One Man’s Trash Is Senior Living’s Design Treasure

Senior living design may be taking a step away from the shiny and pristine toward the rustic and rugged.

At least, that’s the case for St. Paul, Minnesota-based Pope Architects, a firm that aims to incorporate as much salvaged material in its senior living projects as possible. Rather than buy brand-new items or even track down relics from second-hand shops, Pope Architects takes an innovative approach, repurposing old products for new use at communities.

“In the past, we would have designers pull antiques and use them as decorative elements,” Jill Schroeder, a senior planner and interior designer with Pope Architects, tells Senior Housing News. “Now we’re taking that many steps further and using items more creatively—disassembling roofing, siding or old tables and making them into something else entirely. It’s a reinvention.”

Furniture from salvaged materials.

Furniture from salvaged materials.

The goal with this practice goes beyond simply providing pieces of visual interest, though that is part of the equation. Not only does taking old components and incorporating them in a brand-new community help to offer an aesthetic of an established, lived-in setting, but it also makes the communities stand apart from others and prompts reminiscing among residents. Sometimes, communities even request signage around the pieces that have been repurposed to detail how they relate to the facility and the thought process put into it.

“The residents definitely take notice,” Schroeder says. “It’s jogging someone’s memory much more effectively, in our opinion, than just doing the room in the usual fashion.”

For one project, Pope Architects took windmill turbine blades from old farms in the area and converted them into a kitchen island. The blades still had shotgun blasts in them and they displayed the names of seed companies prevalent in the area, so when residents saw the island, they recognized the specific seeds. In the same community, a hostess station was created out of seed sacks.

Framed car parts. Photo courtesy of Pope Architects.

Framed car parts.

In certain settings, like skilled nursing, Pope Architects has to be more careful about how they use reclaimed items and salvaged boards, and instead strays away from making architectural elements toward artwork or centerpieces. For instance, taking a salvaged car door and framing it to hang on the wall so that it’s safe is fairly easy, Schroeder says. Designers simply have to secure metal parts, knock out the glass and sealcoat the piece to protect seniors’ skin.

Another example is WoodsEdge of Sanford Health in Bemidji, Minnesota, which offers independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing, where there are furnishings that have been repurposed, but the focus is primarily decorative. Old toboggans and paddles have been integrated in the design to represent Northern Minnesota.

“For the community, it just brings interest,” says Chuck Jensen, assistant administrator for senior services at Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, an integrated health system that oversees WoodsEdge.

“It brings conversations and a unique quality to the building,” he adds.

How It Works

First and foremost, the concept of a senior living project determines the extent to which Pope Architects will deploy salvaged materials in its designs. If a developer or provider is shooting for a rustic, rough aesthetic, then that’s an easy interpretation to blend the concept of repurposed items into the community, Schroeder says. Even so, it still needs to be flushed out whether the firm can complete full activity centers using salvaged materials or just sprinkle artwork throughout the facility.


Artwork from pipe organ parts.

This means there needs to be a lot of coordination upfront, she says. Budget figures need to be brought in during the pro forma at the beginning, establishing placeholders of where salvaged materials are expected and forecasting what might be brought in.

“Planning from the very beginning to include these types of items allowed us to weigh in on the value of salvaged materials and enabled us to allot for the proper time to refurbish some items,” says Jennifer Knecht, vice president of marketing and communications with Tabitha, which provides seniors housing, home assistance and hospice care in Lincoln, Nebraska and oversee Tabitha GracePointe Assisted Living and Memory Care Suites.

It’s also important to find go-to pickers, or people who hunt down different pieces and dated materials to fit the salvaged look.

For Pope Architects, this is West End Salvage in Des Moines, Iowa, a four-story architectural salvage center that sources items nationally and completes repurposing when requested, thanks to on-hand electricians, welders, furniture builders and more. The architecture and design firm was even featured on the HGTV show “West End Salvage” in 2013 for its work with shop owner Don Short on several senior living projects.

“The trick is to find a salvage place that can not only source the items you need, but then has the ability to create something for you within their shop,” Schroeder says.

Incorporating salvaged materials in senior living proves difficult as compared to other settings, like hotels, restaurants or retail. The latter tend to have bigger budgets and fewer code limitations, making for a less complicated design process, Schroeder says. Also, with senior living, there’s a sensitive population, meaning there needs to be thought around really needing the types of items being reused, with consideration for fall risks, hazards on skin and visual impairment.

“We have a lot more restrictions, making it much more challenging to be creative in this sense,” Schroeder says. “But we have consistencies. The more times you do this, the better you get at it.”

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

Photos courtesy of Pope Architects