Best CCRC & International Design 2017: Lush Gardens in a Japanese Tower

Despite its location in a city of 1.5 million, the 35-story Sun City Kobe Tower manages to successfully evoke nature.

“Even though you’re in a very urban setting, once you walk in the front door, you’re exposed with this incredibly lush garden space,” the project’s architect Richard Beard, principal of Richard Beard Architects, tells Senior Housing News. “You have this oasis-in-the-city feeling the whole time you’re there.”

Opened last June as the culmination of 15 years of work, Sun City Kobe Tower offers continuing care services for Japan’s growing and “discerning” senior population, targeting residents in the top 15% of income. Already close to 70% occupied as of last month, and winning not one but two 2017 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards, more than a decade of planning is clearly paying off.

SHN Awards Ad

The Concept

Sun City Kobe Tower is the eighth project since 1993 between San Francisco-based Richard Beard Architects and senior housing provider Health Care Japan (HCJ). It began in 2002 as part of an invited competition with two other firms.

And though the project evolved in the 15 years between the contest and the completion—and was delayed starting in 2008 by the global recession—the guiding principles remained constant: a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) that provides care for residents through health and wellness routines, while limiting travel by maximizing on-site resources.

SHN Awards Ad

“The chairman of the company hired us initially to help him fulfill his vision of what he thought senior housing should be in Japan,” Beard says. “He described his vision as being very service-oriented, very high quality—a community where people were happy and proud to be there.”

Sun City Kobe Tower is in an urban setting on the edge of Kobe Bay, surrounded by new development. The tower is owner and operator HCJ’s tallest project, as much of their portfolio consists of low-rise properties. HCJ’s background is in interconnected facilities of independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing, built to allow residents to easily move between facilities as their needs change.

Richard Beard Architects, meanwhile, brought that concept of mutability and patient travel into the tower structure. With 483 independent living units and a total footprint of 550,000 square feet, including a five-story parking garage, the CCRC offers a range of health-and-wellness services, including 98 nursing units.

Recommended SHN+ Exclusives

“Residents living here can float in and out of a nursing unit as needed, and as they get better they can move back into their independent living unit,” Beard Architects architect William Spurzem tells SHN. “That gives a lot of continuity to residents who don’t have to leave the property for health issues. They can move within the complex, and that’s a little bit nicer for the residents that way.”

Adding to the health and wellness offering is a bathing facility on the 6th floor called an “ofuro,” a Japanese facility with shower rooms and soaking tubs that look out onto private gardens. Residents can use these every day, and do.

“It’s a pretty common Japanese bathing ritual,” Spurzem says. “To have this sort of unique stone, marble private garden pool and ofuro is pretty unusual in an urban context. It contributes greatly to the high-end nature of the project.”

The room contributes to resident care in two ways. The first is as a continuation of tradition, bringing to the tower the type of experience to which residents may have been accustomed prior to coming to Kobe. The second is in the therapy and relaxation itself.

“They go and they soak and they scrub and they can continue on their daily ritual that they would have done in their family’s home,” Spurzem says.

Nearly 30 stories above the ofuro is the piece that Beard and Spurzem see as the tower’s “landmark feature”: the Sky Lounge and restaurant on the 34th and 35th floor. These two floors—which include the community’s largest independent living units—can be illuminated, creating a “lantern” effect while also providing a view to the city, Kobe Bay and nearby Rokko Mountains.

“There were three things that I was really impressed by,” Elisabeth Borden, one of the project judges and principal of Colorado-based senior housing research firm The Highland Group, tells SHN.

“One was the location, and everything the location had to offer in terms of adjacent amenities, as well as view.”

The second was the contrast between the urban site and the outdoor space.

“The exterior design is really graceful and outstanding—that lantern concept, where the top two floors are all glass,” she says. “I thought that was really beautiful.”

As for the interior design, that comes from longtime Richard Beard Architects-collaborator BAMO, a San Francisco-based interior design firm that first worked with Beard, the Kobe Tower owner Half Century More and its late founder Tomio Kanazawa in the 1990s.

