4 Tips for Designing a Disaster-Ready Community

With several devastating hurricanes and wildfires in Americans’ recent memory, many senior housing providers are taking a closer look at preparing for the worst.

But disaster readiness isn’t only about stockpiling supplies and drawing up emergency plans. It actually starts with a senior living community’s design, according to Jeffrey Anderzhon, a senior planner and design architect at Eppstein Uhen Architects, and Grant Warner, a principal at D2 Architecture.

Anderzhon is also a judge for the 2017 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards, which is now open for submissions.

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Here are some of the tips they suggested for designing a disaster-ready senior living community:

1. Embrace multipurpose design

Although Anderzhon usually suggests his clients build an area of refuge for residents to take shelter in the event of an emergency, such as a fire or storm, that refuge doesn’t need to take the shape of a dedicated safe room or vault. In fact, this area can even be a simple stairwell.

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“This often is because stairways, for example, and exit hallways are required to be fire-safe for a certain number of hours,” Anderzhon said. “We recommend enlarging the landing on stairways so it’s… a place where a number of residents can stay while an incident is being taken care of.”

The idea is to design dual-purpose refuge areas that can be used during normal operations, too. After all, major disasters won’t happen every day, so providers might as well get some bang for their buck.

“As long as it’s completely hardened, it could be a yoga room,” Anderzhon said. “That’s an added activity, but it also serves that dual purpose.”

Public restrooms are also good candidates for multipurpose shelters.

“They can often absorb thickened walls from a space-planning standpoint and are in interior areas of the building, not the perimeter,” Warner said. “This can also keep the space dual-purpose, so it is functional daily and not just a shelter for emergencies.”

Shelters should be registered with local and state emergency responders so that, in the event of a building failure around the shelter, authorities they will know the shelter is under the debris, Warner added.

2. Retrofit, if necessary

While it’s true that many older communities are grandfathered in to local emergency-related building codes, those buildings aren’t a lost cause, safety-wise. Often, there are simple ways to retrofit certain rooms or areas in order to make them safer than the rest of the building.

“Look at areas that may be partially hardened with concrete block walls and see what can be done to make that space an area of refuge,” Anderzhon suggested. “It may be difficult to do, but if it’s on the minds of the care provider, then it needs to be done.”

3. Don’t skimp on price

Though paying the bare minimum on safety features might seem like a good idea on paper, it could cost senior housing owners down the road, Anderzhon cautioned.

“It’s a lot easier to spend a little money on a building… to prevent a large outlay of funds when disaster happens,” he said. “If you skimp a little on the budget to only meet the minimum requirements, you may pay for it in the end.”

For example, though installing dual-fuel generators may cost more in the short-term, they might actually save an operator money over time.

“They are higher in initial cost, but in areas where natural gas has been certified as a reliable fuel source by local authorities or where propane may be more readily available than diesel fuel, it may make economic sense,” Warner said. “Look at the cost of all the fuel that will be purchased for it over the coming decades. Not just fuel burned for emergencies for but for routine tests as well.”

“Sacrificial eaves” that can prevent roof loss by breaking off during a strong storm and small emergency wind turbines are other up-front investments that may pay off later, Warner added.

4. Don’t go overboard

Though it’s possible to prepare too little for natural disasters, it’s also possible to prepare too much. After all, there’s a reason natural disasters are sometimes referred to as “acts of God.” Sometimes, they just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

“You need to make sure you design and care for your residents in a disaster that is liable to happen,” Anderzhon said. “Don’t go overboard and create a concrete bunker that can sustain an atomic bomb.”

In other words, owners shouldn’t try to make their communities impervious to any one emergency that may or may not happen. Instead, they should focus on the disasters that are most likely to happen.

“Common sense is always the best approach,” Anderzhon said.

Written by Tim Regan

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