4 Predictions for Senior Housing Construction Recovery

As senior housing capital markets show signs of stability, operators are dusting off the construction plans they were forced to stall as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. What that construction and development will look like in the coming months, and even the next few years, is a matter of planning and debate.

Here are four predictions for senior housing construction recovery, from project directors Mike Duehren and Dave Rahm of employee-owned national general contractor Brinkmann Constructors.

Heavy emphasis on safety

Senior housing has always placed a premium on resident safety, but as we emerge from the pandemic, that emphasis with regards to Covid will likely be baked into the construction process even more completely. There will be more consideration placed on how the physical design can induce safe living, especially in the case of a future infection or viral outbreak, be it within rooms, a floor, a building or a campus.

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But there will also be greater consideration given to how the construction process itself will remain safe as people work next to each other.

“From the start of construction until the buildings are turned over and being lived in, I think there will be a huge emphasis on safety protocols,” says Rahm, who works out of Brinkmann’s Denver office. “And we’re not just talking about construction safety. We’re talking health and safety across the board.”

That means continuing to find ways to keep residents safe yet also active in the event of another health crisis. Operators undergoing new construction would be wise to consider what design features will allow them to preemptively respond to a new virus or infection outbreak.

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I think what people don’t want to do is what happened this past year, where residents were locked and kept in their rooms for safety purposes,” says Duehren, who is based in Brinkmann’s St. Louis office. “I think there will be a focus on how they can adapt and maintain that distancing if the need for it ever occurred again while giving residents some freedom within their space.”

Renewed focus on outdoor amenities

One design solution to a community’s post-Covid health and safety challenges is the renewed focus on outdoor amenities, which can allow for socialization and physical activity in a safe, outdoor setting. Rahm has noticed an uptick in these outdoor spaces, ones that can accommodate activities ranging from pickleball to picnics, with spaces ranging from amphitheaters to walking paths to swimming pools.

“Residents want some place where they can go outside and enjoy themselves and be able to have some sort of activity,” Rahm says. “Residents want to be able to get together and play outdoors — horseshoes or bocce ball or whatever it is. They don’t want to have to go down to a local putt-putt course or another facility. They want that on their site. And we are starting to see a lot more of that designed into these spaces.”

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These spaces are a boon for visitors, too, which of course makes them beneficial to the residents, who can welcome their family members and other loved ones for safe and engaging outdoor activities. Even operators with existing properties can find ways to retrofit or add new outdoor elements. A swimming pool might be difficult, but a walking path, for instance, is not.

“It’s about how much land and property you have,” Duehren says. “On these CCRC campuses, they have the space to spread out and put in the walking trails and these centralized outdoor amenity spaces, such as bocce or pickleball. It’s tougher on single-building locations, so it really needs to be considered up front when you’re looking at a piece of property. But generally speaking, anything that’s on the surface isn’t that difficult as long as you have the space.”

Outdoor design concepts coming inside

Part of the reason why outdoor amenity spaces will be front and center in new senior housing construction is because Covid spreads less easily outdoors than indoors. In this new era of infection control, that matters.

But after a year of being cooped up, residents want more physical activity regardless of the weather. That means operators must find ways to bring outdoor activities — and the principles of outdoor recreation — inside. This might mean an increase in multi-use rooms, Rahm says, such as fieldhouses, or even multi-use movie theaters that can seat up to 450 people and can be used for everything from religious services to community meetings.

“That’s a big group of individuals you can put into one space,” he says.

Another solution lies with the large dining rooms that accompany a community restaurant or commercial kitchen. These rooms can be segmented into three to four spaces to be used as the operator or activities director sees fit. This is a trend that Duehren and Rahm saw prior to Covid, and one that Covid is accelerating.

“Basket weaving club, orchestra club, ping pong, games rooms — whatever it is, all of these rooms have more than one function,” Duehren says. “It’s not just, ‘This is room X and this is what we do in here.’ If you can’t go outside, you can go inside and do something. It seems like there is more than one use for every room we’re putting into a building.”

One major, popular space? A common kitchen outside of the commercial kitchen.

“Budgets are generally problems, but the one thing I’ve seen recently that’s been the holy grail that they don’t want to get rid of is a ‘mom’s kitchen’ where they’ll do cooking classes and things like that,” Duehren says. Physical activities can come indoors too, from pickleball courts to exercise and yoga, all the way to the essence of the indoor-outdoor activity: the golf simulator.

The pursuit of true general contractor partners

All of this design work is best served through a true general contractor partnership: a guide to whom operators can turn for discussions on a range of non-construction matters, such as local or state jurisdictional requirements or acquiring a temporary certificate of occupancy.

“We engage those state agencies early on to anticipate any type of requirement that could delay move-ins and try to head those off early,” Duehren says. “That’s one of the worst issues you can have: where you build a nice building and then there’s some kind of issue at the end getting it licensed and opened up for the users. Residents have put down deposits or sold homes, and they need a place to go. So when we’ve committed to a date, even though our work may be done, we see it through to the end.”

That level of partnership is essential for operators, who want a GC who understands them and understands the true clients of senior housing: the residents.

“I would say at Brinkmann, everyone has the same attitude: the people who are living here, those are the people who we want to make happy,” Rahm says. “If they have a good experience, they tell the owner they have a good experience and then the owner wants to keep working with us. We look at it like a joint venture: you try to make everyone happy, but you want the end user to have an especially good experience. That’s what you’re looking for.”

This article is sponsored by Brinkmann Constructors. To learn more about how Brinkmann can help your new construction plans, visit BrinkmannConstructors.com, or contact Rebecca Randolph at rrandolph@brinkmannconstructors.com.

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