Common Flaws to Avoid in Senior Living Unit Design

With new senior housing communities opening their doors in many markets across the country, competition for residents is certain to heat up. While newly constructed buildings might boast top-flight amenities and beautiful, cutting-edge designs, the pressure is on to get all the details right in order to win over residents and keep them satisfied.

Perhaps the most important place to get the little things right is in a resident’s unit, given the substantial amount of time they spend in these spaces—up to 70% of their time, for independent living residents. That’s according to an informal survey done by D2 Architecture, which recently hosted its first-ever Floor Plan Summit, bringing together leading providers, designers, construction specialists, and other stakeholders to discuss what separates a great unit from one that doesn’t make the grade.

The following design flaws are three that the assembled experts zeroed in on as potentially marring otherwise stellar units:

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1. Uncoordinated Outlets

Televisions have become thinner and lighter, which is good news from a design perspective: Mounting a TV on the wall frees up valuable floor space. However, if the needed outlets are not well-placed, mounting a TV can involve running wires in an unsightly way and can even create compliance issues.

“Coordination of power and data outlets becomes of utmost importance,” said D2 Designer Chris Muder. “You want to avoid running wire up the wall.”

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Uncoordinated outlets can result in placing a TV close to the ceiling. This is not ideal, particularly considering that emerging touchscreen technologies could make it important for TVs to be easily within reach and at eye-level, noted Muder. If outlets are well-coordinated, they all can be hidden behind the TV, which itself can be in a logical place in the room.

In terms of compliance, there may be regulations such as the one in Texas that mandates certain objects cannot protrude more than four inches from the wall in some senior care settings, Muder said. Placing the TV in a built-in piece of furniture, mounting it above a fixed piece of furniture such as a dresser, or using recessed wall plugs to allow the TV to sit more flushly against the wall are ways that smart design may be able to address this requirement.

As TV technology continues to evolve, these issues could fall by the wayside. Newer models are as thin as two inches, with very minimal mounting hardware. And wireless technology means that TVs may increasingly require only access to a power outlet, making it even easier to place them, D2 founder and Principal David Dillard noted.

2. Splash-tastic Showers

Roll-in showers maximize accessibility and are emerging as a senior living selling point. However, they present a distinct challenge: They lack the traditional barrier that keeps water from flowing out of the shower into the rest of the bathroom.

Rather, trench drains often run along the front or rear of the shower stall, and they are flush or nearly flush with the rest of the floor. These sometimes are effective in controlling how much water flows into the bathroom, but some communities find that the splash factor is a drawback of roll-in showers—in fact, few topics at the Floor Plan Summit generated such heated discussion as how to approach drainage for these showers.

Shower with trench drain and floor drain.
Shower with trench drain and floor drain.

Some communities are placing a second drain in the main floor area of the bathroom. This is an inelegant solution and often ineffective, given that a resident may place a rug over the secondary drain, said Dillard.

Rubber water dams can be installed to create an unobtrusive shower barrier that wheelchairs can simply roll over. However, these compressible thresholds tend to get grimy, rot, and fail over time, cautioned Dillard.

“We wouldn’t encourage that as a solution,” he said.

In fact, trench drains should provide adequate protection from water flowing out of the shower and into the bathroom—especially trench drains that run along the rear of the shower, since placement there can maximize the slope of the shower floor and get the water to flow away from the bathroom proper, some attendees stated. In fact, the real issue may be water splashing out of the shower, not flowing along the ground out of the shower, they proposed.

Bariatric senior living residents are becoming more common, but showers have not increased in size to accommodate them, some pointed out. A larger resident simply may not pull the curtain in a 36-inch shower, which makes splashing an issue.

Therefore, instead of focusing on drainage, it may be more effective to simply install larger showers. This is not a cheap proposition, given that it would mean additional costs for tile and other materials. But the savings from avoiding water damage—and keeping residents safe and happy—could make the investment worthwhile.

3. Inflexible Lighting

“I’m pushing for the return of track lighting,” Dillard said. The statement drew laughter from the crowd, given that the once-trendy feature may now have a reputation among some circles as being dated.

That reputation is undeserved, in the opinion of Dillard and other Summit attendees. In a time when flexibility is a watchword for good senior housing design, track lighting allows residents to direct the light where they most need or want it, when they most need or want it.

On the other hand, fixed lighting, even if it is decoratively beautiful, limits residents’ options—for instance, it may determine the one logical place for a dining table. Track lighting might allow them to place the table where they want it and also have sufficient lighting in their food preparation area.

Beyond the practical argument for track lighting, new, low-voltage options also up the “cool” factor for this choice, Dillard said.

Track lighting is not the only good option for illuminating units, though.

“Footnote: I love sconces,” Dillard said.

Wall sconces can create warm, inviting light, he said, and they have the added benefit of being more accessible to residents, making it easier to change a lightbulb.

Editor’s Note: D2 Architecture sponsored Senior Housing News’ attendance at the Floor Plan Summit.

Written by Tim Mullaney

Photo Credit: “outlet-electrical” by R. Nial Bradshaw, CC BY 2.0

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