Carolina Bay at Autumn Hall isn’t just for seniors. The continuing care retirement community (CCRC), located in Wilmington, North Carolina, is part of a larger, integrated master planned community and contributes to the intergenerational living in this area.
The CCRC sits on 17 acres and is only about three miles from one of the nicest beaches around, Wrightsville Beach, according to Jerry Cooper, director of development and marketing for Liberty Senior Living, the owner/operator of the community. From its outside architecture to its interior airy features, the community stands out against its industry peers.
“The core is elegantly coastal,” says Cooper. “It was very deliberate over the year-and-a-half to two years it was in the design phase that the community fit into Wilmington, but also have a very elegant and upscale look, as well, where people are comfortable living here.”
The result is a 330,000-square-foot community that rests on 17 acres and meets the needs of the booming town of Wilmington, where more and more seniors are settling down. Taking the nearby Cape Fear Heritage style architecture to heart, the community was designed to feel like a home, not an institution, and sits within the larger master planned community of Autumn Hall.
Integration was a driving force behind the community, while designers also focused on offering an active and inclusive lifestyle with a holistic approach.
“Being part of [Autumn Hall], there are 12 miles of walking and biking trails throughout the development,” Cooper says. “Being within the Autumn Hall area makes perfect sense, because out on the trails, the residents of the CCRC are out there walking or walking their dogs and you see a young family with a stroller doing the same thing. There’s no feeling of social isolation or removal of that real community feel. There’s a great intergenerational approach.”
BCT Architects, a 50-person firm that specializes in senior housing, multifamily, retail and commercial use architecture, was hired as the design architect on the project to leverage its senior living expertise alongside the Architect of Record, LS3P. LS3P, a multidisciplinary firm based in North Carolina, is currently working on three more CCRCs of similar scale in addition to other assisted living projects.
“Our LS3P team worked with Glen Tipton [with BCT] and the BCT team to design the program, while working on the outside simultaneously,” says Chris Boney, principal and vice president of LS3P. “The result is a community that feels fully integrated, both in terms of function and appearance.”
In tandem, the two firms sought to create a design that was not only influenced by the surrounding area, but one that paid homage to the historical landmarks nearby and fit in with the master plan of the area, Autumn Hall.
“Autumn Hall is a master plan development that includes a number of single-family home sites,” says Janet Reynolds, principal at BCT. “Carolina Bay is wonderfully integrated with the community. Senior living was really always included in the master plan.”
That integrated feeling outside the CCRC was meant to continue throughout the architecture of the exterior of the building, as well as the interior.
“Our goal is to integrate our CCRCs in mixed-use communities,” says Will Purvis, Liberty Senior Living’s chief development officer. “We have known the developers of Autumn Hall and felt it would be a good fit for us. We have another community on the other side of town and knew this location was underserved.”
Doing so was a challenge for such a large concept, as the CCRC features 124 independent living units, 54 mansion flats, and 100 assisted living units, including 24 memory care units. There is also 40,000 square feet of wellness and amenity space along with a full rehabilitation suite.
“One of the top challenges was making the flow seamless from independent living to the healthcare wing,” says Boney. “There must be some separation, of course, but our goal was to make it appear effortless to the residents.”
With all these spacial demands, it was important that the property remain feeling connected, as well as bright and airy. The connection across the different care settings is part of what makes Carolina Bay a standout, says Manny Gonzalez, managing principal for architecture firm KTGY’s Los Angeles office and a judge in the Senior Housing News Design Awards.
“Most CCRCs you see are different buildings from independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing,” he says. “In this case, they are all incorporated into one. There are different entrances and separate courtyards, so you feel like you’re living in a different building.”
That is, the CCRC consists of one larger building, which houses the main portion of the campus, including the main commons, independent living, skilled nursing, assisted living and the rehabilitation center.
“Then, to break down the scale of the community, another aspect is a series of mansion flats,” Reynolds says. “They are essentially small apartments on three stories.”
As the concept aimed to reorient how most people think of senior living, the construction of the CCRC aimed to create a unique atmosphere where it was nearly impossible to tell where independent living ended and other care settings began.
“Wilmington is a fast-growing community, which was underserved for high-end senior living facilities,” Boney says. “Many people approached Liberty Healthcare about creating a place that felt ‘like Wilmington’ and allowed them to stay in the area for top quality care.”
What was most important for the architects was ensuring the CCRC did not have an “institutional” feel. Instead, the CCRC needed to be a place where residents actually wanted to live.
“You can walk through one area of independent living, through the front door to assisted living and, if you didn’t know that you were in assisted living, you wouldn’t know it,” says Cooper. “It’s built very residential. The core feeling is carried through to those health care sections as well. There’s a perception [of senior living] that your lifestyle will change some. But walking through Carolina Bay, every one of those preconceived notions is tossed out the window.”
The construction period lasted two years, according to Reynolds, who became involved with the project in 2011. For the most part, the development remained on course over this period, says Purvis, who also noted Liberty’s long-standing relationship with its lender and a minimal entitlement risk on the site. The CCRC officially opened its doors in November 2015, drawing residents in with its spacious living units and immense amenity focus.
Independent living apartments range from 700 square feet to 1,400 square feet, giving residents many living options that suit their needs. The building also has “seamless WiFi throughout,” which is a must-have for modern CCRCs, according to Dean Maddalena, president of architecture firm StudioSIX5 and one of the judges of the Design Awards.
Another must-have for the development was a number of dining options for residents, which is an area that has quickly become one of the most crucial aspects of senior living at any level.
“Typically, what we are seeing in state-of-the-art CCRCs is a great variety of dining options for all levels of care,” Maddalena says. “Meals that are made to order. Even in skilled nursing or memory care if a resident has a certain want or need or something during off hours, it can be accommodated and brought to the table at temperature.”
At Carolina Bay, there are four dining options for residents and their families and friends, including a fine dining space that is available by reservation only, dining with a featured exhibition cooking station, a casual bar & grille option and an uptown market that includes take-out.
This flexibility is a key feature for residents and was a focus during the design and building process of the CCRC. The design also borrowed ideas from other areas outside of typical dining rooms, such as popular coffee shops and resorts.
“We took cues from hospitality and restaurants so the dining options didn’t all feel like dining rooms,” Reynolds says of the dining options. “In older CCRCs, you have a dining room or one dining hall. They don’t have the architectural feel. We opened everything up and had the restaurants flow into larger courtyards, real spaces and market spaces that had more like Starbucks elements.”
The final result of the large construction project is a CCRC that has quickly found its footing in Wilmington. Of the 124 independent living apartments, 91 are currently occupied, according to Cooper. Within the health care portion of the CCRC, the occupancy level has exceeded 85%, he says.
As more resident continue to move in, the wellness features have really taken off, according to Cooper, who says that the CCRC’s wellness classes have a participation rate above 80%. With multiple levels of exercise classes as well as personal trainers, residents who may not have exercised much in the past are finding new enjoyment by taking advantage of the community’s many offerings.
Cooper credits his staff in addition to the state-of-the art wellness, spa and exercise resources.
“The instructors all interact with everybody,” he says. “When a resident moves in, every department head visits that person within 72 hours. The wellness team is there, getting them fired up about coming down and participating with everybody. It is so critical, and folks just love the wellness staff.”
Seniors who are looking to continue an active lifestyle or pick up new hobbies are finding success with the CCRC.
“From an emotional return on investment, for the two principals of Liberty Senior Living the investment has been great,” says Cooper. “It’s a really good feeling of community being built within Carolina Bay.”
Written by Amy Baxter