How to Get Architecture Students Excited About Designing Senior Housing

It’s no secret that senior housing hasn’t always captured the interest of budding designers, but that could change if the industry embraced forward-thinking designs more often.

Currently, senior living isn’t viewed as the most trendy product type for architects, young or old, according to Dan Cinelli, principal at Perkins Eastman.

“If you pick up an architectural magazine and you look at the kinds of things that are being published, it’s usually stuff that’s really avant-garde, or really cutting-edge stuff,” he told Senior Housing News. “You typically don’t see anything with senior living in it.”

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There’s a similar lack of excitement for senior housing design among architecture students. On a recent visit to an East Coast college that offers an architecture master’s degree program, Cinelli said he was aware of just one student out of a class of 70 who wanted to design senior housing communities.

“I think that a lot of architecture schools aren’t thinking about senior living,” Cinelli said. “They don’t think its sexy enough.”

But that doesn’t mean young architects aren’t working with senior housing developers. At Perkins Eastman, for instance, there are many people under the age of 40 designing for the product type. That includes Jennifer Sodo, a Perkins Eastman architect who first joined the firm as an intern in 2014.

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“Senior design isn’t always viewed as the most attractive thing to explore as an architect, but I think there’s a lot to be said for the … variation of project types within senior living,” Sodo told SHN. “I think if students had a better understanding of that, they might be more willing to take on more of those opportunities.”

Cinelli echoed that sentiment.

“If we can do more communities that are in mixed-use developments, maybe multifamily housing with senior housing over a retail component, maybe some more urban stuff, that will get more students excited,” he said.

And there are currently students designing such communities—including last year’s winning Student Exhibition entry in the 2017 Senior Housing News Design Awards. That hypothetical project, designed by graduate students at the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence, Kansas, was an imaged renovation project that turned an existing KU faculty retirement housing building into a high-tech, intergenerational hub for former teachers and students alike.

Forward-thinking concepts like these can go a long way in exciting architecture students, according to Joe Colistra, the associate professor at KU who oversaw the innovative project.

“We’ve been really pushing the notion of innovation and smart-city connectivity,” Colistra told SHN. “From ride-sharing services to accelerometers that monitor activity and gait, smart and connected devices are everywhere. They have the ability to create more livable cities, and no demographic stands to benefit more from these advances than seniors.”

One way to engage future students is to show them that there’s more to senior housing than market positioning and resort-style perks for residents, he added.

“Amenities and changing trends in offerings are important, but sometimes miss the point that architects are trained to design spaces for all demographics and all income levels,” Colistra said. “Surprisingly, [students] are just as interested in exploring low-income housing solutions as much as exclusive housing.”

For more senior housing trends, be sure to follow the Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards website. The submission period for this year’s awards opened on Tuesday, June 11. 

Written by Tim Regan

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