Best Student Design 2017: High-Tech, Intergenerational Living

In the not-too-distant future, caregivers and doctors could use embedded sensors to remotely monitor senior living residents as they sleep or move about their apartments.

And it’s not science fiction. Those forward-thinking ideas were incorporated into the design that won the Student Exhibition category in the 2017 Senior Housing News Design Awards. This year’s winning entry came from Benjamin Jensen, Beth Campanella, Noah Mediavilla and Tessneem Elkhateeb, all graduate students at the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence, Kansas.

The students’ design, which saw the imagined renovation of a current KU faculty retirement housing building, would help “transform what we think of healthy communities” if implemented in the real world, according to Joe Colistra, the associate professor at KU who oversaw the student entry.

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“All of the technology that we’re discussing, we’re working on for small research projects at the university,” Colistra told Senior Housing News. “What the competition allows us to do is design a building and think about how all these components would come together.”

Colistra is no stranger to submitting entries into SHN Architecture and Design Awards. Last year, another group of his students also took first prize in the student design category.

Inside the ‘living lab’

This year, the students’ design included a new four-story structure and renovations at the site of the Sprague Apartments, a building near KU’s campus that currently houses retired university faculty. The first floor of the new building would have a coffee shop to serve as a social hub, while the next three floors would consist of a state-of-the-art health and wellness clinic referred to as a “living lab.”

The renovation of the existing building and addition of new housing would result in 19 residential units meant to assist aging residents. Those residential units would incorporate high-tech monitoring devices such as sleep sensors, smart mirrors, lighting designed to reboot someone’s circadian rhythm and smart toilets that can track various health markers.

Those devices would be tethered to the living lab, where doctors or caregivers would use the data they collect to predict falls, track heart rates or check for signs of a stroke.

“All these data markers, brought together with predictive algorithms, can begin to tell a really accurate story about a resident,” Colistra said.

When coming up with the concept, Colistra initially challenged his students to target an affordable budgetary constraint of $125 to $135 per square foot. In the end, this group of students chose a more expensive net zero design that would cost $200 to $225 per square foot to build, but was offset by the Living Lab, which could be leased to a university or research center at prime medical office facility rates.

Though it was tempting to build the community on an isolated—and therefore cheaper—plot of land, the students “very quickly rejected that as an option,” Colistra said.

“It needed to be in a neighborhood where they could walk to the grocery store or have interaction,” he explained.

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Old and new

Designed by Kansas architect Charles Marshall in 1960, the Sprague Apartments building is a well-known destination for retired KU faculty members, so it was important to the students to honor and appreciate its historic context.

Consequently, the final design connects the existing building, embedded in the hillside, to a new cantilevered addition that is suspended in the sky.

The original buildings on the University of Kansas campus were built from limestone from a local quarry. As such, the students’ design involves cladding the original building in a limestone panel system. Meanwhile, the newer addition would have an exterior cladding of CorTen steel.

While the existing building would have a green roof that functions as a private social space, the new addition would include an array of solar panels. The contrasting design elements are meant to convey both the site’s history and all of the new equipment contained within.

“It didn’t make sense for the whole building to be tradiitonal when there was such innovative technology going into it,” Collistra said. “I think they wanted a building that was reflective of its time.”

Dan Cinelli, managing principal at Perkins Eastman and a 2017 SHN Architecture and Design Awards judge, was impressed by the students’ design. The innovative design could also serve as a recruiting tool for new faculty who want to live on-campus for decades to come, he said.

“These guys were like, ‘we’re not going to give them sleepy,’” Cinelli told SHN. “That’s why I love this one. This isn’t your grandma’s retirement community.”

Another Design Awards judge, Jeff Anderzhon, thought the space—especially the built-in coffee shop and the modern architecture—exemplified the concept of intergenerational housing.

“Seniors today… don’t want to be segregated. They want to be part of a vibrant community,” said Anderzhon, a senior planner and design architect at Eppstein Uhen Architects. “[This project] draws you into spaces that are going to be used by both students and seniors.”

For the students who designed the project, that social connectivity was as important as the aesthetic design itself, Colistra said.

“We’re convinced that quality of life improves in social connectivity,” Colistra explained. “If you can foster that somehow, simply by having front doors facing sidewalks or opportunities for interaction… I think that goes a long way in keeping someone’s quality of life high.”

Written by Tim Regan

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