What’s Old is New Again

Updated on August 18, 2017

Garber R 2Emerging design and development trends for senior living facilities

Senior living facilities have come a long way in a short period of time. While changes in development and design concepts have been underway for some time now, the pace of innovation has accelerated in the last few years.

Today, potentially transformative design trends include everything from multipurpose spaces designed to accommodate different resident activities and host events; to service offerings/lifestyle amenities like on-site fitness centers and salons; a wider range of restaurants and flexible dining concepts; and strategic layouts and floor plans. The overall trend is to facilitate a more active and engaged lifestyle and transform institutional into experiential.

Quality of Place

Some of the changes we are seeing in senior living design mirror broader design trends in residential and commercial development, such as the movement away from cookie-cutter concepts and making a concerted effort to design and develop site-specific structures. Today, we are seeing more spaces that are thoughtfully integrated into the landscape, consciously designed with an awareness of sun and shadow and a desire to preserve and present appealing views and vistas for residents. While these designs are thoughtful to the natural habitat, they also enhance the quality of place for residents.


With the level of care these facilities require, they’re significantly more expensive for residents than market-rate housing. To make senior living facilities more affordable for residents, owners and operators need to be strategic on ways to cut costs. Designing efficient unit sizes and proportions, favoring simpler designs that utilize standard dimensional precut materials and leveraging efficient structural spans to reduce the quantity of construction materials are a few ways to be more budget-conscious. Also, prefabrication of building components offsite can speedup and streamline the construction timeframe. Another effective approach is to eschew elaborate exterior flourishes in favor of inspired interiors. Senior living is fundamentally inside-out, and budgetary priorities should reflect that.


Floorplans designed around wellness that encourage walking and healthy activities are increasingly popular. Integrating features like dynamic lighting and circadian rhythm lighting, positioning amenities on different floors to encourage mobility, and including small social niches for relaxation or impromptu socialization can increase quality-of-life for residents and support overall well-being.

The focus on wellness has also prompted a focus on spas, salons, touch therapy and therapeutic massage, and diverse outdoor spaces with walking paths, gardens and benches. Yoga is increasingly popular among seniors, and quality gyms and workout studios are in high demand. The best of these feature abundant natural light and are positioned at the front of the building to help convey an active culture—and make a favorable impression among potential residents.

Flexible spaces

Creative multipurpose spaces that can be reconfigured or connected with moveable walls are an invaluable asset. More facilities are incorporating these spaces to hold activities, presentations and instruction for residents and continuing education courses for staff members. Sometimes these spaces can serve as an income generator, as they’re rentable to outside groups. 

Amenity-driven design

Designs that promote engagement, encourage social living, and include plenty of spaces for both privacy and community are prized. Choice is important, and facility design should reflect that reality. A big part of that is quality amenities, specifically ones residents can access on an as-needed or on-demand basis. Casual all-day dining is extremely popular, either through a small bistro or café that operates outside of normal dining hours, or a kitchen designed to operate on a more flexible schedule and provide a wider variety of fresh and healthy menu options. Amenities like quality food options, a staff shower or locker room, or even an on-site daycare facility can also help with staff hiring and retention.

Community engagement

Developers are recognizing that there’s real value in prioritizing sites that are integrated into existing communities and vibrant urban spaces. Convenient walkable access to dining and entertainment amenities—and necessities like grocery and home goods—is ideal for a population of active seniors. The energy and vibrant social activity of bustling streets in an established community is something that cannot be replicated in a stand-alone facility. Some assisted living facilities are even finding creative ways to forge strong connections with community organizations and local schools. One such establishment features a dedicated “art wall” for local students to display their work, hosting special exhibitions that foster community engagement and benefit residents and community members alike.

Today, increasing resident choice and improving quality of life is the top priority, and forward-thinking architects and developers are responding by creating flexible and appealing spaces that can facilitate a host of purpose-driven activities, including whole-person wellness, meaningful engagement, and spiritual, physical, mental, vocational and social fulfillment.

Russ Garber serves as an associate and senior project manager at M+A Architects, a Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm. For more information, visit www.ma-architects.com.


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