The United Nations says that by 2050, more than two billion people across the world will be 60 or older – more than double 2017’s number of 962 million – and that seniors will likely outnumber adolescents and youth by a small margin.
This rapidly aging population, combined with design deficiencies in assisted living and long-term care highlighted by the COVID-19 disaster, means architects and designers face an increasingly high-stakes challenge: How best to design livable spaces for seniors that promote health and safety, but also enhance their lives?
A growing number of architects believe good, evidence-based design including elements of environmental enrichment can help stave off cognitive decline and increase the likelihood of neurogenesis among older adults. Additionally, new design approaches and building materials can help mitigate the spread of infectious diseases within assisted living communities.
Most architectural firms have always designed assisted living communities with health, safety, and well-being in mind. But as we’ll see below, the pandemic has accelerated a more urgent need for improved design, including new infection control strategies, different unit and site layouts, and better air quality.
Compartmentalization and the small house/neighborhood model
A number of assisted living communities designed in prior decades are full of large common spaces that bring many people together in one area, including large dining rooms or indoor recreational spaces. Paths of circulation within these older designs often encourage unnecessary interactions between residents, caregivers, and visitors.
That’s all changing, however, since COVID-19 showed the potential disaster lurking behind these massive communal settings and tight layouts. That’s why the physical segregation of residents through compartmentalization, the small house model, and the neighborhood model have proven extremely popular in the world of post-COVID assisted living design. While that doesn’t mean throwing out all elements of an open concept floor plan, it does mean taking steps to control aerosol dispersion within larger spaces through decorative furniture or glass partitions and other subtle dividers (such as planters and benches in the case of outdoor spaces).
David Dillard, founder of D2 Architecture, says that while compartmentalization used to be a “dirty word” in senior communities, it now “literally saves lives. “The kindest and gentlest template for compartmentalization is the small house or neighborhood concept, where subcommunities of 12-16 residents are gathered into neighborhoods, each with its own kitchen, living spaces, and back-of-house functions,” he says in Environments for Aging magazine. The small house model can be comforting to residents as it mimics the look and feel of the interior of an actual house, while ensuring meals are enjoyed in smaller, kitchen-style spaces as opposed to large dining halls.
A neighborhood design approach featuring several smaller buildings can also make it easier for the same staff to work with the same group of residents, instead of moving from area to area throughout a large building.
Practically everyone loves natural light and connections to nature, so it’s probably not a surprise to see them on the list of assisted living design trends. What’s different, however, is that COVID-19 lockdowns have shown just how crucial these elements can be for the mental health of residents and staff.
This includes not only an emphasis on large windows and improved sightlines, but also an increased reliance on organic building materials such as wood or stone, outdoor areas that can facilitate physical distancing, and lush gardens. The Inspīr luxury assisted living building in Manhattan, for example, incorporated floor-to-ceiling windows and other natural elements to provide a shot of nature in the heart of the city. “We wanted our residents to benefit from the impact nature has on health and incorporated as many natural elements as possible,” says the building’s president and CEO, Gregory D. Smith, in Architectural Digest.
Other designers have placed an increased emphasis on access to balconies or patios from living units.
Reduced entry points and additional safe gathering areas
A major emphasis in assisted living design going forward will be on dramatically reducing a community’s number of outside entry points, adding more safe gathering areas (usually outdoors), and redesigning units to minimize unnecessary interactions between patients and staff.
Designing so all third-party contractors and other visitors such as mail carriers or food delivery drivers are funneled to one area, accessed by one entry point, can help limit the number of outside sources walking around within the community. A receiving room for large deliveries located on the building’s perimeter can provide a similar effect. The same principle applies to individual units, where elements such as trash pickup and medicine storage should be located as close to the exterior door as possible to minimize staff traffic within the unit.
Improved technology, building materials, and HVAC systems
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of building materials that contain the spread of germs and other microbes. This includes solid, impervious surfaces for countertops in kitchens and bathrooms; resilient sheet flooring that eliminates cracks in the floor surface; and window units with integrated louvers or blinds (instead of curtains, which can accumulate dust and germs) made with antimicrobial frames and operators.
In the same vein, HVAC systems can be redesigned so they’re more isolated and only serve one “small house” or “neighborhood” (instead of the entire community), which along with UC-V air purification systems can reduce the risk of aerosol infection through ductwork and other means (these measures can also contribute to a WELL certification). “Low-tech solutions such as operable windows and individual unit patios, terraces, or balconies also have an important role to play in air quality,” says LEED AP and WJW Architects partner Heidi Wang.
How Vision Control meets the assisted living design challenge
Unicel Architectural’s Vision Control® advanced louvered glazing technology helps architects and building materials specifiers meet these design trends, along with providing full control of light, vision, temperature, and sound – perfect as glass partitions for compartmentalizing a large communal space, for allowing face-to-face visitation with minimal risk, or for providing increased (but controllable) natural light throughout an assisted living community.
Vision Control’s completely customizable, patented combination of cordless louvers between hermetically sealed glass panes also ensure optimal hygiene through antimicrobial, mold-resistant materials. Their hermetic seal and antimicrobial operators keep dust, germs and other microbes at bay. And Vision Control XS utilizes remote, motorized technology for hands-free operation of window or door louvers by staff or residents.