Best Independent Living Design 2017: Picturesque Pennsylvania Views

When Willow Valley Communities, a non-profit continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, finished work on a sizable independent living project last summer, it added an array of upscale amenities for its roughly 2,300 residents. But one of the most celebrated amenities was also one that stood far above the rest—literally.

As part of the new development—which includes a five-story, 53-unit apartment building called The Vistas and a large, barn-like event space dubbed Chautauqua Hall—residents can take in commanding views of the city of Lancaster and surrounding farmland from a rooftop lounge.

Those picturesque views, combined with both of the new structures’ unique design elements, helped the provider snag a win in the 2017 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Award’s “Best Independent Living” category.

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“We are working to redefine retirement,” Brian Rutter, Willow Valley Communities’ chief marketing officer, tells Senior Housing News. “In everything we do, we strive to avoid the conventional thinking.”

The Concept

During the project’s planning phase in 2013, Willow Valley Communities challenged the design team at RLPS Architects to dream up a high-end apartment building and nearby event space that would reflect the CCRC’s motto and philosophy of “Life Lived Forward.” The senior living provider’s master plan set aside space at Manor, one of its two campuses in Lancaster, for both a new apartment building and an event space.

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It was initially decided that both planned buildings would break the mold, according to Paul Nickolaus, a senior designer at RLPS Architects.

“Willow Valley was looking for a different type of senior housing, maybe something that was a little more contemporary, a little bit different than what they offered before,” Nickolaus tells Senior Housing News. “With having this designated site, they wanted to take advantage of the… views and really maximize the opportunity.”

The project was also aimed at prospective residents who prefer a more “premium” feel, Rutter says.

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“We acknowledge that there is a more premium resident profile for whom something on the higher end, the luxury apartment, the carefree, concierge-type environment, would be appealing,” he explains.

With that in mind, Willow Valley Communities CEO John Swanson first pitched the idea of using The Vista’s height to its advantage, said Rob Beal, project architect with RLPS.

“One meeting, John Swanson realized this building is tall enough that the views of Lancaster city are very possible,” Beal tells SHN. “Using a couple different tools, we were able to determine that was the case, and so he was pretty excited about that.”

Some site parameters, such as building footprint and height, were set in stone by zoning limitations and presented a challenge to the architects as they designed the apartment building. Still, they overcame those challenges in the end, Nickolaus says.

“There was a 60-foot height limit that [The Vistas] had to fit within, we were trying to work in structured parking underneath, and we had to work in the overall number of apartments,” he recalled. “[The finished product] fits in there pretty well, and it seems to look pretty natural sitting up there on the hillside.”

For Chautauqua Hall, RLPS was tasked with creating a space for residents to gather that fit within the “Life Lived Forward” theme. The end result was a multi-purpose space that could be used in some capacity during all four seasons of the year.

“The idea of a barn-like structure as an event center for anything from theater to music events, [Willow Valley Communities] really saw it as a great resident amenity,” Nickolaus said.

The Construction

Things went mostly according to plan after construction kicked off in 2015, Rutter says. Workers with CCS Building Group wrapped up construction for The Vistas last July, and put the finishing touches on Chautauqua Hall the following month. Willow Valley Communities did not share how much it spent on the development project.

The Vistas includes upscale features such as a fountain; landscape amenities; spacious apartments with oversized windows, fireplaces and built‑in casework; a game room; a library; and a bistro and cafe space located near a rooftop terrace called The Vue.

“This project’s design elements make exemplary use of its spectacular outdoor spaces by creating beautiful views of the lush gardens and vista views from the landscaped roof deck with defined seating areas,” LuAnn Holec, principal of design firm Thoma-Holec Design, tells SHN. “In addition, the community and roof deck beautifully integrated the exterior and interior with large windows and an intriguing combination of fire and water elements.”

Meanwhile, Chautauqua Hall has a kitchen, and a bar and grill area with an outdoor terrace; a contemporary outdoor fireplace; and a roomy event space bedecked in wooden columns, and beams and panels that give the space a warm, rustic vibe. Local craftsmen were employed for the project, which also features authentic Lancaster County Amish construction techniques, such as mortise and tenon joinery.

“What really blew me away about the design of the barn building was that it’s in context to the rural vernacular that probably was there 50 years ago,” Dan Cinelli, principal and director at Perkins Eastman and a 2017 SHN Architecture & Design Awards judge, tells SHN. “By recreating it and making it a statement on the campus, it reflects the history of the area.”

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The Completion

Willow Valley Communities began selling units in The Vistas in 2016—and they filled up faster than originally anticipated, Rutter says. Today, The Vistas sits at 100% occupancy, a resounding success by anyone’s measure.

“The sales and the move-ins were somewhat more accelerated than what we had expected,” he explains. “We’re very pleased with the fact that The Vistas was popular and designed in such a way that it had the appeal that we thought it would have.”

Cinelli, who recently had the chance to visit the Willow Valley Communities, says he thinks The Vistas helps create a kind of urban oasis inside a slice of suburbia.

“There are people that live in Philadelphia who might not want to live in the suburbs, but you can live in an urban environment at Willow Valley,” he says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Though both structures are relatively new, Rutter says he expects both to shine for many more years to come.

“We are pleased with rapid full capacity status of The Vistas,” he says. “And Chautauqua Hall… it’s a venue that’s going to offer us lots of opportunity for the years ahead.”

Written by Tim Regan

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