SHN Awards: Bite-Sized Senior Housing Spreads Like Wildfire

It’s more important than ever for communities to be on the cutting edge of design. Gain insight from award-winning experts on the latest trends in architecture and design in this ongoing Q&A series brought to you by Kwalu, the exclusive sponsor of the 2015 Senior Housing News Design & Architecture Awards.

SHN recently spoke with Gregory Scott, partner at RLPS Architects, which was awarded the 2014 SHN Design & Architecture Award for Stand Alone Memory Care for its work on The Osborn in Rye, New York.

SHN: What are the biggest trends you expect to see in senior housing design and architecture in the next 5 years?


GS: The crash in 2007 to 2008 was really an eye opener in the senior housing industry. This was the end of the mega communities where companies would instinctively build 60 to 100 apartment communities in one shot, because the economy was able to support big initiatives.

Prospective residents weren’t able to sell their homes, so they didn’t have the resources to buy apartments in senior living communities. Communities needed income to help support the capital needs they had with aging campuses. Companies needed to figure out a way to still do new construction, but with lower risks.

Providers began developing “bite-sized” initiatives, where a community could build 12 to 24 apartments at one time instead of 60 to 80. This was relatively low-risk, because it wasn’t a big financial investment. This idea took off like wildfire. Providers found revenue coming in, and they were no longer exposed to high risk capital investments and were also able to attract a younger audience.


These small structures were three to four stories tall and often equipped with parking underneath. They have the same behavior as a cottage, with outdoor living spaces and corner balconies, and they’re nimble and can flex and change with the market at the snap of a finger, because they do not have the cumbersome inertia of the mega communities that came before them.


I’ve been practicing 40 years in senior living, and I’m looking at the senior living industry through a new lens. Throughout my career, I’ve been telling audiences about how designers need to be sensitive to the effects of aging, and now I’m one of them. I ask myself if I would be interested in living in the communities I’ve been preaching, and the answer is yes and no.

An additional trend I expect in the next five years is more urban options that respond to an increased interest in downtown living. The floor plans of existing communities are spectacular, but I don’t want to live in the traditional cornfield setting. Most communities are isolated and insulated from the mainstream, located out in suburban settings, or on the edges of downtown. There are very few communities located in downtown, urban environments.

The retirement models that the industry has been working with call themselves “retirement communities,” which is not an attractive term to front-wave boomers. As an architect who works in senior living, I see the world internally as a young person, although my chassis is 66. Retirement models are going to have to adapt to the front-wave of boomers and what they want out of a living setting. The industry is still writing that script. This generation wasn’t sitting back being quiet; we were part of a social movement, always restless, and that has carried through to our senior years. Communities need to stay nimble, flexible, and agile to respect their needs.

SHN: What design element are today’s communities lacking that they need to have?

GS: There need to be affordable solutions that are also highly attractive. The outcome of the 2008 downturn was a wake-up call that more is not always better. Before 2008, we kept putting air in the tires; square footage of apartments just got bigger and bigger. Once the air went out of the tire, it forced design professionals and owners to get real and be creative about providing floor plans and solutions that looked bigger than they actually were.

In order to make senior living affordable, every square foot has to be managed. Each square foot costs money and should work hard toward achieving affordability. Give residents the option of providing upgrades with the finishes and materials. Give me quality and value, and I will be much happier about living in a smaller space.

There is also a need for creative floor plan solutions that take advantage of outdoor connections, such as smart use of windows, so that these apartments feel bigger than they actually are. There is an actual science based on our DNA connection to nature. We desire to be connected to the outside. Before electricity, we had to depend on our natural connection to nature, because we couldn’t artificially infuse light. At that time, we were more in tune with circadian rhythms, but since then, we have completely screwed it up. There needs to be a movement to get that adjusted and corrected.

SHN: What are the top three changes you have seen in senior housing design and architecture in the last year?

  1. The recession is over and now providers are very eager to get back in the game.
  2. Incremental growth versus mega expansion has received a lot of traction since 2008.
  3. Everyone in the industry is trying to figure out what the first wave of boomers want.

SHN: What kind of recognition did your company receive after accepting the award for Best of Stand Alone Memory Care Design in 2014?

GS: First and foremost, the owner was thrilled by the recognition! For RLPS, it was an endorsement that we are on the right track.

SHN: Why apply for the 2015 SHN Awards?

GS: Sharing information and ideas with colleagues in the industry is critical! It’s the old adage: All boats rise with the rising tide!

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