were doing fancy corner guards and bumper rails, and now they’re stuck with them, because they’re too expensive to replace,” Maddalena says. “All those elements that would be expensive to change down the road, we keep neutral so it gives the community a longer life and more flexibility down the road with better cost savings.”

Another consideration is the carpet.

“I’m seeing a lot more carpet squares as opposed to roll-down carpets,” Berg says. “It gives the operator more options in terms of replacing carpets, or if they want to strategically break up a floor pattern or route, carpet squares offer more flexibility.”

4. Structural Elements

It goes without saying that load-bearing walls can be a huge obstacle to flexible design — which is why three: living architecture designs spaces with those structural elements on the perimeter of the building.

“Historically, in senior living, most common spaces have been load-bearing walls, so the building gets cut up,” Berg says. “But if you put columns in, you can build wall systems that aren’t load-bearing and can move anywhere. That way, it’s easier to adapt the buliding over the course of time.”

In addition to minimizing the amount of structural support needed, providers should think about how to strategically locate the community’s plumbing, should they want to convert the building in the future.

Despite the advantages of designing a flexible senior living community, cost is undeniably a barrier.

“Flexible spaces can be a dilemma for operators because they have to invest more dollars per square foot, but they’re hopefully able to build less square footage to balance costs,” Berg says. “This can be a challenge when construction costs are increasing.”

While cost and square footage vary on a case-by-case basis, the idea is to invest more money in less space and make that space sustainable over time. In doing so, providers will ultimately save money, as they won’t have to make costly renovations, repairs or conversions down the road.

“You’ve got to be adaptable,” Berg says. “Spend the money and create a space no one else has.”

Written by Emily Study

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