In senior housing, it may prove worthwhile to consider vacant units as unique opportunities, as opposed to just empty space waiting to be sold.
That’s exactly what happened recently at Henry Ford Village in Dearborn, Michigan. The continuing care retirement community (CCRC) is the largest of its kind in Michigan as well as the third-largest CCRC in the country, with 854 independent living apartments and approximately 900 current residents across all of its care settings.
Usually, occupancy at the 35-acre community hovers around 77%, Denise Sutton, Henry Ford Village’s interior design and move-in manager, told Senior Housing News. Improving this figure is always a goal for the CCRC, as is getting the word out to Dearborn residents as to what exactly Henry Ford Village has to offer.
Approximately one year ago, Wayne Hindmarsh, Henry Ford Village’s director of sales and marketing, concocted a plan that had the potential to help the Life Care Services-run property achieve both of these goals. The gist? Allowing interior design students at local colleges to literally redesign three, then-vacant independent living apartments for university credit.
Within a matter of months, the plan was set in motion, and Sutton found herself in charge of the new interior design initiative.
‘Tremendous influx of fabulous ideas’
Sutton began her assignment by reaching out to professors of sophomore-level interior design students at nearby universities last March. Two of the universities—Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and Henry Ford College (HFC)—ultimately agreed to allow students to participate in the initiative during the fall 2017 semester.
Accordingly, from the end of August 2017 to the middle of December, three classes of sophomore-level interior design students—two from EMU and one from HFC—redesigned and renovated three, one-bedroom independent living apartments at Henry Ford Village. The process included, among other things, Sutton regularly visiting all three classes at the two universities, the students repeatedly visiting Henry Ford Village, and current Henry Ford Village residents posing as prospective residents who the students could interview, spend time with, and learn from.
Originally, the classes were each given a $1,000 budget. This didn’t last very long, though, as the students’ drawing boards seriously impressed both Sutton and Henry Ford Village’s executive director.
“We got this tremendous influx of fabulous ideas,” Sutton explained. “In the end we spent about $35,000 over our standard expense to design these three rooms in total.”
Though the three apartments share identical floor plans, they each wound up looking very different by the end of the semester, Sutton said. One of the classes widened the frame of the bedroom door from 34 to 48 inches and installed a pair of french doors with frosted glass inserts, which created the illusion of “a larger and more glamorous space.” All three of the classes removed the apartments’ linen closets, and one of the classes remodeled an L-shaped kitchen into a galley kitchen with a “very, very classy” built-in wooden dining table.
All three of the redesigned apartments, Sutton said, appear modern and have been “met beautifully” by prospective and current residents. As of January 3, one had been sold.
“It is, of course, still to be seen if our sales will spike,” Sutton added.
On the whole, the interior design project benefited Henry Ford Village in numerous ways; it did, after all, pave the way for plenty of positive publicity. In total, the CCRC hosted three events to showcase the new apartments: one for prospective buyers, one for current residents, and one for students’ friends, families, and local Dearborn notables.
“We really maximized as much publicity as we could,” Sutton said.
Still, it’s likely that the group that benefited the most from the project was the interior design students, Sutton said.
“The students are probably the biggest winners,” she said, explaining that such a hands-on opportunity would have been welcome when she was in college.
“I was a design student myself at Eastern Michigan,” she said. “Never did we, [as students,] get to see a finished project of any of our dreams.”
The university partnerships also enabled Henry Ford Village to meaningfully connect with an age demographic it had been trying, but largely failing, to reach.
“That was the idea—to show the younger generation who we are, where we are, why we are,” Sutton said. “I think we definitely achieved that.”
Written by Mary Kate Nelson