Design awards have been accumulating at ABHOW in recent years.
The lodge-style Kelly Ridge and Tahoe Senior Plaza affordable communities in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., each received honors for exceptional design and compatibility with their surroundings. And last year the redevelopments of The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens in Fresno, Calif., and Judson Park in Des Moines, Wash., won ABHOW’s longtime architectural partner top awards from the National Association of Homebuilders.
There’s a pattern here, and it’s no accident. Whether creating new communities or updating existing ones, ABHOW incorporates age-friendly design and pays close attention to how every aspect of a resident’s surroundings — from campus layout to flooring to the amount of natural light — affects safety, comfort and independence.
In designing community spaces, the company strives to create a feeling either of home or of hospitality, says Russell Mauk, vice president for design, construction and redevelopment. “We’re trying to get any sense of institution out of our aesthetics,” he notes.
ABHOW’s approach reflects growing national and international interest in age-friendly design, which more architects and academic institutions are beginning to explore. For instance, some providers in South Korea, Japan and Australia are now designing communities for older adults around a household model rather than a medical model.
In the U.S., MIT’s AgeLab, created in 1999 to develop technologies for an aging population, puts some of its considerable brainpower into optimal design for successful aging. This fall, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design held a conference called New Aging. And the American Institute of Architects and the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (an organization to which ABHOW belongs) teamed up recently to track trends in senior living architecture and interior design.
For its part, ABHOW has been convinced for some time that good architecture has a positive impact on the daily life of residents. In the mid-1990s, for instance, the company worked with Irwin Pancake Architects — the firm that recently won honors from the National Association of Homebuilders — to develop The Grove, a cozy-looking therapeutic neighborhood that provides memory support for residents.
“When a person with a cognitive impairment sees The Grove, it doesn’t look like a clinical, medical or institutional model,” architect Doug Pancake has said. “It looks like a cottage or a home.” And, he notes, making everything “as comfortable and normal and based in reality as we can” helps residents of The Grove feel oriented, reassured and independent. For instance, shadow boxes filled with personal memorabilia are placed by each doorway to help residents identify their own rooms.
Design considerations have been paramount in subsequent company projects, too. These include the cottage model ABHOW has developed for new and redeveloped skilled nursing centers — in which resident rooms surround a central great room and kitchen — as well as several new affordable communities and redevelopment efforts now underway at a number of continuing care retirement communities. In all such projects, the company incorporates the latest research in age-friendly design.
“We take it as a serious responsibility to stay current with what’s going on in our profession,” says Paul Jepson, assistant vice president, care services. “We create an environment that is as accessible as possible for older adults.”
To enhance interaction among residents, ABHOW has begun combining many community amenities into a town square area, says Mauk. At The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens, for instance, a coffee bistro, a sitting room with a TV, a library and an outdoor fireplace are now located near one another. “We’re clustering places, not spreading them out over the campus,” Mauk says.
Attention to design also means taking into account such things as the vision changes that come with age. “We make sure there are adequate light levels, not shadows and contrast that could be perceived as a barrier,” Jepson says.
Because corneas tend to yellow as people age, older people perceive colors differently than younger people. So ABHOW’s design teams choose palettes that factor in these changes. Instead of greens and blues, which may look gray as the cornea changes, they select shades of red and gold.
The company strives to design each room so that residents will find every feature accessible, Jepson says. Seemingly minor details can make a big difference. “We have a specific range of chair height, arm height and so on that we know will be successful with this age group,” Jepson says. “We know that overstuffed furniture is difficult for a person to get out of.”
ABHOW has made universal design a priority in spaces devoted to wellness, rehabilitation and healthy living. One example is the new wellness center at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens. There, a resident panel helped choose the exercise equipment, and the design team incorporated several features not commonly found in gyms. One is a low wall midway through the center.
“It’s a great area for resting, a great spot to put your coat or hat,” says Steve Case, director of lifestyle enrichment at the community. “You wouldn’t normally think of seating in a gym, but it’s a good place to have a sip of water and catch your breath.”
The center is laid out so there are no steps or barriers, and the entire space has windows to the outside. “Natural light always helps us out with our mindset in a gym,” Case notes. And to encourage new residents and those who may not have used a fitness center previously, there is a tinted window near the front door that allows those outside to look in and decide if they’d like to enter.
“The layout provides a lot of space, so people who come in with walkers and wheelchairs can get around really easily,” says resident Mary Nii, who works out with her husband, Ted, five or six times a week. She uses the center’s dividing wall for a quick break, and Ted Nii does sit-ups, crunches and leg extensions on it. “It’s a good warm-up,” he says.
With certain items, such as the finishes on walls and ceilings, close attention to design can sometimes result in higher costs. “People’s houses tend to have more detail than corporations and institutions do,” says Mauk. “We spend a little more effort on ceilings, for example, so you have some variety in pattern and lighting that changes as you go through the space. We could do it less expensively, but it would strip out a lot of the character.”
Because the company incorporates techniques developed at one community into the design of another, it can trim design costs through economies of scale. For instance, fabric and color palettes that work well at one community may be adopted at another.
Mauk worked out an economical way to renovate homes at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens to make them more open and bring in more natural light, then he adapted the same technique for Piedmont Gardens in Oakland, Calif. Likewise, he developed a safer and more convenient kitchen design — with microwaves at counter height, stoves with their controls in the front, and deep, pull-out drawers instead of lower cabinets — that is being used in several communities.
ABHOW team members also keep design costs in line by staying informed about what’s available on the market. Plus the company listens when residents make cost-trimming suggestions. “At Piedmont Gardens, some residents said they liked the furniture that was there and said it would be more economical to recover it than replace it — and ABHOW did,” Jepson says.
In any case, good design is not necessarily more expensive. Suzanne Saucier, assistant vice president for development, has come up with numerous ways to incorporate considerable flair into several of the company’s new affordable communities at very little cost. At Hillcrest Gardens in Daly City, Calif., for example, she designed a striking central staircase from reclaimed wood and took advantage of panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay with a rooftop garden.
Whether considering the overall plan of a community or its tiniest details, those concerned with design at ABHOW have one goal.
“We’re trying to create a notably positive environment, not a neutral environment,” says Mauk. “We want people to be energized coming into these spaces.”
Founded in 1949, ABHOW is widely known for its pioneering leadership in senior housing and health care. The company serves more than 5,000 residents in 37 retirement communities in California, Arizona, Nevada and Washington.
To learn more about ABHOW visit www.abhow.com.
This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of ABHOW Words.