Senior Living Innovators Zero In On Small Homes, Pocket Neighborhoods

When it comes to senior living communities, bigger is sometimes better. But as senior care innovator Dr. Bill Thomas remarked last year, the so-called “big box” model of senior living is no longer the only option for residents.

Architects, capital providers, operators and entrepreneurs are exploring new concepts for smaller, more intimate styles of senior housing. These include small-home models of senior housing such as Minka, a company Thomas founded that focuses on compact, prefab homes built through modular construction techniques. And small homes are being organized into new layouts such as “pocket neighborhoods,” like the one at Garden Spot Village in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

Such concepts decentralize the traditional senior living community layout and may help make senior living services more affordable for the masses in the process.

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And while there are some barriers in the way — such as the cost per square foot of developing and building smaller homes — it’s an exercise worth undertaking as baby boomers bring a new set of preferences with them as they move into senior housing, according to Lisa McCracken, director of senior living research and development at Chicago-based specialty investment bank Ziegler.

“At the end of the day, it’s about change and thinking differently, and if we don’t do that, we’re in trouble,” McCracken told Senior Housing News.”It’s not doom and gloom, but we’ve got to be comfortable thinking differently about what future senior housing options look like.”

‘Minimization movement’

In 1992, fast food giant McDonald’s introduced supersizing as a way to meet the rising consumer demand for more, more, more. At the same time, the U.S. senior living industry — which also underwent a period of reinvention in the early 90s — was embracing big units, big amenities, big parking lots and big campuses.

But that was then, and this is now. In the age of HGTV and Pinterest, today’s consumers are exposed to more architectural and interior design concepts than perhaps ever before — including the so-called “tiny house movement.” Cable television and the internet act as a portal for consumers to see how people live in more compact dwellings in other cities or countries.

And all of that is helping change public perceptions about living in smaller spaces, according to David Dillard, principal with Dallas-based D2 Architecture.

“I think the needle is moving, and for a lot of reasons,” Dillard told SHN. “I really sense that, over time, there will be a minimization movement. You can already see it.”

Dillard imagines a day when more older Americans choose to live in smaller spaces the same way city-dwelling people in Europe or Asia do.

“I think those ideas and those tolerances for smaller spaces will be systemically imported into the American mind,” he said.

That’s not to say older adults will shun larger spaces en masse — and there will always be people who want to bring along their prized grand pianos and other bulky possessions, Dillard explained. But the senior living residents of tomorrow won’t necessarily rule out smaller housing options from the get-go as many have done in previous years.

“People in a few years will say, 800 square feet? I can do that, that’s not a dealbreaker,” Dillard said.

Senior living owners, developers and operators are also becoming more comfortable with the idea of smaller spaces for older adults. For some of them, pocket neighborhoods and small homes are ways to develop oddly shaped or smaller parcels of land that aren’t well-suited for larger development projects.

“Some of the providers that are looking at small homes, particularly ones on the West Coast, they’re not having good luck finding big tracts of land [for new development],” McCracken said. “They need to work within what they have and still have options for seniors.”

The ability to offer housing at a more affordable rate is another component of the appeal for providers, McCracken explained. And offering smaller, less amenitized homes on campus could be an easy way to unbundle some of the costly services that residents must buy into under the traditional model.

Rise of the small home

In recent years, the senior living industry has witnessed the rise of small-home appeal and now a variety of companies are trying to create versions of small homes that are tailored to older adults.

Chief among them is Minka, a company started by Eden Alternative co-founder and senior living visionary Dr. Bill Thomas.

Minka has a handful of projects in the works, including plans to build a small-home community in Denver in collaboration with Englewood, Colorado-based senior living nonprofit Christian Living Communities (CLC).

Not-for-profit providers like CLC are well-positioned to experiment with new models of senior housing, McCracken said.

“I think that the not-for-profits are willing to cut their teeth on it and learn along the way,” she noted. “And, maybe they don’t have as much of an expectation of the quick scale-up and rebuild [as the for-profits].”

