Senior Housing Architect Dillard Sees Active Adult Eclipsing Assisted Living Activity

With building activity slowing down in assisted living and memory care, there is a push to create more active adult and affordable senior housing.

That’s according to David Dillard, principal with D2 Architecture, a firm that specializes in senior living.

Following years of more intense activity, the landscape has shifted, Dillard told Senior Housing News during a recent interview at D2’s Dallas headquarters. With Dallas and other markets absorbing a large amount of new supply, the firm is looking farther afield for business and about a year ago purposely targeted more work in the active adult realm.

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“We just got a call for a site in the South that was going to go assisted living/memory care, but pulled that program out [to] take the same site and put independent living only on it,” Dillard said, adding that this is symbolic of the broader trends he is seeing.

Active adult must get dining, common spaces right

Active adult is a broad term that can run the gamut from age-restricted apartment living to more amenity-rich environments, and with interest in the space growing, there has been debate about which model will prove most successful.

Dillard favors a version of active adult that more closely resembles traditional independent living, and he places a particular emphasis on kitchen and dining spaces.

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“People don’t know what to do with food service in that bracket, and I’ve seen some notable failures,” Dillard said. “They put up a slightly nuanced regular apartment complex with a token food service element, rationalizing that people can cater if they want to have a big event.”

A better approach, in Dillard’s view, is to invest in larger food service areas. This should pay off down the line, as residents age in place and desire a more robust dining offering. This design also fits into the foodie culture that has taken hold even among younger seniors today.

“It could be so much fun to eat at a chef’s table … just bring that into the community and you’ve really got something rich,” Dillard said. “A lot of people, I think, have stumbled and not committed to that.”

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And dining is just part of an overall design approach that should favor common spaces and social engagement, in his view. A building that has 90% of its floor space dedicated to apartments and only “token” amenities is not differentiated enough from typical multifamily.

“You want to get people out of their rooms and into the common areas, to take advantage of the social opportunities,” he said. “Not to say apartments are bad, but they’re carrying too much of the atomized, isolated individualism of conventional multifamily.”

Affordability more pressing

Dillard is also being asked more frequently to problem-solve from a design perspective to keep rents more affordable.

“The music is getting louder for affordable housing,” he said.

The challenge is obvious, he added: “When a contractor goes into a lumber yard and is going to build a $6,000 a month unit or a $2,000 a month unit, that two-by-four costs the same.”

There is no silver bullet, and Dillard is thinking through these challenges now, particularly in relation to a current project that D2 is working on in Dallas. This site is located in a more economically depressed area of the metroplex, and that both increases the pressure to keep it affordable and brings some options for doing so.

For instance, cheaper land costs enabled a larger site to be secured, which in turn means that — under Texas state law — an all-wood frame is allowed. This cuts costs by as much as 20%, Dillard said.

The creation of economic opportunity zones under a 2017 federal law could provide another avenue for increased development of affordable senior housing. It’s still early days, but D2 does have one client “on the campaign trail” for opportunity zone participation, Dillard said.

Unit size is another factor to consider very carefully.

“The whole not-so-big house phenomenon is something we preach around here, which is, if you don’t need to have an 850-square-foot unit and could have the same well-being, happiness in an 800-square-foot unit, do the 800-square foot unit,” Dillard said. “You’ve saved a lot of money for the same result.”

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