november 17, 2006
Lessons from the Latest
Design for Aging Review

Summary: Designing communities for people in their retirement years is especially challenging, notes AIA President Kate Schwennsen, FAIA, in her foreword to the newly published AIA Design for Aging Review. “Environments for our aging population can support the intense, active lives desired by this increasingly large portion of the U.S. population.” She joins with other design-for-aging experts to offer 21 guiding principles.

“Those of us who design and develop these communities must follow principles common to all livable communities,” Schwennsen encourages, offering five:

  • Design on a human scale, allowing residents as much independence as possible
  • Provide choices and variety in paths, programming, unit types and sizes, and community programming to create lively neighborhoods and accommodate residents in different stages of their lives
  • Include vibrant public gathering spaces to encourage face-to-face interactions, celebrations, and resident participation
  • Create neighborhood identity, a sense of place that is unique to the particular environment; larger communities often contain multiple identifiable neighborhoods, encouraging ownership and easing wayfinding
  • Make design excellence in site planning, space planning, materials, technology, construction methods, systems design, and all other means at the architects’ disposal, “the foundation of successful and healthy communities.”

Principles of scenario and strategic planning
“We must look to the future in a more disciplined and visionary way,” continues William L. Minnix Jr., DMin, president and CEO of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, in his foreword to the Design for Aging Review. “Using principles of scenario and strategic planning, AHA is advancing its vision of affordable, ethical aging services through articulation of what we call Five Big Ideas that can transform aging services in the near future.” These goals are to:

Innovative design is important to achieving these goals

  • Expand managed caring
  • Reinforce housing with supportive services
  • Enable technology applications
  • Transform the culture in nursing homes
  • Manage the transition of elders.

Innovative design is important to achieving these goals, Minnix stresses. Expanding skill sets entails every member of the design and construction team devoting themselves to “a common vision of education, research, regulation, and practice.” Supportive services are key to consumers’ desire to age in place, which can be enhanced by technological innovation, he adds. Transformation of culture includes conscious creation of small-scale neighborhoods. “Private and communal space and the familiar features of home, for instance, can foster a sense of community life,” Minnix writes.

“In addition, we can help frail older people navigate through the acute care, post-acute care, and long-term care systems and improve their transitions by applying design concepts that support and improve life and by facilitating efficient staffing, information systems, and communication.”

Evident trends in senior living
The Design for Aging Review jury statement introduces trends that emerged in general from the projects submitted, which, they say, represent several movements in senior-living design and care models:

  • Growing use of sustainable building design strategies, particularly those that affect health outcomes; clients, as well as architects, are increasingly interested in sustainable design
  • Further development of the house, household, or neighborhood concept to reduce scale and provide a residential care model; in addition, architects and clients address the scale of spaces in community buildings
  • Redefinition of services to reposition facilities for current and future markets (e.g., offering diverse dining experiences that mimic typical retail options)
  • Blending of local culture and geography with the building design (e.g., providing a wine tasting room in a facility located in wine country)
  • Repositioning of continuing care retirement communities to respond to changes in care models and financial arrangements (e.g., different expectations from different generations of seniors, resident ownership vs. deposit arrangements)
  • Use of a Main Street design approach to provide variety to retail, dining, worship, hair salons, and other services offered within a continuing care setting
  • Incorporation of technology in meeting resident needs (e.g., electronic records, wireless computer systems, systems to support differently abled populations, and monitoring systems that allow residents to remain independent for as long as possible)
  • Design of senior living projects to accommodate community-based services, making it possible for the community at large to participate with seniors and vice versa, as residents choose
  • Adaptation of outdated facilities to support new care models and provide physical environments on a smaller, more residential scale
  • Integration of exterior architectural elements with interior design and function through design team collaboration from the project’s onset
  • Use of exterior spaces, such as gardens and covered porches, as elements for organizing the design (reflecting the importance of integrating building interiors and exteriors).

In conclusion, the jury expressed its wish that designers of facilities for an aging population “continue to address factors such as the cultural transformation of long-term care; evidence-based design initiatives; connection to the community at large; the need for affordable, mixed-income communities and services; and the need for creative rejuvenation of outdated facilities and care models.”


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For more information on the latest Design for Aging Review, visit the AIA Book Store.

Review jury members were:
• John Shoesmith, AIA, chair, Wattenbarger Architects
• Jane Rohde, AIA, JSR Associates
• Patricia E. Sprigg, Carol Woods Retirement Community
• Jeremy Vickers, Waveny Care Network.

1. Schoolside entrance to the Felician Sisters Convent, Coraopolis, Pa., by Perkins Eastman, a 2006 Design for Aging Review citation recipient and LEED®-NC project. Photo courtesy of the architect.
2. The Gables at Westminster-Canterbury memory support facility, Richmond, Va, by THW Design. Photo © Ron Rizzo, Creative Sources Photography.
3. Maravilla senior housing community, Santa Barbara, Calif., by Mithun. Photo © Architectural Photography Inc.