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Designing for the big boom

Active senior retirement communities incorporate luxury and a healthy lifestyle to attract the next generation of retirees

November 01, 2001 |

The first baby boomers entering retirement this year mark the start of an inevitably skyrocketing demand for "active" senior communities. Developers — many of whom have slowed expansion of existing communities because of market saturation — are planning new or expanded developments to attract the 80 million-plus people who will enter retirement during the next 15 years.

Reflecting the changing market preferences of this group of younger seniors, developers have responded by incorporating luxury, glamour and nontraditional amenities into their design and planning.

"Just as the boomers have influenced all the products and services throughout their lives, the sheer size of this group is going to revolutionize this industry," says Robert G. Kramer, executive director of the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industries. "For instance, because baby boomers are more health-conscious than the generations before them, they're going to resist anything that smacks of being 'housing for the elderly.'"

Living in luxury

"I think that a main difference between the baby boomers and their parents is that their parents were much more careful about their spending," says Mary Jo Peterson, a Brookfield, Conn.-based kitchen and bath design consultant who works with a number of developers of active senior communities, including the Phoenix-based Del Webb Corp., developer of the Sun City communities.

This underlying trend is resulting in the design of senior housing and health facilities that are larger and more luxurious than ever.

"The old, conventional thinking in the industry was that people wanted to downsize their living space when they retired, but there seems to be more people taking out mortgages to purchase bigger houses with more options once they retire," says Peter Studl, president of Evanston, Ill.-based Villas of America Corp., which owns and operates a 60-home, 10-acre active senior community in Homewood, Ill. "And I think the boomers are going to go that way even more so because they have more disposable income."

For instance, says Peterson, some developers of active-adult housing now offer units featuring two master-suite bedrooms with a connected bathroom. "The idea is to have one suite for the couple and one for their guests, or possibly even a caregiver down the road," she adds. "Also, it's not uncommon for couples to sleep in separate rooms, since they're often getting up a lot during the night."

Peterson has also done interior design work for a major senior community developer that involved the specification of very high-end materials and appliances in the kitchen and bathrooms, such as hand-blown glass sinks and built-in appliances. "There's definitely a new level of comfort, bordering on opulence and luxury," she adds.

A "Top 10 Housing Trends" list compiled by Del Webb affirms Peterson's point towards larger and more luxurious active senior homes. Other top items on the boomers' wish list are great rooms, home offices, space for exercise equipment and upgraded wiring for computers and the Internet.

Even in condominium and townhome developments, where space is less abundant, Peterson says luxury is the trend. For example, developers are separating the shower from the bathtub, enabling a smaller shower with better finishes.

Architects and developers are also carefully melding luxury and accessibility to create spaces that are senior-friendly without the institutional feel that active seniors dislike (see "Universal design allows active seniors to age in place — respectfully," page 42).

Healthy home, healthy body

Most active senior communities promote health and fitness, offering biking and walking trails, athletic facilities and large clubhouses with exercise rooms and swimming pools. Yet, future developments are taking the healthy living lifestyle to a new level. In addition to a typical menu of activities and amenities for residents, experts in senior developments anticipate new communities designed to keep the environment — and thus the occupant — healthy.

For instance, Villas of America offers a "healthy home" option for its units. These houses incorporate environmentally friendly materials such as carpeting that is low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which cause allergic reactions in some people. The special units also offer electrostatic air-filtration that removes dust particles from conditioned air.

"A lot of older people suffer from the allergies from the toxins found in homes," Studl adds. "So we got rid of these materials."

This retirement community also takes a somewhat different approach to health and fitness programming. For example, a botanic garden theme not only provides a lush neighborhood backdrop, but also actively involves the residents through programs to maintain and improve the gardens.

Traditional neighborhoods

"Active senior communities today are at the cutting edge of community design," comments David Minnigan, senior design architect with Earl Swensson Associates (ESA) Inc., a Nashville, Tenn.-based architecture firm specializing in health-care and senior-living design. "For instance, many developers are employing traditional neighborhood development, with sidewalks, smaller lots, trees lining the streets, smaller streets and houses with wraparound porches."

The concept behind traditional neighborhood design (TND) is similar to the "new urbanism" movement, focusing on developments that are friendly to pedestrians and more integrated or communal. ESA recently unveiled the design of a 50-acre active senior development in Brentwood, Tenn. — called The Heritage at Brentwood — that incorporates this design concept.

Villas of America also utilizes the principles of TND. "Traditional neighborhood design focuses activity in the front of the home versus the backyard," says Studl. "Even the main living spaces — the master bedroom and living room — in our homes are front-loaded. It creates a village feel because people aren't separated by big streets and houses set far back on the lot."

Minnigan also says that — excluding large, resort-type communities — there's a movement in the industry to develop smaller, more concentrated active senior developments closer to metropolitan areas. These communities cater to seniors who want to stay close to their current communities, but still want to experience the retirement lifestyle.

"Down the road, I think more active senior developments will be incorporated into the master planning of towns, which will allow commercial and institutional developments to be within walking distance of the neighborhood," says Minnigan. "I can even see active senior communities being developed with parcels for retail incorporated into the plan."

Similarly, Michael Miller, an architect with the Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm NBBJ, says many new urban-type developments that are not oriented toward seniors are now integrating senior-living components.

"We just finished the design of a new development in Seattle that's essentially a small town accommodating 2,000 to 3,000 people with a town center, retail, banking, schools, fitness centers and a variety of housing — including single-family homes, duplexes and apartments — with areas for retirement living," he adds.

Not the old-folks home

Whether larger, more luxurious, healthier or more pedestrian-friendly, senior communities catering to the baby boomers are different from traditional senior communities.

"Because the baby boomers are much more savvy than their parents, developers will be even more competitive with the facilities and services they offer," Minnigan says. "They're looking to create an environment that's lifestyle- and community-driven, not the 'old folks home.'"

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