Best International Design of 2018: City Meets Nature in Sprawling Chinese Campus

It is the beginning of a new era for senior living in China.

Developers and operators are taking cues from U.S. senior living, combining the most modern amenities, care and technology with traditional Chinese design to create a resort-style atmosphere that also allows for aging in place across the care continuum.

And all this is taking place in a country with a rapidly growing aging population that increasingly values luxury.

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The more ambitious Chinese senior communities are giant campuses, connected by a centralized, amenity-rich building offering near-seamless integration between interiors and exteriors. These allow for owners to create dense communities for seniors to age in place in relative comfort.

One notable example: Taikang Community Yue Garden, a 1.26 million square-foot senior living community in the city of Guangzhou, in China’s Guangdong Province. The community is the 2018 Senior Housing News Architecture and Design Awards winner in the “Best International” category.

The concept

The mission of the development’s owner, Taikang Life Insurance Company, was to create a community which provides comfort for seniors as they progress through the care continuum, in a model campus environment designed to encourage a healthy lifestyle for residents as they age in place, according to THW Design Director of Land Planning Jake Friend. THW Architects and THW Design advised the general contractor, China Construction Third Engineering Bureau Co. Ltd., on the community’s construction.

“We really wanted to find out what the vernacular of the community was like and what they were trying to achieve,” Friend said.

Taikang hosted THW on tours of Guangzhou, showing them the city and competing senior living communities to give a sense of what they wanted to bring to the area.

Taikang Yue Community Garden Courtesy of Taikang Staff
The interior of Taikang Community Yue Garden’s central building is designed so the hotel-style lobby gives way to the more residential components as one walks further.

“It’s a resort lifestyle in Guangzhou, very tropical,” Friend said. “The core building in the center would be like a high-end … hotel with a Four Seasons lobby. As you went up into the building, it became more residential.”

Taikang Community Yue Garden’s independent living component — a series of mid-rise buildings in the center and western edge of the campus — make up the majority of the site, while the eastern edge houses the assisted living and memory care components. The different acuities are connected to the clubhouse by “Vital Life Courtyards” designed to encourage activity and socialization of the residents, and are programed with a variety of amenities and wellness activities, inside and out, including natural waterfalls, traditional Chinese gardens, shaded paths, seating areas, and native flora and fauna.

The amenities are intended to encourage social interaction and provide therapeutic purposes. The higher acuity components of the community feature a rehab center and hospital specializing in geriatrics.

Taikang Community Yue Garden Vital Life Courtyard Courtesy of Taikang Staff
An aerial view of one of Taikang Community Yue Garden’s “Vital Life Courtyards.”

Vehicular traffic is routed to the site’s perimeter and underground, separating it from the residents and maximizing the at-grade landscaping for pedestrian use. Lychee trees, highly regarded in traditional China for their medical properties, were preserved on the site in the wellness courtyard.

The construction

Building Taikang Community Yue Garden presented a couple challenges, most notably, obtaining control of the land, Friend said. Taikang only controls the land through a 40-year lease with the Chinese government, and funded the construction.

Building a community abutting a mountainside presented its own set of challenges, Friend said.

Taikang conducted site studies to determine the best way to maximize the site. Eventually, the decision was made to lay out the site east-to-west, which allowed the team to turn the development on an angle. The construction team studied solar patterns, which were incorporated into the construction and made the buildings more efficient from a heating and cooling standpoint. The buildings’ positions also allow residents to sync their circadian rhythms with the length of a day.

Taikang Community Yue Garden Solar Study Courtesy of Taikang Staff
The development team behind Taikang Community Yue Garden studied solar patterns on the site to determine the best layout for the buildings.

“When you look at the architecture, each [structure] is placed so that it doesn’t block the view of the sun in the other buildings,” Friend said.

The architecture also steps down the hilly terrain, allowing for easy and accessible connections to multiple levels of the clubhouse, as well as the placement of most of the site’s parking below grade, a feature more common to Chinese construction, Friend said.

“Every project we do in China with has some form of below grade parking,” he said. “Construction costs in China are so much lower than in the U.S. that they can afford to make that decision, and it allowed us to bench the buildings to the site and allow the parking area below to handle water and move it around the site.”

Limiting vehicular traffic to the site perimeter and underground allowed the construction team to make the pathways between the apartment buildings and courtyard more pedestrian friendly. Only emergency access is provided to the courtyards.

“It was a challenge to design the walkways for both pedestrian use and to serve as fire lanes, if needed,” Friend said.

The completion

In the past, the scattershot service quality of private senior living communities caused Chinese seniors and their families to choose the steady quality of public senior housing. That is changing as Chinese investors learn best practices from U.S. senior housing operators, and import those lessons into their own communities.

Taikang Community Yue Garden Vital Life Courtyard Courtesy of Taikang Staff
Water is utilized to zen-like effect in Taikang Community Yue Garden’s outdoor amenities.

Taikang Community Yue Garden was completed in 2017 and appears to be a foundation of things to come for senior living in Guangzhou province and neighboring Hong Kong. Article 5 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law — the framework by which the city was transferred from British to Chinese control in 1997 — states that Hong Kong’s capitalist system would be guaranteed through 2047.

This “one country, two systems” framework, along with improved transportation between Hong Kong and Guangzhou and the improvement in the service quality of private senior living, resulted in a burgeoning Hong Kong middle class interested in higher-quality, private senior housing projects, according to a report from the International Chinese Aging Industry Association (ICAIA), a Chinese senior living industry advocacy group. That middle class is looking at Guangzhou as a retirement destination.

China’s senior population is expected to expand to 300 million over the next 15 years. Developments like Taikang Community Yue Garden — one of three Taikang senior communities in China — can serve as a template on how to house such a large population, according to D2 Architecture President David Dillard, an SHN Architecture and Design Awards judge.

“One of my first impressions of this project was the resident density per unit,” Dillard said. “Americans would not accept that.”

Luann Thoma-Holec, founder and principal at Thoma-Holec Design and another SHN Awards judge, was struck by the mix of Chinese and Western influences, and the thought placed into landscaping.

“The most influential element, for me, was how they pulled the outdoor flora and fauna into the interiors,” Thoma-Holec said. “There is lots of natural light and glazing, and it’s put to great use.”

Dillard noted the design team went above and beyond in designing the site’s environmental water features, which was largely justified by the number of units on site.

“It’s a phenomenon in itself,” Dillard said. “You can go to a few select places and spend money with that landscape budget. They played that very well.”

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