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Steps Toward Better Senior Design

Borrow from the hospitality sector to develop effective and attractive senior-living environments.


Step one in developing effective senior-living facilities, such as the Harbor’s Edge development in Norfolk, VA, is to use hospitality frameworks in which architecture serves as a backdrop for graceful, unobtrusive service. Rendering courtesy three

By Rockland Berg, AIA, NCARB, principal, three

A recent national gathering of experts at the Environments for Aging conference in Salt Lake City reinforced a few big ideas that undergird today’s successful senior architecture and design. Attendees also saw how fast senior living is evolving—perhaps faster than any other commercial design market.

The biggest driver is the owner-operator’s desire to include multiple generations in their communities. The Greatest Generation stands on their doorstep just as baby boomers are pulling into the metaphorical driveway. Savvy owner-operators are applying proven hospitality models to these senior consumers and then carefully tweaking them to incorporate effective housing and healthcare elements.

With 30 years of experience in high-end hospitality and senior living, our firm, three, Dallas (, sees this formula as an adaptable and winning approach. It’s driving the success of established developers and owner-operators, while attracting new players. Winning architectural solutions for senior living and senior care start out as attractive hospitality concepts—stage sets carefully choreographed to deliver best-in-class services. Here is our approach:

1. Start with hospitality and customize for seniors. The best senior living builds on hospitality frameworks where architecture serves as a backdrop for graceful, unobtrusive service. Architectural programming, layout, and circulation establish a support system for those seemingly effortless, yet highly effective, services. These environments enable care providers to spend energy building one-on-one, personal experiences that seniors crave.

2. Focus design on desired experience. Quality senior architecture is experientially designed as fabric contributing to the place’s personality and choreography. It’s all about how landscaping, architecture, and interiors ultimately make residents feel. Those feelings drive repeat visits to hotels and restaurants. Similarly, they make senior communities successful, from living unit to dining experience and beyond.

Lighting, for example, is vital to crafting the right mood. In living units, floorplans are more open, often with taller ceilings, extra daylight, and generous windows connecting residents to the outdoors. Color, texture, and acoustics enhance the senior’s world of diminishing capacities, weaving positive and stimulating experiences. Material and daylighting can help seniors with recognition, wayfinding, wellness, and safety.

3. After experience comes service. If technology and architecture get in the way of excellent service (acoustics are poor, flooring is uneven, lighting is insufficient) it undermines the service focus. Strive to optimize flexibility and make design unobtrusive. As an example, more senior facilities now have open display kitchens, which are entertaining and offer sensory stimulations such as cooking aromas that arouse older appetites. Many residents find these setups loud and distracting, however. If used, open kitchens require appropriate materials and acoustical and architectural barriers for a positive experience.

4. Create the feeling of home. Scale and familiarity combine to create the desirable residential feel. A sense of community should be perceptible, while scale remains personal, accessible, and comfortable. How many steps does it takes to walk from a residential unit’s front door to shared amenities, for example? Are amenities congregated, with smaller, smarter, open commons spaces with effective lighting, proper acoustics, and flexible furnishings?

More than ever, common areas must be adaptable and multipurpose. A breakfast grotto, for example, can be transformed into a pre-dinner bar environment or pre-function area. Both uses could be nested within an entertainment area, such as a theater. Our designers frequently use nesting formulas similar to those developed in the hospitality sector. Overall, common areas—often called non-revenue spaces by owners—are getting smaller but smarter, driving higher efficiencies, which lenders and operators prefer.

5. More spaces for independent living. As common areas condense, living units generally are getting larger. Seniors demand better kitchens, spa bathrooms, and closets, reflecting the increasing influence of the women’s perspective. Universal design elements more frequently apply to living units, too, as operators innovate so residents may gracefully age in place.

This contrasts with assisted-living, memory-care, and skilled-nursing facilities, where residential units are getting smaller and more thoughtfully designed. Again, design for fewer steps—but upgrade and add amenities to common spaces to encourage healthy socializing.

In general, the best senior facilities offer a sense of discovery and enjoyment every day. They’re flexible and allow managed change and optimal service delivery. It’s a unique set of needs and a valuable opportunity for architects to spark innovation and advancement, whether it’s a renovation project or a greenfield development.

Rockland Berg, AIA, is founding partner of three (, an architecture practice headquartered in Dallas. Involved in senior-living architecture for more than two decades, Rocky is well known throughout the market and speaks frequently on developing trends, including on NBC Nightly News. His firm three’s national portfolio includes senior living, hospitality, and residential projects.

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