Best Memory Care Design 2019: Benchmark 2.0 Comes To Life On Historic Site

Founded in 1997 by industry pioneer Tom Grape, Benchmark recently embarked on a new chapter, with a new private equity owner and an operating approach internally dubbed “Benchmark 2.0.” This next era is exemplified in one of the latest additions to the Waltham, Massachusetts-based provider’s portfolio, Adelaide of Newton Centre.

Located about 10 miles west of Boston in the town of Newton, the 50-unit standalone memory care community is an old-meets-new project that updated an historic structure dating back to the 1800s while adding 35,000 square feet of ground-up construction.

The result is a building that reflects deep ties to the local community while enabling cutting-edge memory care based on the latest research and technology, in an environment designed to appeal to the next generation of residents and their loved ones, according to judges of the 2019 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards, who chose Adelaide of Newton Centre as the winner in the standalone memory care category.

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“Adelaide of Newton Centre community is a well-executed adaptive reuse project that has re-imagined the former Andover Theological Seminary into a serene urban farmhouse,” said Cynthia Shonaiya, principal at architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht and an awards judge. “The repurposing of this historic building captures to full advantage the striking tall windows and prominent high ceilings to produce interior spaces which, while stunning, are at the same time welcoming and home-like.”

The concept

With roots tracing back to the early 19th Century, the Andover Newton Theological Seminary was in flux as the 2010s began. Today, the school has affiliated with Yale University and relocated to New Haven, Connecticut, while its former campus in Newton is being repurposed in various ways — including through the creation of the Benchmark memory care community, which preserved the oldest surviving building on campus, Farwell Hall.

“There had been discussion about whether the building should stay, should it go, what to do with it,” project architect Gerry Frank, a partner at Bechtel Frank Erickson Architects, told SHN. “Given that it was a significant building within the campus site in Newton, Massachusetts, it was decided to keep the building, and could we work with it? And we [said], sure.”

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Frank and the rest of the design team devised a plan to renovate the 196-year-old building to house administrative offices, amenities such as an espresso bar; programming space including an “Elev8” fitness studio and mind studio, with virtual reality technology from Rendever; and a “Serenity Cove” hospice area.

Plans called for resident rooms and other activity and amenity space to be constructed on adjacent land behind the historic building.

The renovation of Farwell Hall called for thoughtful updates to meet the needs of memory care residents while preserving the historic look and feel of the structure, Frank explained. Material selection was important to achieve these twin goals. Exposing the original brickwork, softening that with wood, maximizing natural light, and creating biophilic features such as a “living wall” in the espresso bar were all key elements. They played to the building’s strengths as an example of New England architecture that creates a cozy refuge from the sometimes harsh weather while also maintaining a connection to nature.

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“It’s always nice when a project can tell a story … that this is someplace unique. This is Newton, Massachusetts, and it’s not anywhere else,” Frank said.

Connection to nature also has been shown to benefit memory care residents, so this principle carried over into the new construction. The sloped site presented a design challenge that was solved by creating a two-story donut-shaped building with an interior courtyard on the lower level and a courtyard on the upper level that connects to the Farwell Hall building. Both courtyards are secure, allowing resident access. Planters and beds for therapeutic gardening produce herbs that are incorporated into the community’s menus as well.

Both the renovated spaces and new construction also include tactile walls for sensory stimulation, activities including large puzzles and game boards, and open but flexible spaces that can be partitioned for small-group activities. Interior design by Stefura Associates incorporates memory care best practices for wayfinding and confident movement, such as not using sharp borders that may be perceived as barriers to be jumped over.

“The [phrase] ‘enabling environment’ is key, just in terms of having the confidence and the safety in knowing that where [residents] go, they can participate in things,” Frank said.

The construction

Working with a nearly 200-year-old building demanded that construction proceed with great care, but there were no serious impediments, Frank said. 

“When you’re dealing with a very old building from the 1800s, we’re making sure it’s secure,” he said. “The old adage that they don’t make them like this anymore is really true.”

The new building came out of the ground even more smoothly, as it was relatively straightforward steel construction.

There were some soil conditions to address and complications related to utility company strikes, Frank explained, but nothing that caused serious delays. He estimated that total construction costs came in around $17 million.

One unusual wrinkle arose due to the fact that the building is located next to the main power plant for the Theological Seminary campus, and was close to a defunct smokestack. The project team lobbied to have that smokestack removed, because they determined that it was precarious and could collapse.

The construction and interior design execution successfully delivered the ambitious design concept, with a notable achievement being that the historic building and the ground-up construction are harmonious with each other, according to awards judge Shonaiya.

“This successful melding of the traditional exterior architectural style with an updated contemporary interior design approach had resulted in many attractive, daylit interior amenities,” she said. 

The completion

The project was completed in September 2019 and has lived up to high expectations, Executive Director Susan Cohen Cwieka told SHN.

Cwieka has been in the senior living for 30 years, and Adelaide of Newton Centre stands out from other buildings she has worked in, particularly those that were retrofitted for memory care rather than being designed specifically with the needs of this population in mind.

“It’s easy when you walk in to feel the difference,” she said, explaining that when people first enter the historic building, they see an exposed brick wall and artwork that has been curated for the space. The community has partnered with deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum to create a rotating array of art.

The bountiful natural light, which enters the building from all directions, is another key element that creates a unique and welcoming atmosphere, and one that has a beneficial effect for people with memory impairment, Cwieka said.

The openness of the environment and the placement of nurses’ stations also supports greater resident engagement in activities and programming. A resident can be in the same space where an activity is occurring but simply observe it until inclined to participate, Cwieka said, and nurses have a broad field of vision to oversee various activities.

“If they’re sitting and engaging in a game of Pictionary with an activity person, there may be 5 or 10 sitting in a circle or semi-circle, and then the work station is not far away,” Cwieka said. “ … For the person who may be very impulsive, if they’re ready to get up, it doesn’t distract the person who’s leading the program, because the care staff is right there.”

The placement of the espresso bar and Elev8 studios in the historic building is another design decision that has paid off, because trips to these spaces take on the feeling of an excursion, even though a resident is never leaving the premises, she said.

Integration with the community, and intergenerational interaction, has also been supported by the design, which appeals to people of all ages and offers activities that residents and loved ones can engage in together. The intergenerational component may become even more pronounced in the future, as plans are in the works to create a science and technology school on other parts of the former seminary campus.

One resident in particular stands out to Cwieka as an example of how impactful the right environment can be for people in memory care. Prior to moving in, this woman was staying in bed nearly around the clock. She came to Adelaide of Newton Centre in late December, and since then has not taken meals in her room and is an active participant in activities. Cwieka attributes the change largely to the natural light helping to regulate this resident’s sleep cycle, and the organic way in which she could join activities at her own pace.

“She originally sat on the periphery of programs going on, and now she sits at the table,” Cwieka said. “She asks in the morning, what’s going on for the day.”

The resident’s niece is so grateful, she has talked to touring families about how the community has improved her aunt’s quality of life so profoundly.

“As an operator and a provider who’s been doing this a long time, I couldn’t be more proud of what Benchmark has done and what we can offer this population,” Cwieka said.

It’s a point echoed by Frank, who has worked on many projects with Benchmark since the company’s early days.

“We are very proud of it,” he said, of the Newton Centre project. “One of the goals that Benchmark had was they — I think rightfully — see themselves as leaders in the industry, bringing the senior housing market in a different direction.”

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