Best Independent Living Design of 2018: A Senior Living Spin on a Pocket Neighborhood

More senior living providers may want to embrace the ‘social architecture’ concept, and they can look to a Pennsylvania life plan community for inspiration.

The idea, born out of a desire to foster social interactions among people who might not otherwise mingle, helped inform and inspire a 2017 project at Garden Spot Village, a life plan community with nearly 1,000 residents in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Sycamore Springs, an independent living neighborhood, was the end result of that line of thinking.

The project consists of 27 homes that are clustered in small neighborhoods around a common green space. Outdoor design elements such as walking paths and sidewalks connect the homes, with two common area buildings that act as a shared venue for neighborhood events.

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This senior living version of social architecture, and the picturesque neighborhood that resulted,, helped this project take the top spot in the 2018 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards’ “Best Independent Living” category.

The concept

Sycamore Springs started with a simple idea.

Garden Spot Village had longought to design a senior housing neighborhood that would encourage authentic and deep relationships and instill a sense of shared experience among residents. The community’s management had pondered the possibilities of a new senior co-housing development as far back as 2007 — but the idea didn’t quite resonate with older adults when it was presented to them, according to Garden Spot Communities CEO Steve Lindsey.

“When we did a public introduction of co-housing in our larger community, it just didn’t fly,” Lindsey said. “A lot of the people who were interested in it said … we love the idea of a small neighborhood of houses where we get to know our neighbors in a significant way, but we don’t want to bother with all of the meetings that would be required to run the community.”

So, Garden Spot sought to adapt its concept to something that appealed more to current and prospective residents. In their research, project stakeholders came into contact with Linda Pruitt, co-founder and president of the Cottage Company. Based in Seattle, the Cottage Company specializes in creating small, sustainable “pocket neighborhoods” for homeowners. After talking with homeowners and learning more about the concept, it was clear the model could be adapted for senior housing purposes, Lindsey said.

“At the heart of this is that idea that people are hardwired to live in a small community,” he explained.

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The end concept grouped 12 to 15 distinctly designed homes around shared green space in a way that is meant to create the feeling of a tightly knit community. All of the homes were designed in a way to have certain spaces — such as living rooms, kitchens and dining rooms — facing the green space. But, the designs also take privacy into account. The homes are each nested in a way so residents can’t look through their window and into the window of a neighbor’s place, for example.

The homes come in a variety of models and designs, including some with two stories and another intergenerational residence with an in-law suite for an aging parent or adult child. Each home has a “livable” front porch, and is connected to walking paths and sidewalks that lead to a common building which houses resident mailboxes, a kitchen, bathroom, storage, gathering room and a patio.

Alise O’Brien, Garden Spot Village

Multi-story designs along with close side-to-side setbacks were also utilized to minimize the project’s footprint and maintain a compact feel. And road access is limited to the garage areas of each home, meaning residents are free to roam the main thoroughfares in front of their residences on foot without having to yield to vehicular traffic.

“Within the context of Garden Spot Village, there is a desire to promote the health and wellness of every resident,” said SFCS Architects Senior Vice President David McGill, who worked on the project with Garden Spot. “One of the ways to do that through landscape design is to encourage people to walk and to socialize.”

Overall, the project was driven by one overarching idea: that life plan communities must innovate and appeal to a younger demographic of older adults in order to survive in the years to come. And they must no longer lead with senior care and security.

“I believe that if our value proposition is all based on safety and security and health care, then it’s not going to be viable,” Lindsey said. “But if we create a value proposition that has all of those elements as foundational, and then also becomes a place of true, authentic community … then I think that is always going to be attractive, and not just to older adults.”

Alise O’Brien, Garden Spot Village

The construction

The only real challenge in building Sycamore Springs took place during the planning and approval phase. The local municipality wanted to build a busy road right through the middle of the neighborhood, watering down the project’s core tenets of walkability and sustainability.

“We had to work through a long process of arriving at some understanding so we could limit public transit through the middle of the campus,” Lindsey said. “Our desire was to have it be a walkable community.”

But even that drawn-out approval process had a silver lining, as it allowed time for research into the final design.

Construction on Sycamore Springs lasted about a year, and wrapped up in December 2017. The total cost for the project was about $10.5 million, with construction making up the lion’s share of that. About half of the homes sold before construction even began, with the rest selling out shortly thereafter.

The building process, which was handled by Willow Street, Pennsylvania-based CCS Building Group, was on-time and on-budget. Weather, which is sometimes a thorn in the side of Pennsylvania construction projects, also posed no serious obstacle to the project, according to Bill Koch, Jr., a project manager with CCS Building Group.

“In comparing it to other projects, I wouldn’t say it was a real challenge,” Koch said. “It worked well for us.”

The completion

Today, Sycamore Springs stands as a testament to the fact that social architecture can work when applied to senior housing settings. The social-forward project has been successful in attracting younger residents, including those who still hold a job.

Alise O’Brien, Garden Spot Village

Innovative projects like Sycamore Springs go a long way in attracting a younger demographic of older adults, according to Dan Cinelli, principal and board director at design firm Perkins Eastman and an SHN Architecture and Design Awards judge.

“This is a really nice option which doesn’t remind you of mortality,” Cinelli told SHN. “It’s new, urbanist, friendly and I think that’s what’s going to attract people who say, ‘I think we should move in now,’ versus the person who waits.”

Steve Levin, senior vice president with Omega Healthcare Investors (NYSE: OHI) and another SHN Architecture and Design Awards judge, thought Garden Spot’s overall plan and concept was right on target for what they had hoped to achieve.

“Sycamore is a designed community that will — and should — attract true independent living residents and even those [with greater needs] and wanting to stretch out their independence,” Levin told SHN. “The landscape design and livable porches enhance outdoor recreation and socialization.”

As with any development project, one true measure of success is whether the planners would build the project again, given the same circumstances. Garden Spot has given Sycamore Springs its seal of approval and confidence by plotting to build an additional 50 homes.

“Our market is not looking for something designed for older people. They want to have something that’s fresh and engaging and appeals to their own value set,” Lindsey said. “I think that’s part of the appeal of this community.”

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