Architects Rewrite Design Playbook

The Sheridan at Green Oaks, near Chicago, features a two-story window that brings light into the lobby while allowing residents to enjoy the landscaped grounds. The Sheridan at Green Oaks, near Chicago, features a two-story window that brings light into the lobby while allowing residents to enjoy the landscaped grounds.

Modern, flexible architecture displaces Victorian look of ‘grandma’s house’ and fosters more community interaction, particularly in infill markets

By Jane Adler

While the most effective architectural designs take their cues from the surrounding environment, market forces are perhaps the biggest factors shaping the contours of today’s best designs. 

Developers are seeking infill markets with high barriers to entry and fewer competitors — and less available land — resulting in more vertical designs. Buildings with flexible floor plans and unit mix are emerging as a way to meet rapidly changing consumer demands. 

Contemporary designs are finding favor as senior living providers aim to appeal to adult children and younger residents. Forget the Victorian look with gables and verandas that screams “this is a place for old people.” Consumers want buildings with clean lines and fresh décor that could appeal to anyone. 

Regency at Summerlin provides a prime example. The active adult project in Las Vegas by Toll Brothers will include 425 single-family homes upon completion. “Our driving goal was to create 55-plus housing that does not feel anything like existing 55-plus housing,” says project architect Bill Ramsey, principal at the KTGY Group. “We call it ‘desert contemporary.’”

Traditional active adult communities typically feature three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath homes on a 45-foot-wide lot, says Ramsey. “We tried to step out of the box.” Lots were made wider to accommodate different shaped houses with more access to the outdoors. Some plans have only a side yard, while others have an interior courtyard. “We moved the pieces around to create indoor-outdoor living environments,” notes Ramsey, who operates out of KTGY’s office in Oakland, Calif.  

The base price of the homes ranges from $427,000 to $580,000. Home sizes range from 1,600 to 2,300 square feet. The smallest home plan has 9-foot ceilings, the largest 16-foot ceilings. Each house features a 12-foot glass sliding door that opens to an oversized loggia. A 20-foot glass sliding door is available as an upgrade.

Open floor plans include great rooms, big windows and dramatic views of the yard. In one layout, the private master suite wraps around the back of the property overlooking a yard, which can also be viewed from the public living spaces on the opposite side of the house. “It creates a unique environment,” says Ramsey.

An 18,000-square-foot central clubhouse features indoor and outdoor pools. In a nod to the Las Vegas lifestyle, the outdoor pool is surrounded by covered cabanas. Outdoor bars and covered patios complete the look. “We wanted to be the cool 55-plus community,” says Ramsey.

Forty-eight homes sold in the first three months after the project opened. The average buyers are in their upper 60s — a lower age than expected. 

Las Vegas has turned out to be the right market for a contemporary design, says Ramsey, noting that many of the buyers are retirees from Southern California who have an eye on fashion and design trends. 

KTGY also designed Regency at Damonte Ranch, an age-restricted project in Reno, Nev. The floor plans of the homes are similar to those of the Las Vegas project, but the home exteriors are much more traditional. “Our buyers in Reno are not ready to step that far out of the box,” says Ramsey. “People in Las Vegas want something hip.”


Enlightenment period

Senior living communities meant for an older crowd are adopting the contemporary look, too.

“Back in the day, we were trying to reinvent grandma’s house,” says Rockland (Rocky) Berg, principal at three: living architecture in Dallas. While senior living design still takes style cues from the surrounding residential neighborhoods, the trend is toward open floor plans with lots of windows, he says. “We pay attention to fashion.” 

Architect Alexis Denton agrees that Baby Boomers don’t relate to a Victorian-style building. New projects tend to have a more modern, or transitional style, says Denton, lead of the senior living practice at Smith Group JJR in
San Francisco.

As younger architects enter the senior living field, Denton thinks designs will become more innovative. She admits that it’s a challenge to create a contemporary environment with a nurturing feel.

Warm exterior colors are being used at the Sheridan at Green Oaks, a new project set to open in early 2017. Located in Green Oaks, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago, the project will feature 78 independent living units, 64 assisted living units and 64 memory care units. 

The building’s exterior exhibits a modern flair with square lines and blocks of apartments, some of which are recessed. A flat roof tops the building. Large windows throughout connect the indoors and outdoors — a common feature in new senior living projects. 

The big windows provide a lot of daylight inside the building while also allowing residents to enjoy the landscaped grounds, which are adjacent to a seven-acre conservation area. The first-floor lobby has a two-story window. 

The majority of the amenities are located on the garden level of the building, which sits on a sloped site. Large windows frame the garden level, providing views of a landscaped walkway and the surrounding woodlands. Amenities include entertainment rooms, a living room, card room and fitness center. 

