How Senior Living Designs Lack Courage

When it comes to senior living designs, one of the major problems is pervasive fear of being bold. At least, that’s the take of one prominent figure in the industry, David Dillard of D2 Architecture. Gain insight into these and other trends in architecture and design in this Q&A series leading up to the 2015 Senior Housing News Design & Architecture Awards, exclusively sponsored by Kwalu.

With nominations open and the deadline to register only 11 days away, the judges are gearing up to pick the winners of the 2015 Design Awards. Senior Housing News recently asked returning judge Dillard his thoughts on trending topics in senior housing design this past year. 

SHN: What are the top trends you’ve seen in senior housing in 2015?


DD: Growth of the ‘template-driven’ or ‘kit-of-parts approach’ by for-profit clients who are interested in developing communities in various cities.

The primary motive: velocity and speed to market. There is still plenty to do for senior housing, but the gaps are closing, yet there are still spots that haven’t been covered.

We, as architects and designers, are part of a movement to partner with for-profit clientele who want to go in on the underserved markets. Those markets are definitely shrinking, but they are still there, and there are plenty of them—and we have to be fast.


In the course of developing a project, we find things that work and want to take those ideas and apply them to other projects in other cities, but we have to be smart about it so that we don’t turn into a McDonald’s franchise where you get the same things in every city. Our goal is to appeal architecturally to the local market so that communities are indigenous to their location. As for their internal organization, such as the kitchen, light fixtures and the units themselves, those would ideally be lifted from a project we were working on before.

This leaves architects with an internal kit of parts that is essentially reassembled and appropriated for each new project. As this process goes on, each time we do it we are not only better, but we’re also faster because we’ve burned through the learning curve.

There is a push for more regionalization in the architectural style of projects as they appear from the street. Clients resist the cookie-cutter, so even though you may share infrastructure and the basic chassis of a previously constructed community, the outside and what it feels like when when you drive up and walk in is very much true to the local community itself—out of the soil from which it grew.


SHN: How are providers developing properties for the low- and middle-income population?

DD: There’s great frustration around the table regarding how to develop anything in the senior living spectrum for the low-middle income elder population.  Everyone wants to crack the code, but no can figure out how.

It’s so important, and not only from a business model standpoint. There are two levels of this conversation. If I’m in the business of designing, building, owning or just being involved in the senior living industry, I can just go into any city that’s already populated with senior living communities, but if I can find a way to catch the next lower socioeconomic strata in one of those cities, then I’m serving a group that isn’t already being served.

In addition to the business side, there’s also the general humanitarian aspect of taking care of more people, particularly those who are not as well funded. It’s something we want to do. There is real interest—more talk than performance right now—but there are ways that we are trying to figure out how to deliver a building with less dollars per square foot than we have been doing typically.

Logically, it’s completely impossible. A two-by-four stud costs the same no matter what the future resident will being charged to live there. It has a lot to do with building a smaller building and figuring out how to have a wonderful place to live but in less square footage than you think you need.

This is only the first chapter in our book of how to design at a lower price point, but the best way to approach this problem is to build smaller, not to use cheaper materials. Smaller is greener and more affordable. A small lexus is always going to be less expensive than a larger lexus, yet the quality remains the same throughout.

SHN: Where is senior housing design and architecture falling short in comparison to other industries?

DD: Renovations (or ‘repositionings’) are not as bold and extreme in terms of architecture and interior as they are in hospitality or multifamily industries. There is an ubiquitous lack of courage.

Ironically, the most progressive movement in senior housing design is found in the need-driven end of the spectrum, a place where the 60-year-old daughter is making the decision. She is cool and wants “cool” for her mom so that the kids and grandkids will tag along for visits without complaining.

It’s all about atmosphere. We’re on a mission to shatter the notion that senior housing is equal to the dark, flickering, fluorescent lights nursing home model. We want elegant informality.

Freeze frame to Friday night at 7 p.m. Where is the 60-year-old adult daughter? She’s probably out to dinner at a restaurant. What does that restaurant look like? Take what you see visually in that restaurant, and build a senior living community with that in mind. That’s the baby boom influence, not the current residents themselves. These adult children are incredibly influential to high acuity because they are the decision makers for mom, and they want to move mom to the newer-looking snazzy place.

Site selection is imperative. Senior living is becoming increasingly more need-driven. It’s no longer the want-driven spectrum of the 78-year-old who has been deciding whether or not to move for the past 10 years and has finally decided it’s time. Look back at the storyline of the 60-year-old adult daughter who has to take care of mom. Where does she want to visit three times a week? She’s selfishly choosing based on herself. She has kids, and maybe grandkids herself.

So what type of physical environment is going to be good for four generations to experience and enjoy all at one time? This means daylight, playgrounds, more outdoor spaces, not necessarily for grandma to enjoy, but for the kids and grandkids to have something to do when they go to visit her.

SHN: How can operators design communities that are not only relevant now, but will continue to be relevant in the future?

DD: The time is coming (or has already arrived, given the years it takes to get from concept to ribbon-cutting) when we quit stratifying continuing care retirement communities or even smaller assisted living and memory care projects into the classical categories of independent, assisted, memory care, and skilled nursing and rehabilitation.

I see “lower walls” and less distinction between these traditional labels. Perhaps the bracketing and neighborhood/small house designs we are seeing as a result of the culture change movement in the lower acuity end of the spectrum will spill over into assisted living and even independent living.

This is an idea, a priori—we haven’t been asked to design anything like it yet— but the concept is that there are more levels of care based on function, interest or aesthetic rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality. There needs to be less of a conspicuous leap from one level of care to the next.  

Wise clients are aware of what they don’t know and are asking us to design interchangeable communities within their larger campus.This includes units and neighborhoods that could serve assisted living residents in 2016 but be easily re-populated with memory care residents in 2017 as the market demands shift. It’s smart, and keeps them relevant.

We are also seeing clients opt for non-load bearing walls, assuming the cost difference is not too great. The advantage is that they can make more aggressive changes to their buildings in the future with less difficulty and expense.

SHN: If money were no object, what is the one thing you would include in every senior housing design this year?

DD: Some kind of pool or water therapy. Do you realize how much lighter you are, how much less your feet, back and arthritis hurts, when you are 80% under water? There are so many infirmities that disappear—even if only temporarily—when you’re in water.

Overall, senior living needs more beauty, aesthetic and good taste. I want to see more ‘Wow! This is a senior living community?’

David Dillard is the PriCS4A1083D2_FF-750x500ncipal of D2 Architecture based out of Dallas, Texas. David’s contribution to senior living architecture started in Dallas in the 1990’s. Since then, his portfolio has grown to encompass some of the most progressive, award winning senior living communities in the country. Although he is often on the dais of national and regional conventions (LeadingAge, AIA, ULI, APA, Environments for Aging, et al) he has taken a life-long vow never to leave the drawing board.

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