Confessions of a Senior Housing Architect

The approaching wave of aging baby boomers means that senior housing developers and operators will be dialing architects frequently in the coming years, to get new projects underway.

But when developers make that call, are they starting the relationship with the architect on the right foot? And as the project progresses, are they going to stick to budget and ultimately have a winning property to stack up against competitors?

In this first installment of Senior Housing News’ “Confessions” series, we heard from an architect about clients’ worst habits, the hype around innovation, and how to calculate a more realistic budget.

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The goal of this series is to share candid answers that might be hard–but helpful–for readers to hear. To encourage this level of honesty, the architect has been kept anonymous.

Are you a senior living professional who wants to participate in the “Confessions” series? Email me at: Confidentiality will be maintained for all sources for this series.

How much “innovative” senior housing design is just hype? 

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That is a “blink” response, of course, and a part of me empathizes with the self-described “innovators.” They–we, as long as we’re being honest–all too often churn and struggle for the “Next Thing” within our own limited little landscapes and think that we’ve come up with something original while simultaneously a dozen peers are “innovating” virtually the same thing two states away. Common needs drive common solutions.

We all need to get out more to a) realize that we’re not as original think we are, and b) to legitimately repopulate our own projects with the industry’s best ideas–sources fully acknowledged and by-lined.

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This pseudo-innovation happens in every aspect of senior living, by the way, from architecture to group purchasing of rubber gloves. My tolerance is exhausted when I see ideas that are shamelessly lifted from magazines and other troughs at which the copy cats nibble. To them I say: Everybody hates fake news. Get a life.

What’s the most overrated and/or underrated senior housing design feature?

Overrated: the bistro.

At least change the name for heaven’s sake. Fabulous dining venues are showing up around the country, particularly in independent living communities. Many are downright classy, even the informal ones. But if I read one more brochure or website advertising that WE have a BISTRO! Please. It’s like saying, “Look at me. I have a smart phone!”

Underrated: I think it is time to shift our attention back to the apartments and the units themselves (I use the word “unit” reluctantly). Depending on level of care, that’s where our resident friends spend 60% to 80% of their time. The shiny pennies of senior architecture–the “money shots”–are always the lobbies, the courtyards, the fitness centers, the (here we go again) bistros! Those are easy. Got it.

Now, if I could have your attention please…what about those showers and kitchens and closets and shelves and private balconies and windows and lights and thermostats (Alexa?) and doorknobs? Get the idea?

How often are budgets realistic when it comes to a design project (new construction or renovation)? 

I don’t remember the last time, seriously.

The problem is epidemic and consistently originates in the, stay with me, algebraic omission of the escalation factorial.

Clients remember how much they paid for the LAST project. Well, that’s helpful, sort of, but think about it: that project was started (defined as owner-contractor agreement inked), say, three years ago. You will not sign the owner-contractor agreement on THIS project for another six months. Here’s where that escalation factorial comes in. Do the math: 3.5 years x 5% per year escalation = 15%-20% increase.  $150/square foot then is $175/square foot now.

These factorial values vary state to state, city to city, year to year, of course, but escalation is real, and the sooner the team–beginning with the client–embraces them, the sooner we will all enjoy the benefits of starting with a realistic budget and holding it in captivity until ribbon-cutting.

What’s the most annoying thing(s) senior housing clients do in working with you as an architect? 

Bad news: Several offenses come to mind. Good news: None of them are poisonous.

One, when you interview us, either don’t ask us to bring design solutions to the interview, or don’t take them seriously. Why? Because it’s all make-believe.

Good architecture begins weeks if not months after long bilateral discussions, after we have become intimately acquainted with the site (topography, views, easements, zoning limitations, amenities, regional styles, and more), after we have all agreed on the program and the budget. You could very well be turning down the best architect, because he or she is too busy taking care of his or her existing clients (that could be YOU someday) instead of chasing butterflies.

Two, if you move the cheese (i.e., change the program or the schedule or the budget), particularly late in the design process, you have cost us more time (probably) than we had budgeted for your project. No harm/no foul IF you will please not protest when we ask for a reasonable adjustment in the fee.

Three, hire really good interior designers and landscape architects. An old mentor used to say: most buildings, he had noticed, have interiors and sit on the ground, meaning: architecture is not a stand-alone object. Great design teams zoom in and zoom out, focusing holistically from drawer glides to streetscapes. Please pair us with talented co-designers from the beginning. Lock us in the room together, and don’t let us out until we have something that works in harmony, inside and out. Winners: you, your residents, your staff, your board, and yes, your CFO.

What don’t developers/operators understand about your job as an architect that you think they should know?

This will sound like a contradiction, but hear me out. On a relatively small project like a free-standing assisted living/memory care project, an architect will invest anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 hours, beginning to end. Add consultants and we sometime push 10,000 hours as a team. According to Malcolm Gladwell, that is how much time it took The Beatles to move from a garage in Liverpool to their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show! On larger CCRCs, we will spend twice that much, often much more. That is a lot of time!

Principle #1: It would be helpful for owners/developers/operators to grasp the scale of that commitment, and to develop schedules and fees accordingly.

Principle #2: Please lay all of the predesign information you can on the table on Day One. Focus next on assembling whatever else we need to know. Then turn us loose to move swiftly, without fits and starts, through the design process. Destination: Building Permit!

Redirects from undercooked programming or poor budgeting or poor estimating (among other things) are potholes and speed bumps that not only dislodge and break things, they slow us down. Velocity–especially when it can be sustained-is everyone’s friend.        

What don’t developers/operators understand about good architecture/design that they should know before starting on a project?

We define “good architecture” within two separate channels, but insist–all good architects do–that those channels merge in the end.

Architects with Pavlovian tendencies will think at this point of Vitruvius, who appraised architecture in terms of Commodity,

Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo Da Vinci

Firmness, and Delight. Let’s compress the first two into one and call it “good” in its progressive, programmatic, and functional features. Without being faddish, does it embrace or accommodate today’s technology, dining expectations, quality of care delivery models? Does it meet code? Does it flat-out work extraordinarily well, particularly for residents and staff?

A project could do all of that–not to mention meet the goals of coming in “on time and in the money”–BUT it could be dog!  Architectural mush, aesthetically innocuous, categorically unremarkable, and fatally forgettable in the context of competition.  Missing? Delight! Looks matter. Owners, developers, operators, marketers, staff, residents, and those influential 55-year-old daughters (not to mention her kids) all want Mom’s place to be Delightful, as Vitruvius put it–pretty, fresh, airy, attractive, beautiful.   

Bottom line: Excellence in both aspects of design equals Good Architecture. Don’t settle for one without the other.

Written by Tim Mullaney

Photo Credit: “Silhouette” by Christopher Woodrich, CC-BY SA 2.0