From Afterthought to Main Event: Why Senior Living is Going Bigger, Bolder on Outdoor Spaces

Senior living providers across the U.S. are reimagining the traditional outdoor amenity space — and in the process, sometimes shifting away from the typical real estate formula for maximizing investor returns.

But there may be good reason for doing so. While outdoor amenity spaces don’t generate revenue like an occupied unit, they deserve much more attention than they usually receive, according to Thrive Senior Living President Les Strech.

“The outdoor spaces [in senior living] are almost an afterthought. They’re not being used,” Strech told SHN. “But it’s human to be outside, and we have to start thinking about that.”

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Two providers — Atlanta-based Thrive and Friendship Village, a Life Care Services community in Tempe, Arizona — have announced big plans to build outdoor spaces in that shake up the traditional format. Friendship Village plans to create eye-popping rooftop spaces, complete with brewpubs and an 18-hole putting green course. And at a planned development in New Jersey, Thrive is planning a sprawling green space heralding what the company calls the “deconstruction of the traditional senior living courtyard.”

These projects come as many senior living providers search for the right mix of amenities and services for the incoming baby boomer generation of older adults. One key belief is that senior living communities must give residents opportunities to continue living the lifestyle they had before they moved in. For many older adults, that means spending time outside, according to Nora Wiley, partner with Cincinnati-based architecture and interior design firm Luminaut.

“People are really looking to continue their current lifestyle after moving into these senior living communities,” Wiley told Senior Housing News. “And a big part of their current lifestyle is outdoor living.”

Incoming senior living residents, especially on the independent living side, crave more than a lonely gazebo or a cramped eight-by-ten balcony, she explained.

Luminaut took that philosophy to heart when it helped West Hartford, Connecticut-based nonprofit continuing care retirement community (CCRC) The Mercy Community remodel its common spaces last year. Part of that redesign included an indoor-outdoor lifestyle space with an outdoor kitchen, putting green and a fireplace.

Luminaut is not the first company that’s adopted the philosophy that incoming seniors, particularly those that belong to the baby boomer generation, will want more out of the senior living experience. It’s widely believed that, as time goes on, more older adults will seek out communities which feed their sense of purpose or foster close-knit ties among residents.

Courtyard deconstructed

Thrive Senior Living recently broke ground on a new community — Thrive at Montvale in Montvale, New Jersey — that promises to shake up the traditional senior living courtyard concept. At the center of the 203-apartment community is a more than 33,000 square-foot outdoor “social court” designed to function as a place where residents can gather and interact.

The space is two-thirds the size of a regulation football field. It’s meant to let natural light into the community while also serving as a venue for concerts on the lawn, yoga and dance classes.

The social court is meant to encourage residents to use outdoor spaces during their normal day-to-day routines. For instance, because the building wraps around the space, the shortest distance between any two points is likely through the courtyard.

The end goal is to emphasize the outdoors and minimize the “interior circulation” that typically occurs among residents of senior living communities. Too often, senior living residents — especially those on the higher end of the care continuum — spend their days moving from one interior space to another, with little thought given to the outside.

While the industry needs to change its philosophy about how and where residents spend their time, that may be easier said than done. From conception to completion, senior living design theory is more often than not geared toward maximizing investors’ returns. This, too, needs to change, Strech said.

“Operational efficiency and efficient usage of land from a real estate perspective drove that we maximize the number of units and limit the amount of outdoor space,” he said. “But it’s time we start thinking of better questions, like what’s our design theory, and get smart people to think about how to make it into a profitable business.”

And although these more extravagant outdoor spaces are more expensive to build, they’re not unattractive to industry stakeholders if done correctly.

“The investors we’ve partnered with, they love the thought of building a more human environment over a more clinical one,” Strech said.

While Thrive’s interior courtyard concept reduces the overall possible unit count and adds to the total project cost, it will go further than the traditional senior living outdoor spaces to encourage older adults to move in before they need to, Strech said.

“The general public doesn’t want anything that seems like an old folks home,” Strech said. “So, we want to create spaces where people want to stay and live.”

Thrive currently operates 17 communities across Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, with another four under construction.

‘Shouting from the rooftops’

Another senior living provider seeking to change the way outdoor amenity spaces are utilized is Friendship Village of Tempe, a Life Care Services-managed CCRC with more than 560 residents in Tempe, Arizona.

The community is currently preparing to build six new apartment buildings on its 50-acre campus, over six different phases. Friendship Village is working with Minneapolis-based developer Ryan Companies on the design and build.

Each phase of the overall master plan project is expected to cost roughly $30 million to $35 million. The first phase is currently being sold, and Friendship Village expects to break ground in November.

One part of the plan is especially noteworthy — atop those planned buildings will be ambitious rooftop amenity spaces, including three pickleball courts, an 18-hole putting course, a driving range, and a rooftop brewpub, potentially even with beers brewed by residents.

Friendship ViIlage of Tempe

The project is unique in that the CCRC is expanding up, not out. But that’s a necessity in Tempe, where nearby land for new development was hard to come by, according to Friendship Village’s executive director, Cole Marvin.

“The whole city is absolutely landlocked … but we needed more space,” Marvin told SHN. “I want to program these roofs. My idea to sell it was, ‘ senior living, shouting from the rooftops.’”

Right now, senior living providers are mostly still serving residents from the silent and greatest generations. But the boomers are in the wings , necessitating a new way of thinking about amenities and common areas.

“If you really want to attract the boomers, you need to have something that doesn’t feel old,” Marvin said. “And I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Friendship Village isn’t the only highrise project to use rooftop space for outdoor amenities. Other examples include the urban rooftop green space at Kendal’s The Admiral at the Lake in Chicago and the 16th floor “sky park” planned at Maplewood’s Inspir community in Manhattan.

The trend could also accelerate in the coming years, as urban senior living is set to explode with pipelines from the likes of Related Companies and Atria Senior Living.

In terms of how big rooftop spaces can go, Friendship Village may only be the beginning.

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