Expert Design Tips for Aging in Place Gracefully

The $20 million Heritage Senior Housing development has been touted for many reasons: quality aesthetics, affordability, a design that resonates with its historic surroundings, and a LEED-Platinum rating. But the feature that most impacts the low-income seniors who live there are the community’s common spaces designed to pull them out of their apartments and provide opportunities for socializing.

Heritage’s individual living quarters are well-appointed and cozy, but tenants have many reasons to leave their units and socialize. “What you don’t want is to have the seniors sitting in their rooms watching TV all day,” says architect John Schrader. Prime spots for interaction include a lobby with grand piano, dining room that converts to a mini dance hall, computer room, movie theater, exercise room, and multiple seating areas in the courtyard.

This emphasis on comfortable, inviting common spaces with lots of amenities is found in all of developer Columbia Residential’s projects. Here are some of popular design trends for the independent living set that Columbia and its longtime architect partner, JHP, have found successful:

—Provide as much common space as possible. At Heritage, common spaces make up nearly 20 percent of the community. “Seniors are at home a lot more than families with busy lives and kids,” says Jim Grauley, president of Columbia Residential. “So we provide more space designed to allow for interaction.”

—Include a porte cochere or other type of covered entryway so that residents can be dropped off and picked up comfortably in any type of weather.

—Keep main floor areas open, with no closed-off rooms. That way, residents can sit in the lobby and take in the action from all sides.

—Locate plenty of seating near the mailbox area. Schrader says seniors love to sit and greet their neighbors as they stop to pick up mail.

—A grand piano in the main space provides opportunities for spontaneous musical gatherings and scheduled performances.

—Computer rooms are a must for today’s connected seniors. The five terminals at Heritage are almost always full, Schrader says.

—Create a way for residents to personalize their front doors with photos, wreaths, or other decorations that help residents locate their unit in a long hallway.

—Create points for conversation that are out of the way of main areas, such as a window seat in a hallway or a corner seating area. “Create chances for different levels of interaction among residents, visitors, and staff,” says Schrader. “It encourages residents to get out of their rooms and socialize.”

—Open up the ends of long corridors with windows, which let in natural light, allow tenants to check the weather, and help residents and visitors orient themselves in the building.

—Keep wheelchair ramps to a minimum. At Heritage, the interior courtyard is raised to be level with the building so only one ramp is needed at the main entrance.

—Consider energy-efficient features, which benefit tenants on fixed incomes. LEED-Platinum Heritage includes a 67 kW solar electric system, a tight building envelope with high insulation values and energy-­efficient windows, utility monitoring and water submeters in each unit, HVAC energy recovery systems, and energy-­efficient lighting and appliances. “It substantially lowers the energy costs for our residents,” says Grauley.

-- By Jennifer Goodman, Photo Credit: Rion Rizzo/Creative Sources rion