Designing functional outdoor living spaces

Michael Chotiner
Michael Chotiner

Professionals who plan and manage senior housing and care facilities know that stimulating, comfortable and safe outdoor living spaces are an important component of design that fosters a higher quality of life for residents. In fact, a report on the results of the Design for Aging Review — a biennial competition co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging — notes that 97% of the award-winning projects featured “a connection to nature” between interior and outdoor spaces.

A recent monograph for continuing education from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards titled “Accommodations for Seniors” provides some specific recommendations for making connections to nature in an eldercare setting.

“There should be a hierarchy of spaces,” NCARB suggests, “as one makes the transition from indoors to outdoors, which might include”:

  • Spaces within the building that have an indoor-outdoor character, such as atriums
  • Porches that extend from the building to provide shelter, shade, security and vistas
  • Seating that includes back- and armrests near building entrances to encourage socialization
  • A paved activity area large enough for activities such as barbecues or small concerts
  • Table-and-chair groupings for picnicking
  • Intimate outdoor seating areas with furnishings that allow residents and visitors to sit side by side and/or face each other
  • Pathways with things of interest such as landscaping plants, bird feeders, and benches for resting
  • A landmark destination such as a gazebo, which can serve as an activity area removed from the main building and provide visual guidance for those returning from longer walks
  • A nature walk - if site space permits, a natural walking path that allows for greater exercise and a more natural experience

Experts say that on longer paths, benches for resting should be provided no less than 100 yards along the way. Seating along pathways should be positioned off to the side so as not to obstruct the walkway. Shade should be available in outdoor seating areas either with umbrellas or shade structures.

Selecting Outdoor Furnishings for Eldercare

While promoting exercise and access to fresh air should be among the goals of outdoor living areas, providing appropriate outdoor furnishings for rest and socializing are key to successful design. Careful selection of furnishings is important not only for utility, comfort and safety of residents but also for those with responsibility for purchasing and maintaining them. There are many choices in materials and design.  The table below lists the choices by materials, along with the benefits and maintenance tips for each:

From an operations perspective, each furniture material has its pros and cons.

Resin and aluminum furniture is relatively inexpensive and easy to care for. Its lightweight nature may make it easy for residents to move around and position themselves. But it may be too lightweight to stay in place during windy conditions or sturdy enough for comfort and longevity.

Steel furniture is also relatively lightweight, sturdier than plastics and aluminum, and more expensive. Wrought iron is heavier and sturdier still, but both are vulnerable to rust if not maintained regularly. Steel and wrought iron furniture that has a powder coating is less vulnerable than painted metal.

Wicker is gracious and comfortable, ideal for creating an outdoor feel indoors, but it may not stand up to weather year round as well as other materials.

For maximum comfort, all types of outdoor seating should be fitted with cushions. Of course, the fabrics should be moisture- and fade-resistant, and washable.

Elders' Preferences in Outdoor Seating

“Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors”— a set of guidelines developed from collaborative research by three British universities — focuses on preferences expressed by seniors in interviews. Among the most interesting comments, subjects said:

  • “Wood is warmer; Metal is cold and gets rusty.”
  • “Back and arm rests are very important because I get tired.”
  • “Arm rests are good for getting up and down, I can't get up without an arm rest.”
  • “Sloping backs are not comfortable.”
  • “The armrests are very important if you want to move from wheelchair to bench and vice versa.”
  • “Benches are often too low to be comfortable.”
  • “People who have had their knees and hips replaced need at least 19 inches [height of seat] otherwise it's hard to get up again.”

While most recommendations for outdoor furnishings for seniors stress sturdiness, stability and higher seat height, it should be noted that rocking chairs are also known to have calming, therapeutic effects, especially for individuals suffering with dementia. Outdoor design guidelines from NCARB and others encourage provisions for those with cognitive disabilities. They recommend room-like settings within larger outdoor spaces, providing landmarks that are easily understood by those prone to becoming disoriented.

Have you experienced any successes or challenges designing an outdoor space at a care facility?

Michael Chotiner is a home improvement expert and homeowner who writes for The Home Depot. Michael's skills as a master carpenter provide him with an understanding of the specific needs of seniors when it comes to outdoor furniture. For more, click here.

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