A creative arts studio features a kitchen for cooking demonstrations. Coffee service is available during the day in a clubroom with movable shutters that can be opened at night to reveal a bar. 

New projects are designed to catch the eye of adult children, generally ages 50 to 64. They are often the decision makers for elders moving to a service-rich community such as the Sheridan at Green Oaks. 

“We are trying to appeal to potential residents and their adult children,” says Nancy Cutter, senior vice president of development at Senior Lifestyle Corp., the Chicago-based project developer. “The trend is toward a more modern style.”

Another appealing feature at Green Oaks is its connection via pathways to an adjacent retail center. Residents can walk to shops. 

Designers took that into consideration. The Sheridan’s exterior brickwork is compatible with that of the retail center, creating a cohesive look. 


Inspirational infill projects

Developers’ preference for infill locations is impacting design. Infill locations, by their nature, connect the senior living property to the wider community. Residents can enjoy nearby amenities such as local restaurants and shops. A contemporary building design matches the more urban vibe of the infill location, says Berg at three: living architects, Dallas. 

“Traditionally, senior living communities have had a virtual wall or moat around them,” observes Berg. “We are moving toward a more inclusive aesthetic that promotes interaction with the wider community.”  

For owners and developers, infill locations have the added benefit of limiting competition. Land in dense areas is expensive to acquire and the entitlement process can be difficult, so competitors are less likely to put up a building nearby. 

Infill projects are typically short on land themselves, however, resulting in more vertical projects. For example, Berg points to Harbor’s Edge, a continuing care retirement community in Norfolk, Va. Built on a former brownfield site, the community’s planned second phase consists of a 27-story tower that will include 120 independent living apartments.

A welcome byproduct of a vertical design is the elimination of long corridors. Residents will rely more on elevators and have fewer steps to take to reach amenities, such as the fitness center and dining room. Common areas that are easier to access can help boost participation in activities, says Berg.  

Consideration should be given to the location of baths and kitchens in vertical designs, notes Berg. Hotels tend to place baths near the corridor, which results in a room with little or no natural light. Berg prefers to position baths near the unit’s glass line so those spaces enjoy some daylight. “We are trying to create a more spa-like experience,” he says.

Another trend is to incorporate flexibility into the design. Walls in common areas can be moved to create bigger or smaller rooms, depending on what is needed. A portion of the dining area can be carved off with partitions to create a private area for family gatherings. 

Common areas may also serve a dual purpose. An activity room, with a few modifications, can serve as a spot for wellness checks by the medical staff. 


The Trousdale responds 

One provider is experimenting with an innovative design that allows the units themselves and the building unit mix to be modified according to market demands. 

The Peninsula Health Care District, a public entity that operates healthcare facilities in northern California, has a six-story senior living community underway in Burlingame. The project, known as The Trousdale, will include assisted living and memory care units. The project is expected to open in about 18 months. 

Eskaton, a nonprofit senior living owner, operator and provider based in Carmichael, Calif., is managing The Trousdale. “Our strategy was to build flexibility into the design,” says Sheri Peifer, chief strategy officer at Eskaton. 

The operator determined that flexibility was the key to meeting changing consumer demand. Eskaton wanted to be able to provide smaller units that were more affordable when demand for those kinds of units increased. 

The goal was also to be able to change the unit mix as necessary. For example, the operator could add more memory care units as the needs of residents changed. “We wanted to meet our customers’ needs,” says Peifer.

The architectural firm Smith Group JJR designed the project, which is located on California’s San Francisco peninsula, north of Palo Alto. 

The number of units in the building can be adjusted from as few as 87 to as many as 126. Doors and partitions can be added to a large unit, for example, to create two smaller units. Alternatively, a one-bedroom unit and an adjacent studio apartment can be reconfigured to create a two-bedroom apartment. “Everything is basically modular,” says Denton, the architect with Smith Group JJR. 

The project is licensed for the maximum number of 140 units, although financial projections were based on a building with 124 apartments. 

Common areas are flexible too. Units can be removed to create activity space for memory care residents, if needed. As residents age, new areas can be carved out for special programs or services such as diabetes treatment and care. “We are thinking creatively about how spaces are used,” says Peifer at Eskaton. 

The Trousdale project will also incorporate universal design principles. In 2009, Eskaton established a Livable Design division ( that works with consumers, homebuilders and designers to encourage inclusive and accessible designs by providing practical guidelines. 

Eskaton created a demonstration single-family home using livable design that more than 3,000 people have visited. “We are putting theory into practice,” says Peifer. “Good design is for everyone.”