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Architects Start Paying Attention : Seniors Seek Housing Open to Life

From United Press International

The architects were baffled. For months, they stationed themselves outside a dozen Los Angeles senior citizens projects watching the elderly residents.

They carefully recorded where people walked, where they sat, how they congregated and what they did.

The architects could not figure out why no one went near the circular benches. They seemed inviting enough, but the straight benches were preferred.

And why did residents balk at sitting in sunlit garden courtyards cut off from bustling neighborhoods and streets, and why didn’t anyone seem particularly fond of shuffleboard.

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Living in Shadows

Nearly 7 million people over 65 years of age live in government-financed dwellings, yet little attention has been paid to designing buildings so that seniors can get out from behind concrete shadows into the social sunshine.

Aesthetics, the little niceties that make a home a home, the small domestic details that don’t show up in the retirement housing box score such as substituting levers for doorknobs to help arthritic people, are typically ignored, architects and social engineers agree.

“We’re really in the Dark Ages in designing outdoor spaces to make people use a building,” said Victor Regnier, associate professor of architecture and behavioral research at USC. “The whole science of how buildings are used is in its infancy.”

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Financed by a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a matching grant from USC, Regnier directed a two-year study examining how seniors use their outdoor areas.

Disclose Findings

After interviewing residents, building managers, as well as performing elaborate sun and shade studies at such high-rise retirement projects as Little Tokyo Towers and Angelus Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, the largest senior housing project in the nation with 1,400 residents, the following findings were reported:

- A circular bench doesn’t make it. “It forced people to look at each other, and people don’t like to do that,” Regnier said.

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“They wanted the freedom to ignore others if they felt like it. And to make matters worse, the bench was usually surrounded by a wall that blocked any breeze and cut off one’s view of the surroundings.”

- Providing sunlight and decent artificial lighting was rarely considered in building designs.

“Light isn’t so much a problem as glare,” said Leon Pastalan, director of the National Center on Housing and Living Arrangements in Ann Arbor, Mich. “We’ve also found that eldery people can’t penetrate shadows. They just can’t see things in the shadows and yet a lot of these buildings ignored that fact altogether.”

- Residents like sitting in places near the exit and entrances of their building.

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“Older people want outdoor space, but they like the security of being near the building itself,” Regnier said.

- The best place to locate a bench is in area looking out toward a neighborhood or street.

“The most popular bench at any of the 12 projects was at the edge of the grounds, facing a busy street,” Regnier explained. “They wanted to be able to watch pedestrians without being seen themselves. Sitting on a bench, watching people walk by, gives residents a sense of vicarious involvement.”

- Security was good, but sometimes went overboard.

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“We had one building leading to a nice courtyard. But when the old residents went (out) through the doors, they locked them behind them and they couldn’t get back in,” Regnier said.

- Shuffleboard and horseshoe courts were about as exciting to residents as a glass of skim milk.

“That’s because the courts were usually situated in unattractive areas where seniors were sealed off from the world and felt like they were in some kind of concrete bunker,” Regnier said.

Despite the design defects, virtually every study done has shown that seniors are quite satisfied the public housing, Pastalan said.

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“Only problem is, there isn’t enough,” he said, adding that between 160,000 to 250,000 new senior housing units are needed each year to meet demand.

Irving Welseld, a policy analyst with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, said a mere 8,400 retirement housing units were built last year.

Less This Year

“Not much, is it? This year, it’ll be less,” Welseld said.

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Complicating matters is the fact that an estimated 100,000 senior housing dwellings become dilapidated and obsolete every year, Pastalan said.

“The feds aren’t addressing any of these problems. Essentially, we have no policy in this country for senior citizen housing,” Pastalan said.

Marshall Gray, 74, sat on concrete block gazing at the rush-hour traffic jam on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles. He puffed furiously on a cigarette and talked about his five years at Angelus Plaza.

‘Kinda Lonely Sometimes’

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“It ain’t bad,” he began. “Things break and they don’t get fixed. But I guess that’s universal.

“We got a lot of old people living here. Gets kinda lonely sometimes though,” Gray said, brushing some ashes off his gray slacks.


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