Best Repositioning 2016: Taking Independent Living to New Heights

High-rise senior housing projects typically are associated with dense urban areas, but one recently completed project shows these buildings can also be nestled in beautiful natural surroundings.

Rockwood South Hill is a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) that occupies 90 acres of picturesque forest and wetland about 3.5 miles outside the city center of Spokane, Washington.

With increased demand for independent living and an aging assisted living building, this bucolic CCRC had to undertake a major construction project. After considering the options, the design team decided to move forward with a new high-rise.

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Rockwood South Hill already described its buildings as extensions of the natural environment, dubbing its detached homes and duplexes “The Forest Estates” and its seven-story assisted living building “The Ridge.” So it makes sense that the gleaming new 11-story tower is called “The Summit.”

“The Summit is a significant repositioning/addition to the existing property that really brought it into the 21st century from a design and aesthetic standpoint,” says Jeff Anderzhon, senior planner and design architect at Eppstein Uhen, and a judge for the 2016 Senior Housing News Design Awards.

The Concept

When it came to conceptualizing the project, integration was the name of the game.

Not only was integrating the building with nature paramount, but the existing estate homes and assisted living complex felt too separated, so a goal of the repositioning was to bring greater cohesion to the campus as a whole, says Leslie Moldow, managing principal of the San Francisco office of Perkins Eastman, the design architect for the project. NAC Architecture was the architect of record.

Another major goal was to make Rockwood South Hill more appealing to contemporary consumers, says Alan Curryer, CEO at Rockwood Retirement Communities. The company operates both Rockwood South Hill and Rockwood at Hawthorne, another CCRC in the Spokane area.

“We opened in 1960, and saw the amenities for dining and wellness were getting dated, and we wanted to add some apartments to address the current demand for larger independent living units,” Curryer tells Senior Housing News.

Curryer and the design team considered adding villas and other low-density options, but ultimately determined that a high-rise “penciled out the best,” he says.

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Even though the construction costs would be a bit higher per square foot for the high-rise, this building would enable the community to achieve its goals most effectively. It would create more campus cohesion by physically connecting with the existing assisted living building, creating a shared space featuring new dining and amenities to support the CCRC’s eight dimensions of wellness. The existing structures also would get updates and the community’s main entrance would be repositioned to a more central spot.

As for creating a connection with nature, a number of design elements were to drive toward this goal. The design included: more indoor/outdoor spaces; windows carefully positioned to afford near views and long view; natural materials and fabrics, with shapes and patterns evocative of nature, such as leaves or fractals; even varying ceiling heights, mimicking the experience of being in nature and entering a cave or a promontory. A green roof would contribute to the building’s more eco-friendly functioning.

The whole project was based on “biophilic” design principles, says Moldow. Biophilic design is meant to create harmony between buildings and nature, rather than degrading the natural world and separating people from it.

“I think it’s a fancy word for what good architecture has always been,” says Moldow. “When we look at some of the greatest pieces of architecutre that move us, part of the reason is that there’s a lot of biophilic design going on.”

The most dramatic feature of the project would contribute both to greater community integration and to evoking nature: The Riverwalk, a roughly 500-foot passage connecting The Summit and The Ridge.

“The Spokane River is very prominent in the city, and we emulated that sense of the river flowing through the building to create a circulation path that, just like a river, has paces where there are eddies, where people meet and connect, and there are vistas and places where you can’t quite see around the bend, but you’re intrigued to see what’s going on,” says Moldow. “It connects these buildings in a seamless way.”

The Construction

While The Summit’s design feels current, the building was a long time in coming. The project began 10 years ago.

“One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the Great Recession,” Curryer says. “The project was delayed two times because of the recession, at the beginning and end, as the flow of money into the municipal bond financing market slowed down.”

However, the team behind The Summit stuck together through those challenges, and this was a key factor in the repositioning moving forward and ultimately being successful, according to Curryer.

“One my pieces of advice is to make sure you assemble a team you can count on when adversity strikes,” he says. “In one form or another it usually does.”

Once shovels were in the ground, another obstacle presented itself. The ground was rockier than anticipated and needed to be blasted. Much of the contingency fund went toward the blasting, but Rockwood was able to control costs by crushing the blasted material and using it as infill.

The construction took two years, and was done while residents remained in place. This also necessitated some workarounds, such as putting in temporary dining quarters. But the construction process, led by general contractor Walker Construction out of Spokane, also provided some opportunities for resident engagement.

“We made construction an activity,” Curryer says. “We put in viewing windows so residents could watch the construction, and circulated a weekly newsletter that talked about the project and different milestones. The contractor and their teams came in and did presentations. The most popular was the crane operator. Everyone was so curious.”

The economic woes of the time also had a silver lining: construction costs were lower than they are today, although it took some convincing to get certain subcontractors to hold their pricing throughout the long time-frame of the project. Total construction costs came in around $60 million.

The Completion

Residents began moving into The Summit in the spring of 2016, and the 65-unit building is now 86% occupied—ahead of projections, Curryer says. He’s pleased about that, and also pleased to see the vision of the repositioning become a reality.

“One of our goals was to better connect the residents throughout the campus, and it’s really worked well in that regard,” he says. “We’re seeing more traffic in the building, more use by the non-apartment residents.”

The residents are attracted by the variety of amenities now on offer, including: a wellness center with aerobics, weights, yoga, and personal coaching; an art studio; movie theater; and salon and spa. Dining options now run the gamut from casual bistro to formal dining, with outdoor dining spaces available.

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Many of these amenities are accessible via The Riverwalk, which also has lived up to its billing as a signature feature of the repositioned community. There are 17 “stops” along the Riverwalk, including casual lounge areas as well as dining venues, and 19 art niches featuring works by local artists and from area museums.

“They added a lot of amenities that are really attractive to today’s consumer and should be commended for doing that, and spreading them over a floor plate that really draws the resident through those amenities and keeps them visually exciting,” Anderzhon says. “I really like the amenities and the way they … invite the participant through that Riverwalk, and keep the mind and the spirit involved in the campus and engaging in the community.”

Of course, great views are one major benefit of high-rises, and Rockwood South Hill is taking advantage with a “Skyview Lounge” space at the top of The Summit where residents can socialize, play cards, or just take in the scenery.

Meanwhile, the eco-friendly aspects of the design have paid off in the form of greater energy efficiency and LEED Silver designation. And residents are being surveyed to help determine whether their wellness has improved with the new building open, so there may be evidence-based design information forthcoming, Moldow notes.

In the meantime, the project is winning compliments—not to mention design awards—for its marriage of high-rise sophistication with a stunning natural setting.

“It’s taken advantage of a really nice site,” Anderzhon says.

Written by Tim Mullaney

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