Providers Build for Tomorrow With Convertible Rooms in Senior Living

Creating a bustling, vibrant senior living community requires spaces that are a good fit for the wide range of events, activities and health care services that best-in-class operators are offering.

To achieve this, innovative senior housing operators increasingly are opting for common spaces and resident rooms that can easily be adapted for various uses or levels of care, essentially with the flip of a switch.

The move toward these convertible or flexible spaces in senior living has been well-observed in recent years, and the latest signs suggest that the trend is becoming an industry standard.

Design experts and operators that have embraced the concept spoke with SHN about why easily convertible spaces make sense and ways to implement them successfully.

Provider needs, resident wishes

Convertible spaces offer numerous benefits for senior living providers, including for their bottom lines.

“Construction costs are high, land costs are high, so you need to be as efficient with your square footage as possible,” says B. Dean Maddalena, president of studioSIX5, an Austin, Texas-based national full-service interior design firm specializing exclusively in senior living.

By creating convertible environments, providers can reduce the amount of square footage devoted to clubhouse or amenity space, Maddalena tells SHN.

This creates operational and sales advantages, according to Maddalena. Having multi-use spaces cuts down on rooms going unused at any given time and fosters a busier, more vital atmosphere—which keeps residents and families happier, and is something that visitors on a tour find appealing as well, he notes.

But provider-side considerations alone do not explain the shift toward convertible spaces. Resident wishes play are playing a part, too.

A recently opened community in Omaha, Neb., features independent living apartments that can become assisted living, largely because residents asked for this option.

“We really reflect on resident feedback as we design our buildings,” says Lacy Jungman, director of sales & marketing at Heritage Communities. The 15-year-old company owns and operates 10 facilities, located in Arizona, Iowa and Nebraska.

The Heritage at Sterling Ridge, which opened in February, features the convertible apartments. So will the Heritage at Legacy, which is scheduled to open in September.

“They say, ‘We’ve moved once from our house, to independent living, we don’t want to have to pick up and move again,’” Jungman says, quoting Heritage residents.

With provider needs aligning with resident wishes, it’s no surprise that the convertible spaces trend has gained momentum.

Some evidence: Out of 34 submissions that gained jury recognition in the 12th biennial design competition conducted by the American Institute of Architects Design for Aging Knowledge Community, 21% described some type of “built-in flexibility.”

This was a “new theme” in the 2013 submissions, as it had not been so prevalent among competition stand-outs in the past, according to an analysis of the results conducted by planning, design and consulting firm Perkins Eastman.

The jury-recognized designs included an adult day center for Alzheimer’s care that can be converted in the evenings for classes and discussion groups, complete with media capabilities for video presentations.

Another honoree features independent living apartments that are like “blank slates” for residents to personalize with such features as a high-end kitchen or open space for an art studio.

These designs showcase that convertible spaces are being created in every part of senior living buildings, including both common areas and residents’ private spaces.

Adaptable common spaces

Operators and designers are going to great lengths to make the most of common areas, and in some instances are not even content with dual-purpose spaces.

“As part of our process for any project, our staff is directed to develop at least three uses for each amenity space,” says Maddalena. “It’s pretty much our standard right now.”

Part of the reason for this push is that programming is becoming more diverse than ever, thanks in part to Facebook and Pinterest.

These and other social media websites are enabling operators to track resident interests and offer more personalized activities, and for residents themselves to seek out like-minded peers, says Manny Gonzalez, principal at architecture and planning firm KTGY.

The resulting increase in activities poses a design challenge for common spaces, Gonzalez tells SHN.

“You have to be able to adapt those rooms to whatever people want to do,” he says. “We used to provide a big multipurpose room that was big enough for everybody to have a spaghetti dinner. But that feels overwhelming when it’s just four people playing cards.”

One solution is to build spaces that can be divided by partitions or similar means. That way, residents can gather in a smaller space for crafting or similar hobbies, but the room can be opened up for an exercise activity or a large continuing education event, Gonzalez explains.

Providers should carefully consider what type of partitions to use, Maddalena cautions.

“During our renovations, we tend to be taking dividers out,” he says. “They’re a great idea but tend to be always open or closed because they’re difficult to use. We’re seeing more easy-use, multi-pane sliding doors.”

Modular tables are another way to make a space flexible, because they can be separated for, say, a card game and then pushed together to become a conference table, Maddalena says.

Theaters without fixed seats also are a trend, because they can then also serve as a chapel, lecture room, meeting room or exercise space, he says.

To successfully create this type of convertible room, think about keeping decor neutral and be sure to install storage spaces that are large enough to accommodate stacking chairs and tables, Maddalena advises.

“Another really popular option right now is the convertible bistro/lounge area, which is really the center of the community nowadays,” he says. “It can be a lounge/bar before or after dinner and a bistro during the day. It’s like the new Starbucks model, where they’re serving alcohol in the evening now.”

Convertible resident rooms

Building an independent living apartment that can convert to assisted living is not difficult from a design standpoint, as the Heritage Communities projects demonstrate.

To switch from IL to AL, the rooms at Heritage at Sterling Ridge undergo some simple, discreet changes. For instance, stoves are shut off through a safety mechanism — just unplugging the stove is not sufficient, as a resident with cognitive issues may plug it back in, notes Jungman.

The stove safety mechanism at Heritage is “basically a light switch” that can be padlocked once it is flipped, and it is hidden from view to respect resident dignity. There’s a similar mechanism to lock patio doors, Jungman says.

Although these adaptations are straightforward, there are good reasons why convertible apartments are not standard at every community.

A huge amount of time — between 60 and 80 hours — went into revising operational policies and strategizing about needed changes to support the model, according to Jungman.

“A lot of time and thought went into how we can best serve our residents,” she says. “Little things like how do we pick up trash, or know that Mrs. Jones is now AL, even though she’s in that IL apartment.”

There were licensing hurdles to clear and financial considerations as well.

Heritage residents who opt for a convertible apartment will pay a premium of $500 in addition to the standard assisted living rate to remain in place. This is in part because the apartment is larger than a typical AL unit.

While the cost might emerge as the “deciding factor” in whether someone opts for a convertible room, there are other considerations, Jungman says. Because the rooms are larger, they may be more appealing for people who have large families that frequently visit, for example.

Communities also are creating resident rooms that can shift between traditional AL and more robust memory care. This conversion can sometimes cost providers thousands of dollars to undertake — even if the building is designed to be flexible in this way — but simpler, cheaper options also exist.

For instance, providers are creating smaller “neighborhoods” within buildings, featuring resident rooms that might have just a refrigerator, sink and microwave in the kitchen, studioSIX5’s Maddalena says. Microwaves easily can be removed for memory care, and decisions about whether to keep the fridge can be made as needed.

The doors leading into the neighborhood can be secured if it’s being used for memory care, while a hold-open option can be in place for assisted living, to maintain a sense of flow with the rest of the building, Maddalena explains.

With all these options available, senior living providers have many choices in how to create convertible space and an increasing number of examples to learn from.

“We have a group of communities here in Omaha that say, ‘We’re watching you, we’ve thought about doing it and just don’t know how,’’” says Heritage’s Jungman. “I think that’s really the barrier, how to execute it appropriately. I think a lot of people agree that it is a great idea.”

Written by Tim Mullaney