But there are barriers to making the model work on a large scale. One is the cost-prohibitive nature of building small. In a nutshell, construction companies are set up to leverage economies of scale when building senior living projects. That’s good if you’re developing a sprawling CCRC campus, but not so much when you’re building a small home.

“We build spreadsheets outlining projects that scale, not because the elders are demanding a 120-unit senior housing apartment complex, but because that’s what the construction industry is optimized to produce,” Thomas said at SHN’s BUILD event last year.

Minka has attempted to overcome these obstacles by manufacturing prefabricated homes using robotic machines in a process similar to 3D printing. The building blocks are formed at Minka’s factory, then shipped and assembled onsite in less than a week. A single Minka home could cost as little as $152 per square foot, and can be developed on land that might not otherwise work for a more traditional senior housing building.

Minka isn’t the only company looking to bring modular homes to the senior living industry. Another is Cozy Home Community, which is working with Asheville, North Carolina-based homebuilder Deltec on a line of rentable housing units designed and built for middle-income baby boomers.

The company’s 1,200-square-foot homes are designed to have two bedrooms and two full bathrooms with a kitchen, dining and family room — and the goal is to build and deliver them at approximately $150 per square foot. Under the initial Cozy Home concept, rents would likely hover between $1,500 and $2,000, without included meals, care services or standalone amenities.

While the concept is still in its early stages, the idea has garnered interest from a handful of large nonprofit senior living providers, according to Cozy Home Founder and CEO Matt Thornhill.

“I’ve had non-profit, faith-based and mission-driven operators tell me we need to have a solution for the middle market,” Thornhill told Senior Housing News. “My goal is to have one or two of them committed to pursuing this by the middle of the year.”

Cozy Home Community

Another company looking to play in the small-home space is Cantina Communities, a startup from two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that aims to bring to market a new model of active adult senior living. With advice from senior living veterans that include Sunrise Senior Living Co-Founder Paul Klaasen, the company has already secured a site in Austin, Texas, on which to build 90 small-house units.

Others interested in creating small-home models that could work for older adults include retail giants Muji and IKEA, which are both respectively working on their own prefabricated small-home concepts.

In the pocket

For senior living providers, the rise of small homes is translating into concepts that prioritize socialization and wellness, with pocket neighborhoods being a prime example.

Sycamore Springs, a pocket neighborhood at Garden Spot Village, consists of homes clustered in small neighborhoods around a common green space. Another example is Rose Villa, a life plan community in Portland, Oregon, that added a 12-cottage, energy-efficient pocket neighborhood to its campus last year.

Pocket neighborhoods — a term coined by architect Ross Chapin — vary in size and scope, but usually consist of walkable clusters of homes with smaller than average square footage. While the concept has gained traction in the senior living world only in recent years, there are already established pocket neighborhoods for people of all ages in many locations throughout the U.S.

In senior living settings, they are often designed and built with the belief that older adults prioritize socialization above flashy amenities or over-the-top programming.

“There is a deliberate and intentional movement toward fostering a greater sense of community,” McCracken said. “That’s not to say current models — with things like cottages — don’t do that, but it’s just a different take.”

Most pocket neighborhoods on the senior living market today are geared toward independent older adults who don’t need much or any help with activities of daily living. But Dillard also envisions a day when even residents needing higher levels of care could live in them, too.

“How great would it be to have home health care aides visit these houses that are all in a circle around each other?” Dillard said. “Instead of having the caretakers drive across town and back again, you could just have them park their car and walk around.”

Cantina is also planning to arrange its small home development in Austin according to pocket neighborhood principles.

While startups and nonprofits are experimenting with small homes and pocket neighborhoods, established for-profit senior living providers are likely watching to see how the trend develops, and will pounce if they see an opportunity.

“The for-profit guys, they don’t want to be the bleeding edge,” Dillard said. “They want to come in after the not-for-profits have their swing at it, so they can take on a good idea and make it run, and I think they will.”

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