Creative commons

Builders See Skyscrapers as Next Big Senior Housing Model

There’s room for improvement in senior living design—and that improvement could come from building “up,” according to one architect.

“There are some good examples of senior living communities out there,” Matthias Hollwich, a partner at New York City-based architecture firm Hollwich Kushner (HWKN), tells Senior Housing News. But for the most part, he says, senior living communities have it all wrong. Their design, their function, the mindset of their administrators—all of it.

Hollwich knows a thing or two about designing for aging populations. He’s long been an advocate for the aging population, and during his time as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he established an international conference on aging and architecture held in the fall of 2010.

Luckily, Hollwich believes some of senior living’s biggest problems can be fixed with a combination of improved interior design, rethinking what aging truly means and, potentially, a skyscraper.

‘Vibrancy’ of multi-generational living

As it stands, growing old is often an isolating process.

“The key flaw is that we put just old people together into a building,” Hollwich says. Perhaps this is done for efficiency, he says, but it’s also age segregation.

Hollwich is a big proponent of keeping seniors active in society, noting that doing so benefits everyone—seniors included.

“The vibrancy of multi-generational living—it’s so key for our vitality,” Hollwich says.

Many senior living companies agree on the importance of multi-generational living, and some, like Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD), Lifespace Communities and a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in South Bend, Indiana, have even launched initiatives in this area. There are plenty of ways for communities new to the idea of intergenerational living to get started, according to Hollwich.

Independent living communities, assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities should concentrate more on senior empowerment, and making sure that residents have meaningful activities to do, he says. That can be difficult because the function of these senior living communities has changed as people have begun to live longer.

“These are really places that are outdated,” Hollwich says. “Sometimes people are living in these places for 20, 30, 40 years—that wasn’t their original intention.”

To fix what he perceives as pervasive problems, Hollwich designed “Skyler,” a theoretical skyscraper that supports its residents throughout every stage of their lives. Skyler, which features nurseries for young children, offices for working adults, health care facilities, spiritual centers, business centers for retirees and more, expands its inhabitants’ social reach and lets them find new ways to stay relevant in the world around them, Hollwich says.

Skyler: A New Aging Tower from Hollwich Kushner on Vimeo.

The building is intended to allow inhabitants to constantly grow and shape their own futures. But Skyler was also designed with Manhattan in mind, Hollwich says; building a skyscraper doesn’t necessarily make sense in rural America, or even suburbia.

To that end, the supportive elements found in Skyler can be implemented in many different types of residential settings.

New Aging

The overarching ideas found in Skyler can be incorporated into existing senior living communities, implemented by urban planners, or ushered into place by mayors of towns big and small.

Even without access to an all-in-one skyscraper, plenty of seniors can create their own “Skyler” from their surroundings. For instance, they can map out community gardens, local swimming pools and libraries that are within a 10-minute walk from the places they call home and begin using them, Hollwich suggests in his book, New Aging.

The book also features practical ideas for how to make a living space more aging-friendly, from a design perspective. Senior living communities across the country would do well to have anti-scald fittings on bathtubs and showers, doorways that are at least 36 inches wide and have lever handles, and nonslip flooring in the bathrooms, as suggested in New Aging.

That said, city-dwelling seniors may not have to wait too long to experience Skyler for themselves.

“The response to Skyler’s design has been really exceptional, people are really interested,” Hollwich says.

Multigenerational living in action

Even if some of Hollwich’s ideas seem totally “out there,” current senior living providers are already acting on them in certain ways.

High-rise senior living developments, for instance, may be on the upswing. Toledo, Ohio-based real estate investment trust (REIT) Welltower (NYSE: HCN) is planning to build a 15-story, largely Alzheimer’s/dementia care community in Manhattan, New York, and Maplewood Senior Living and Omega Healthcare Investors (NYSE: OHI) are developing a $246 million senior living residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Still, it remains to be seen if these two skyscrapers will incorporate multigenerational living features into their designs. Norterre, a multi-generational wellness and residential living neighborhood currently under development in Liberty, Missouri, will definitely incorporate intergenerational spaces and programming—but without the skyscraper.

“What we’re really after is providing people of all ages, creeds and backgrounds with a place and a supportive environment where they can achieve wellbeing,” Steve Shields, Norterre’s chairman and managing partner, as well as the CEO of Kansas-based Action Pact, tells SHN.

The project is a joint collaboration between Action Pact, along with Healthy Living Centers of America and Missouri’s Liberty Hospital. For seniors, Norterre will have 60 assisted living units, with 20 dedicated to memory support, as well as 20 skilled nursing/long-term care residences. The neighborhood will also include 40 short-term recovery suites for people of all ages going through rehabilitation. Meanwhile, any-age housing will take the form of apartments, row houses and lofts.

Norterre’s 50,000-square-foot healthy living center will be the community’s intergenerational anchor, according to Shields. The healthy living center will have multiple swimming pools, an indoor track, 24,000-square-feet of exercise equipment, a yoga studio, a demonstration kitchen with weight management programming and a child care center, among other things.

The healthy living center will eventually have about 6,000 members of all ages who collectively visit 36,000 times per month, Shields anticipates. The members are expected to range from fitness-conscious “regular Joes,” to corporate memberships offered through businesses in the area and people who have been referred to the healthy living center by their physicians.

Meanwhile, Norterre will also feature “the equivalent of a city park,” Shields explains. There will be plenty of green space, an outdoor performance venue, outdoor art and sculptures and an adjacent café with an outdoor eating area.

“The park’s features will promote spontaneous and planned gatherings for groups and families,” Shields says, explaining that he envisions kids playing in the water, a jazz performance on the outdoor stage and families picnicking together in the grassy areas.

In the past, Shields says, moving to a retirement community meant moving to a different stage of life. Norterre is meant to change that.

“At Norterre, when seniors go to work out, to the theater, or to the cocktail bar, they won’t just see the people who live in the apartment down the hall,” Shields says. “People of all ages share the globe together; why shouldn’t we share our communities?”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

Photo: “Centrepoint” by Matt Brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0