Housing for boomer retirees requires modern thinking

Whether housing for seniors has been built for independent or assisted living, the architecture seldom varies from the traditional. Few are modern in their aesthetics, and communities built to give residents comfort through familiar environs — to surround them with design they have lived with throughout their lives — may simply perpetuate existing models of retirement living and not consider the range of wants and needs of an aging but active population.

HollwichKushner architects of New York recently released early plans for Boom, a retirement community proposed for Rancho Mirage that aims to break the mold for senior housing. Part of the goal is to appeal to baby boomers inching toward retirement, many of whom have grown up with modern design. For this generation, modern may be what is familiar and comfortable, particularly in Southern California, where indoor-outdoor living, open floor plans, post-and-beam construction and the flat roof have long been embraced.

“What really needs to happen to create viable communities is an intergenerational approach where people of all ages can live comfortably and happily without having to move out as they age,” said HollwichKushner architect Matthew Hoffman. He added that the nontraditional population of a so-called retirement community should be complemented by nontraditional design. “No one wants or deserves to spend their last days in a decorated hospital. Nursing homes come out of the typology of a hospital. They are medically driven.”

Ironically, many buildings originally conceived to house seniors have been converted for modern hotels or retail shopping. The success of a new project such as Boom is contingent on how the buildings relate to one another to form a community and encourage residents to engage with neighbors, said Kathryn McCamant, whose firm, McCamant & Durrett Architects, is known for its work in cohousing, including senior communities that operate with a high level of communal spirit.


“We have a decade worth of studies that have really shown how social connections make a huge difference in people’s long-term health, how long they live and how happy they are,” she said. “Whatever length of time they live, they tend to be much healthier when they are part of a community.”

For its part, the forces behind Boom asked the question: What could the senior community of the future look like?

Ten architecture firms contributed their answers via renderings for specific components of a dream Boom community. Though the development is still in the early stages of planning and none of the plans are likely to be built anytime soon, the renderings are interesting, raising as many compelling questions as they answer.

The plan from the New York firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro calls for precast concrete waves flowing across the desert, the peaks forming living spaces and the troughs providing entry to small private gardens (as seen on E1).

Such plans may be pie-in-the-sky ideas now, but for a growing segment of the retirement market, the prospect of change could be quite comforting indeed.