Confessions of an Interior Designer: Every Senior Living Project Going Over Budget

“With today’s construction costs, we are seeing every project exceed their projections.”

These words are from a senior living interior designer, who connected with Senior Housing News for this installment of “Confessions.” The goal of this series is to share candid perspectives that might be hard — but helpful — for readers to hear. To encourage this level of honesty, the interior designer has been kept anonymous.

In addition to building more robust budgets, senior living developers and investors need to be cautious about value-engineering, to avoid compromising long-term value, the interior designer said.

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Overall, a greater understanding and appreciation of what interior designers bring to the table is needed, to create well-integrated communities where the design complements and enhances the programming. And anyone envisioning a gray color palette may want to think hard about other options.

Do you work in the senior living industry? Do you want to participate in the “Confessions” series? Email me at: Confidentiality will be maintained for all sources for this series.

Describe one or more trends in senior living interior design that you’re excited about?

It is exciting to see the evolution of senior living design and programming. The industry is very focused on creating innovative, supportive environments that enhance the lives of the residents, while providing them with a plethora of meaningful activities to be involved in.

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Design for seniors still includes a hospitality approach with areas that evoke a residential atmosphere. Flexibility is critical as the labor shortage mandates spaces that require fewer staff members and efficiency to provide services.

Modern dining venues represent a distinct improvement in innovation across the senior living spectrum. Open kitchen concepts, chef tables, farm- or garden-to-table, al fresco dining, and spaces that correlate with the menu and service styles are always fun to create.

What trends in senior living interior design do you think are just fads, or do you counsel clients to avoid?

We avoid anything that creates a facade. The concept of creating a town space with facades for storefronts is not something that we believe in or advocate for the residents. It is an old technique that is still being used in some areas of the country. It is easy to create spaces that are meaningful, effective and purposeful without engaging in fakery.

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Gray has been the new beige for several years. I will be pleased to see it move on. It is a color (or lack thereof) that is very easy to add pops of color to, and make an effective and beautiful space. However, it is challenging to create a “warm” environment with a gray palette.

When possible, we create multipurpose spaces, so an amenity won’t need a complete overhaul when a single-use space, i.e. an ice cream parlor, goes out of style.

How often are senior living clients realistic about interior design budgets?

With today’s construction costs, we are seeing every project exceed their projections.

Value engineering is beginning at the schematic stage of the project, prior to interiors even beginning the selection process. Quality of materials is not evaluated by some owners thinking that they will be flipping the property once stabilized. But you can’t flip a property if the finish materials are not holding up and presentable to a new buyer. Lighting is one of the first areas to be reviewed for cost reductions. Lighting is so important for the aging eyes of residents, and we often see fixtures reducing in dimensions, lumens and aesthetic to reach a projected budget.

Whether a company is planning a long-term hold or a flip for the right price, interior design budgets are usually underestimated, resulting in shortcuts and compromised quality. When these negatively impact programming and resident satisfaction, leasing up communities or keeping them stabilized become more of a challenge.

What are the most common reasons a project goes over budget?

Contractors are pricing on square footage basis prior to the schematic design to determine if a project will be viable, and this results in inaccurate budgets being established. Contractors are also extremely busy and not obtaining accurate figures from their subcontractors. Materials, labor costs and tariffs continue to increase and make it very difficult to estimate a project that won’t open for three years.

Late and last-minute changes to a project due to a change in staff on the owner’s or operator’s team not only increases the cost of a project but often also results in construction delays.

Describe the most annoying things that senior housing clients do in working with you.

We often are not called into a project until schematic design is complete, and a project is headed into the design development phase. The plans might be complete, but we find drastic errors and changes that need to occur. As an interior designer we offer expertise on spatial relationships within the interior spaces that an architect may not be able to anticipate. With detailed programming from the operations team and the design team, we will request that rooms move, become larger, smaller, change shape and evolve into flexible spaces for the residents and staff to function.

Don’t call us decorators! Interior designers working on senior communities are degreed professionals with the majority having acquired NCIDQ certification and licensure in states and provinces. Their expertise is in interior architecture with a focus on all levels of the interior environment. The “decorating,” while it is extremely important and sells and markets the community, is not what makes the spaces function, provides safety for the residents and staff, nor improves the welfare and wellbeing of the occupants.

When operators fail to maintain their furnishings, the result is often a quicker decline in the appearance of their furnishings. Clients need to prioritize learning how to care for fabrics, carpets, and surface materials to ensure their staff is trained properly. This is not only important for longevity but also to ensure warranties are not voided as a result of improper care.

What don’t senior living providers or developers understand about your job as an interior designer that you wish they knew?

Providers and developers often don’t understand the depth of knowledge that interior designers have regarding the built environment, and the finishes required to make a space not only aesthetically appealing but also function — finishes to avoid fall risks, skin tears, acoustical concerns, and to promote sustainability, longevity of materials, and maintenance of finishes and furnishings.

Programming is vital to create a functional space for all residents, administrative personnel, marketing, housekeepers, care support, life enrichment, and environmental maintenance.

Most providers, developers and the industry in general often overlook the significance of the interior designer’s role in projects. Architects, builders and interior designers work together to create building designs and spaces for providers to operate efficiently and meaningfully for residents. All the development partners should receive equal credit and acknowledgement. Interior designers are never mentioned on any publicity for buildings opening, breaking ground, et cetera. The architect, the contractor and developer are always mentioned, but no one leases or buys based upon any of those consultants. It is the interiors and the operator that create the ability to lease up.

What do you wish that senior living clients understood about good interior design before starting a project?

The location of the community will attract a potential resident to the building site; the interiors, along with the reputation of the operations team, will “sell” the community to the resident.

It must be a supportive, invigorating and aesthetically appealing environment that the residents and families will feel comfortable living in and visiting. The money spent on good interiors will provide a return on investment with a fast lease-up/sale as well as longevity of finishes and materials. The correct materials can save staff time and money in maintaining and replacing as time goes on.

Good design must be based on the provider’s programming to ensure spaces are planned correctly ahead of time.

Design should reflect the local market. Moving to a community is easier for residents who feel acknowledged through familiar color palettes and design styles. Cookie-cutter interiors convey a priority on bulk savings over a desire to create genuinely meaningful spaces that reflect the uniqueness of the broader community or the residents who live there.

Has there been an “HGTV effect” that you’ve noticed in working with clients? Are they more educated and demanding than in the past, in good or bad ways?

Fortunately, senior housing is not 100% residential! Clients today are definitely more experienced and knowledgeable of the senior housing requirements and process, and some understand the specialized skills required of a senior living interior design firm.

On the other hand, the influx of multifamily apartment developers, student housing developers and custom home builders getting into senior housing has created a challenge, since they have some knowledge but not enough to understand the resident safety and operational requirements. Budgets, or budget expectations, are often determined based upon their past experiences in their niche markets, that don’t include a clear understanding of food service, med management, caregiver requirements, record keeping, housekeeping and apartment requirements.

We hear about a “fresh coat of paint” for older buildings facing shiny new ones down the street. Is it wishful thinking that a 20-year-old building can be spruced up so easily?

A reputable interior designer that understands senior housing, budgets, and the ability to be creative with a budget can make miraculous changes to an existing community.

It takes time, money and patience. It also requires direct communication with residents to mitigate any stress and misinterpretation of the design strategy and execution. With the right team with demonstrated results, the desire to reposition a community should definitely not be considered wishful thinking!