“(Kanazawa) trusted us to give him beautiful, well-considered interiors that blended seamlessly with their surrounding buildings and landscape,” wrote BAMO founding principal Gerry Jue in 2016, “and in exchange for his trust we worked extremely hard to deliver our very best.”

The Construction

In the 15 years between Richard Beard Architects taking the project and completing it, HCJ’s vision evolved several times over. The adjustments to both the planning and the budget—the original end date was around 2006 or 2007—proved one of the biggest challenges.

“The project was in the works so long that the client had a long time to refine their program and their different size requirements,” Spurzem says. “The program shifted as they learned more throughout the intervening decade.”

Most notably, the project started as two towers and ultimately became one. It was 44 stories and later 30, and ended at 35. The budget evolved with those changes, ending at around $140 million.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, it’s on such a large scale, it can have everything,’” Borden says. “Unlike a lot of properties that have to make compromises about what kinds of common space, or what to do outside, or how much they can afford to spend on landscaping… this is a property on such a large scale that it seemed able to incorporate every kind of amenity and luxury that anyone could.”

The other biggest challenge was a series of changes to Japanese building codes that affected the specifics around the glass facade on the top two floors that creates the “lantern” effect.

“I thought the most impressive thing was their decision to place the building on the corner of the site and create these amazing gardens and meandering walkways and courtyards,” Borden says. “The outdoor spaces seem to flow in and out of the building. You don’t typically see that luxurious outdoor space to move around in when you’re in that urban environment. I think that was a really great design decision. It offers something you rarely see in an urban building.”

That was on purpose. Designed by Sausalito, California-based landscape architecture firm SWA Group, the garden was always forefront in the landscape design, SWA principal John Loomis said via email.

“Our client felt a predominance of time was spent indoors looking out versus being physically outside in the garden so terraces and outdoor seating do not trump planting opportunities,” Loomis wrote.

Its purpose extends beyond its importance in Japanese design, Beard says.

“There’s basically a whole loop promenade of circulation on the ground floor that goes all the way around this garden space, and all of the public spaces are plugged in around that,” he says. “So you can go anywhere on the ground floor and you can experience all of these spaces.”

These spaces include a reception area, library lounge, tea lounge, Mahjong room, billiards room, crafts room, men’s lounge, and a multi-purpose hall.

“As a designer, the most memorable reward is to see the expression of total surprise and wonder on the faces of first time visitors that enter the lobby and cannot grasp that a there is such a mature and serene garden, hidden the middle of this new community,” Loomis wrote.

The Completion

After 15 years of work, Sun City Kobe Tower was completed in May of 2017, and began taking residents the following month. The building was 50% sold out before it opened, Spurzem says, putting it very near to its break-even point of 55% to 60% occupancy, which they have since cleared, due in part to a design element unique to Japanese real estate.

“Seniors especially have a preference for south- and east-facing units, and those can sell up to a 30% premium over north- and west-facing units,” Spurzem says. “It has to do with the sunrises and sunsets. They don’t want to be reminded of their impending age by seeing the sunset every day. They would much prefer to see the sunrise every day, so the north- and west-facing units are discounted.”

The residents in the tower are a “new demographic,” Beard says, and that is something they learned from as they steered this project to the finish line.

“This is a generation of people who lived through World War II, who were generally very well educated, very well traveled,” Beard says. “They didn’t particularly want to live with their children. They want to have a kind of new freedom. This product has been able to respond really well to that kind of demand.”

It also responds well to a trend to move properties into the city and away from suburban isolation, Borden says. That’s what she takes away from the project perhaps more than anything else.

“People aren’t isolated on the outskirts of town, waiting for the transportation van to drive them somewhere,” she says. “They just walk outside and they’re still part of the community. It’s a fabulous example of that trend… and I’m hoping it will continue to encourage more properties to find those good urban locations.”

Written by Jack Silverstein

Companies featured in this article: