The design dilemma

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The design dilemma
The design dilemma
There is a question being asked with greater frequency in the seniors housing segment: Is it better to build a design concept with higher-end hospitality touches or the coziness and familiarity of homelike surroundings?

In today's increasingly competitive market—which is largely driven by quality touches, thoughtful design details and discerning customers who are apt to shun facilities that lack aesthetic appeal and functionality—experts say the best approach is one that artfully blends the two design styles.

“What we're seeing with design today is much different from what we saw just five years ago. Homelike designs are still very important, but so is incorporating hospitality-grade elements into the design to keep facilities feeling fresher and more on target with customers' design tastes,” says Steven Piazza, president of Senior Management Advisors, a seniors housing operators with communities in Florida and Georgia. “It's really about finding the perfect balance – creating spaces that are homey yet current, with some luxurious touches that bring in hospitality elements without feeling too fussy or formal.”

Fortunately for long-term care operators, striking that balance has become easier as the lines between hospitality- and residential-style designs have blurred.

“I think it is possible to achieve a residential ambience that has commercial or hospitality performance,” notes Judith Sisler Johnston, president of Sisler Johnston Interior Design, Jacksonville, FL. “In today's marketplace, there is no shortage of product options. Commercial manufacturers have noticed the trend toward a residential look and have suitable offerings.”

Bang for the buck
Similarly, residential furnishings are being paired with durable fabrics and materials and transitional designs to give operators more bang for their design dollars. This is good news for operators that must satisfy their residents' specific design preferences, while also ensuring that spaces can withstand heavy use and endure evolving customer demands. Such demands come not just from residents themselves, but also their adult children who may be turned off by worn or overly traditional spaces that may read as old-fashioned or outdated.

Communities that blend homelike design elements with hospitality-grade features also will help capture prospective residents, design experts stresses, particularly the emerging baby boomer population that tends to be well-traveled and appreciates more luxurious accommodations and thoughtful design details.

“The large baby boomer population is definitely going to change the way senior living environments are designed,” notes designer Monica Wierzba, formerly of Joerns Healthcare Inc., Stevens Point, WI. “The generation before [them] lived through the Depression and tended to save more than they spent. The baby boomers spend more money on themselves, their homes and things like travel, and they will expect the communities they retire to and live in to have the same comfort and modernization that they have been accustomed to.”

Not one-size-fits-all
Creating comfortable, inviting spaces relies heavily on the presence of residential design elements. However, it's essential that operators understand that what feels like home for one group of residents may feel like a foreign planet to another.

“Effective design means making the end-user, i.e., seniors, comfortable in their surroundings, and the only way to reach that goal is to really get to know the residents and the community and surrounding areas of where the facility is located,” reasons Pat DiFiore, executive director for Barton Senior Residence of Zion (IL). DiFiore was responsible for the design of Barton Healthcare's supportive living facility in Chicago, a model center for the state of Illinois. She says that what feels like home for someone who lives along Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, for example, will likely mean something far different than for someone who lives in a rural, small-town setting.

“Crystal chandeliers might say ‘home' for some, but they won't work for everyone, and certainly not every community,” she says. “Only when you know who you're marketing to can you create a facility that residents and their families will really connect with.”

Still, there are some notable design trends that translate well for most seniors housing communities. It all begins with the creation of more intimate, defined common areas, combined with classic, comfortable and enduring designs.

“Resident rooms should be well-appointed and comfortable, of course, but our common areas are where the ‘wow' factors really happen,” Piazza says.

For tight budgets
It's an approach that makes sense from both a functional and marketing-driven perspective, according to Sisler Johnston. If a community is on a tight budget, she recommends focusing design dollars on common areas because “the real decision makers are often family members” and it's the common living spaces that typically capture most of the spotlight.

Creating a jaw-dropping common space doesn't automatically translate into expansive rooms with soaring ceilings, multi-story windows and first-class, luxury furnishings reminiscent of five-star hotels. In fact, many operators have learned that ostentatious common areas are not only “budget busters,” but they also tend to be unappreciated and infrequently utilized.

“We've seen some over-the-top designs that were beautiful, but not very functional or comfortable,” Piazza explains. “The majority of residents didn't have those [hotel-like features] in their own homes, so these types of spaces can be intimidating. People may like a high-end hotel from time to time, but most will also say, ‘It's great to be home.' It's important to design with the home in mind—a place that is familiar, yet makes them feel proud to live there.”

Senior Management Advisors opts for many mid-size, defined areas, so residents can escape from the crowd if they like—whether it's to read, play cards or watch television, according to Piazza.

