Updated building designs and features provide timeless, elegant surroundings

A tour of a new retirement community brings plenty of welcome surprises. 

Gone are the long hospital-like hallways, replaced by open atriums and cozy conversation areas. Cafeteria-style dining is no longer the norm as on-site chefs create meals served in a variety of venues.

Outdoor space is more than a window view and now includes walking paths and courtyards where residents can garden or stroll. Apartments aren't just a place to sleep but a real home with architectural features and stylish kitchens.

"Retirement communities are more like a resort today," says Steven Sussholz, president at SAS Architects & Planners, a Northbrook, Ill., firm that designs senior living communities. "They're warm and vibrant, and include a lot of open space. People don't want to feel like they're in a nursing home."

Retirement communities today are designed to attract savvy seniors who have a number of housing options. Large apartments offer the comforts of home, while club-like common areas invite the kind of camaraderie that many elders seek.

North Shore Place, for example, is a new assisted living and memory care building expected to open later this year in Northbrook, a northern suburb of Chicago. Designed by SAS Architects, the building has an elaborate ground floor that includes activity and conversation or lobby areas. Two first-floor dining venues offer a formal and a casual setting. Other amenities include a theater, card room, spiritual center, library/computer center, bank, country store, spa, fitness center, therapy room, arts and crafts center, and three outdoor patios.

With 156 luxurious apartment-style units on 7.2 acres, North Shore Place offers large private one- and two-bedroom apartments with high-end finishes, such as granite countertops; stainless steel appliances; full kitchens; in-unit washers and dryers; and complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the property. The project is being developed by Senior Lifestyle Corporation of Chicago.

Nowadays, new retirement communities have a somewhat modern or timeless design with high ceilings and open floor plans. Furnishings are tailored and inviting. The idea is to look up-to-date without appearing old fashioned. "We like to call our style contemporized traditional," says Patricia Will, president at Belmont Village Senior Living.

Belmont Village has 24 buildings with 11 of those in California and four in the Chicago area. "We don't want the places to look so traditional that they're dated, or so contemporary that they're stark. We go for understated elegance," Will says.

Local designs shine

Building exteriors are designed to complement local architecture. Prairie-style buildings are popular in the Chicago area. More modern looking structures with materials common to the Southwest, such as stucco, are frequently found in Southern California.

Los Angeles-based Meta Housing owns and operates more than 30 apartment buildings for seniors in the area. The company's projects in Long Beach, North Hollywood and Burbank have an arts-and-entertainment theme. All three include theaters where residents can hold performances or host outside entertainment groups.

The Long Beach Senior Arts Colony has won a number of design awards for its contemporary style. The NoHo Senior Arts Colony in North Hollywood has an atrium with large windows.

"We used to think that seniors housing had to be more traditional," says Kasey Burke, president at Meta Housing. "But our seniors are getting younger and as long as the design is appropriate for the area, it works."

Outdoor space is an important component of building design. Fresh landscaping creates a natural and welcoming environment. Covered patios and courtyards are often included for residents to enjoy, along with walking paths. Outdoor pools that include social areas are featured in many buildings in warm climates. An outdoor fireplace serves as a gathering spot for residents at Belmont Village in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Meta Housing has community gardens at several buildings. "We put them in when we can," says Burke, who adds that the gardens provide a healthy outdoor activity. "Residents love them."

Courtyards are incorporated into buildings by Autumn Leaves for those with memory loss. Autumn Leaves has eight projects in the Chicago area, along with buildings in Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma. The buildings are divided into small neighborhoods or clusters of suites around a courtyard where residents can safely spend time outdoors.

Upscale building materials

Architects and designers are placing new emphasis on the quality of materials inside the building. Stone fireplaces serve as the focal point of community great rooms. Engineered wood floors are a warm addition to fitness rooms.

Vivante on the Coast opened in late 2013 in the Newport-Mesa area of Orange County. The $62 million, 185-unit development is built on seven acres and includes 40 independent living units, 145 assisted living apartments and 40 memory care suites.

The units have luxury-type finishes with stainless steel appliances and island kitchens. Property amenities include resort-quality features such as an indoor saltwater pool, a dance floor, art studio, dog park and a country-club-style putting green.

In general, dining venues have perhaps undergone the greatest transformation over the last decade. Many retirement communities now have multiple dining rooms. As one architect comments: Who wants to eat in the same place every night?

The main dining areas at Belmont Village are somewhat formal with linen tablecloths. At Belmont Village Thousand Oaks, residents can eat on the courtyard patio outside the main dining area at tables with umbrellas.

Belmont Village properties also include a casual dining venue, or bistro that looks like a hip cafe. Residents can enjoy smoothies, espresso, sushi or other snacks in a relaxed setting.  "Our buildings are incorporating more venues for dining," says Will at Belmont Village, which is based in Houston.

The design of individual units or apartments is also changing with units getting larger and floor plans becoming more open. "Even small units have to feel big when you open the door," says Stan Braden, chairman at architecture firm KTGY in Irvine. Taking clues from apartment building trends, a standard two-bedroom unit in new retirement communities now has the bedrooms on opposite sides of the floor plan. The living space is in the center of the apartment.

Fewer walls separate living spaces. Galley kitchens are being replaced by open areas that connect to the dining room with bar stools where residents can relax or entertain friends. The kitchens in large units sometimes include islands where people can gather. "You don't feel like you're in an apartment, but a single-family home," Braden says.

Designers are paying more attention to how residents use the space in their apartments. Architect Dan Cinelli recently designed an apartment for an older couple. The unit has new technology that will allow the couple to age in place, such as a dishwasher in a drawer that's easy to access. Other features include a refrigerator and microwave in drawers, and a roll-in shower. "We are really trying to analyze how people are going to live in the units," says Cinelli, principal and managing director at Perkins Eastman, Washington, D.C.

Health centers with a personal touch

An important component of many retirement communities, the health center is also being rethought by designers and architects. Private units or suites are becoming the norm, rather than shared rooms. Perkins Eastman designed the new health and rehabilitation center at Monarch Landing, a retirement community in Naperville, Ill., just west of Chicago. The center opens this July and has 28 assisted living and memory support residences; 48 short-term rehabilitation units; and 48 skilled care suites. The building design is described as "prairie elegance" with furnishings and finishes meant to create an inviting, warm and comfortable setting with timeless lines in rich, earth tones set in a natural landscape.

Private resident rooms and couples' suites have their own showers. The memory care section on the first floor, which is divided into clusters of rooms, has a private courtyard, living room, dining room and open kitchen.

Building amenities include a physical therapy suite, café, spa/beauty salon, access to the independent living buildings, an education room, a multipurpose room, and courtyards and gardens. "We are building these projects with a look toward the future," Cinelli says.

Nursing and memory care buildings are also undergoing a design overhaul. Instead of hospital-like settings, the buildings are meant to look more like a residence. Rooms or units are clustered in neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own dining area and common living space. Staffers are usually assigned to one neighborhood. This design is thought to provide residents with a more comforting atmosphere while making it easier for staff to get to know residents and provide person-centered care.

"The neighborhoods have a homey look," says Sussholz at SAS Architects. It designs the Autumn Leaves memory care centers and has also designed several 10-unit nursing homes, called "small houses." SAS has a "small house" facility underway at Victorian Village, a retirement community in Homer Glen, a suburb south of Chicago.

The new small house facility is a three building complex. Two buildings will have 10 private bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. The bedrooms circle a common area with a lounge, library and dining area. The third building will have 30 rooms for those who need short-term nursing care after surgery or an illness. Construction is expected to be complete by May and residents will move in by the end of June.

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