4 Trends Driving Senior Housing Design in the U.S. and Abroad

As U.S.-style senior living gains traction overseas, international designs are reflecting some of the same trends that are hot in domestic markets.

But like snowflakes, no two markets are alike, D2 Architecture President David Dillard told Senior Housing News.

“‘International’ is too broad a term,” he said.

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Senior housing professionals expanding beyond the U.S. must take an “act locally” approach to design in order for a community to be successful, and it helps to know what are the defining trends in specific markets, Dillard noted. He has judged international senior living designs over several years for the SHN Architecture & Design Awards. Submissions are now open for 2019. Don’t be surprised if this year’s winners embody some of the following four trends. 

Gigantic campuses in China

The more ambitious Chinese senior communities are giant resort-style campuses, connected by a centralized, amenity-rich building offering near-seamless integration between interiors and exteriors.

In the United States, sprawling campuses are not necessarily a trend, due to high construction costs and a move toward smaller urban sites. However, there are trends toward wellness-focused developments that include a full continuum of care — such as Discovery Senior Living’s Discovery Village model. This is also a trend toward more grandiose exterior spaces that are better integrated with interiors, with a forthcoming Thrive Senior Living community being one example.

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One notable example of these design trends in China: 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.

Taikang Yue Community Garden Courtesy of Taikang Staff
An aerial view of Taikang Yue Community Garden in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China

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

Los Angeles-based architecture firm Steinberg Hart is another active firm in the Chinese market. The firm has designed over 10.6 million square feet of senior housing in China since opening an office in Shanghai in 2000, Steinberg Hart Partner Jason Briscoe told SHN.

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Initially, campuses dominated the market because the land had lower density requirements and restrictions on how high a developer could build. As Western resort-style luxury became more common in recent years, developers and operators stuck with the trend to cater to a more affluent resident.

“These are people who have traveled and live in comfort. Their expectations, particularly if their children are part of the buying process, is they want luxury product,” Briscoe said.

Embracing Western interiors

Demand for luxury senior housing in the Far East has combined with an embrace for Western design — specifically American, Briscoe told SHN. Steinberg Hart is working with a U.S. operator entering the Chinese market that wants the interiors and finishes to be distinctively American.

But the embrace of American-style design goes beyond China. Take the senior living pipeline being developed in India by Seattle-based Columbia Pacific Group, with U.S.-based architecture firm Perkins Eastman working with local architects.

“You would not feel out of place if you were here in Seattle and walked into one of these buildings,” Carsten Belanich, the lead for Columbia Pacific Management’s International Senior Housing Funds, told SHN in July.

Although U.S. influences are often a point of pride for international projects, Dillard strikes a cautionary note about the dangers of a generic look and feel.

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.

“I could blindfold someone and place them in the lobby of a senior housing development in Shanghai or Beijing, and it would feel as though they’re in Miami or Los Angeles,” he said.

Health care-senior care partnerships

International markets are beginning to recognize the intersection between health care and senior living that is an ongoing trend in the U.S.

Health care groups in overseas markets are identifying redundancies with what is being offered in senior housing communities — be it equipment, facilities and caretakers — and there is a growing thrust to organize cooperation between the two.

“This is not unique to any one market. This is happening around the globe,” Dillard said.

He added that this symbiotic relationship is playing out fast in the younger cohorts of senior living such as age-restricted and independent living communities. It is also attaching itself to mixed-use communities, connecting health care facilities and senior housing residents to the greater community and creating vibrant intergenerational neighborhoods.

Adaptive reuse

With populations aging in the U.S. and around the globe, it should come as no surprise that senior living is an attractive option for adaptive reuse projects. In the United States, everything from malls to old psychiatric hospitals are part of this trend. It’s also a notable trend in the U.K. and western Europe in particular for two reasons, Dillard observed.

First, Europeans are more accustomed to intergenerational living, given the population density, and the downtown cores of cities across the continent are tailor-made for mixed-use. A senior apartment or assisted living community can be located next to a bistro or a cafe, steps from the community.

The second is more practical: the western European urban fabric is populated with older buildings that have stood for decades, if not centuries. That history, coupled with population growth and limits in land availability, have necessitated adaptive reuse over the years.

“You’re seeing recycled purposes in European buildings you don’t see in the U.S. [Europeans have] a practical historic preference in older buildings,” Dillard said.

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