Warm, inviting spaces shouldn't be confused with tight quarters, however. As Wierzba at Joerns points out, aesthetics of a space should never trump safety and functionality, especially in a senior care environment where many residents are impaired.

“In speaking with staff members at facilities, a common complaint is not having enough room to fit carts and wheelchairs through doorways, or enough room for storage. If it's difficult or uncomfortable to use the space on a daily basis, then those needs should always [be addressed] first. There are a number of older facilities that need to be remodeled to accommodate modern needs and demands.”

To prevent smaller, more dedicated areas from becoming too confined, some operators and designers rely on half-walls to convey a sense of openness and cohesiveness. Senior Management Advisors, for example, is currently converting a Melbourne, FL, hotel into an assisted living facility and is using that design trick to compartmentalize large common areas into designated spaces, such as a billiards room, library, café and even a country store.

“This really opens up the opportunity [to meet the needs] of residents with different tastes and lifestyles,” adds Piazza.

Another notable design trend, particularly for common areas, is the gradual shift away from dark stains and color palettes, and heavily tailored traditional furnishings.

“Traditional styling was dominant five to ten years ago, but today people are looking for cleaner designs with depth and texture,” says Todd Norris, president of Legacy Furniture Group Inc., Conover, NC. “Clear and lighter finishes have also gained increasing acceptance.”

Sisler Johnston is also witnessing the “less is more” trend and the push for more contemporary furnishings across all markets, including seniors housing. Still, she urges operators and designers to abandon the temptation of following a trend so closely that it limits a design's longevity.

“Long-term living communities don't change their designs often, so this sentiment [of following trends] must be tempered with a more classic approach to modern,” she says.

Formal dining
One common area that typically calls for extra square footage and, perhaps, a more traditional flair is the formal dining room. Rich wood dining tables dressed in elegant linens and dinnerware conveys the ambience of a fine restaurant, while also creating a true social experience for residents. More than ever, sturdy (and mobile) caster chairs are being upholstered in fabrics with familiar residential-style patterns and colors, using durable materials commonly found in luxury hotels or country clubs.

“This means using dining chairs with fabrics that offer moisture resistance and antimicrobial features,” Norris says. “The common areas of a facility often require more cleanability characteristics in furnishings, but many of today's hospitality furnishings can easily migrate from dayroom to resident room with aplomb.”

Windows also deserve careful consideration and DiFiore prefers flanking them in drapes, which, she says, instantly lend comfort, warmth and elegance to the room. Operators also should consider incorporating use-specific furnishings and accent pieces, such as a more traditional home-inspired dining hutch or buffet to balance the homelike and hospitality feel. If design dollars are particularly tight, dining spaces can be designed to double as a great room, she reasons.

“Designing a multifunctional space, where appropriate, can help justify the money being spent,” DiFiore says.
And don't chintz on the flooring. “If you do, you'd better be prepared to replace it every four or five years,” DiFiore warns.

Today, more operators are choosing luxury vinyl tile and wood plank flooring over the old vinyl composition tile standby, Wierzba adds.

“A quality wood-look floor can add a lot of warmth to a room and make it feel much more homelike,” she says.
Some new vinyl products are also specifically geared toward the healthcare sector, she says, with flooring that is low-maintenance and features such as antibacterial and anti-static properties.

Carpeted common areas also can have a big impact and they don't have to cost a fortune. DiFiore says operators shouldn't shy away from simpler, high-quality styles that can warm up a space for less money.

“You'd be surprised how much the budget can be stretched by really shopping around and being flexible in your design,” she says. “Quality doesn't have to cost a fortune.”

The same rule applies to furniture. While chairs and sofas must be carefully selected for comfort and durability, accent pieces, such as end tables and accessories, often can be added to the mix at a bargain. DiFiore routinely shops discount retailers for quality closeout items. Estate sales are another viable option, Piazza recommends.

Re-upholster as needed
Cash-strapped operators and designers should focus their attention on well-constructed furniture with sturdy frames that can be purchased inexpensively and then re-upholstered with a durable, cleanable fabric. This can be an especially good approach for resident rooms, which command a homelike, familiar feel, but require durable materials to withstand daily use.

“Resident rooms should be well maintained and attention should be paid to the walls and windows and other details, but this is also where residents should feel comfortable and at home,” reasons DiFiore.

“I think it's always a good idea to encourage residents to bring some of their furnishings and personal belongings with them. You can add more accent pieces to help with the overall design, but this really should be an area that feels personal to them. Common areas need to appeal more to the masses, but resident rooms should feel like a more personalized space.”
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