Small Investment, Big Impact

How small-scale renovations can enhance the look and feel of senior living communities and positively impact residents’ emotional and mental well-being.

When we think about impactful renovations, we tend to think about large-scale construction projects – work that involves the undertaking of complex, costly changes. Budget constraints, whether brought on by a recession, a global pandemic or that are inherent as part of an organization’s normal day-to-day, can make upgrading spaces within a senior living community seem far out of reach.

Not so.

Renovating a senior living community, even amid tightened budget constraints, is entirely possible. While the scope and scale of the renovation may be pared down, communities can work with designers to create small-scale renovations that enhance the look and feel of the space and positively impact residents’ physical and emotional well-being. Here, we discuss how to turn those renovation dreams into a reality.

Where and How to Start

It can be a daunting task to consider which space is the best space to start with at the beginning of a renovation – especially if a community has limited resources and funding. Prioritization should be driven by an owner’s vision for the community, encompassing discovery discussions that flesh out the “why” for both the community and for the renovation project. Doing so helps designers best understand priorities so they can help guide the process towards solutions that serve the client and residents. Once the why is clear, here are some critical next steps:

  • Ask for and use feedback. Consumer research and feedback are critical to identifying appropriate strategies for investment. Satisfaction surveys and personal interviews can be a useful tool in gathering this feedback and gaining a better understanding of why someone chose the community and/or why someone left the community, providing valuable insight that may impact investment priorities. Visiting with staff members responsible for touring prospective residents and visitors is also very helpful as these individuals typically hear a lot of feedback about first impressions.
  • Manage expectations. Managing expectations is extremely important with any project but is especially important for a renovation with limited funding. It won’t be possible to address all the challenges, but it will be possible to identify key objectives. A limited budget means having to narrow the focus and having a clear vision will help.
  • Spend time observing in the space. By sitting back and observing how residents or staff use a space, designers can pick up on what does or doesn’t work well. For example, if residents are hovering closely over a window to read, that may be a sign of inadequate lighting; if the furniture is a hodge-podge collection gathered from adjacent rooms, the layout may need to be re-visited to adjust the arrangement or seating capacity. Follow the path of a visitor to experience what they would experience – what they see, hear or smell upon entering the space; take photos of a space to offer a fresh perspective, especially for those who spend time there regularly. By observing how people actually use the space, designers can better understand the improvement opportunities and challenges and then develop appropriate solutions. This empathetic approach puts designers in the shoes of the residents and their care and support staff so the team can truly understand how to create meaningful design solutions.
  • Focus investment on meaningful spaces. In today’s competitive markets, providers are looking to differentiate themselves. Focusing new investment into areas that will contribute to meaningful resident experiences always produces the best emotional and financial returns. Most of today’s design trends emphasize positive dining experiences, allowance for choices, encouragement of life-long learning and enhanced health and wellness, as well as spaces that encourage purpose-filled living. Prioritizing the investment around these trends will garner successful outcomes and a more marketable product. 
Baptist Retirement Community, Henley-Mabee High Rise in San Angelo, Texas by RDG.
Photo by Alise O’Brien.

Actively engaged residents and staff members are a return on an owner’s investment. Regardless of which specific space is being renovated, it’s critical to focus on changes that will improve the lives of those living or working in the community. When a renovation takes the specific community’s culture, resident preferences and demographics in mind and creates spaces that residents want to use on a regular basis (for example, repurposing an underutilized room that generates greater use and more meaningful activity), it accomplishes a real positive transformation and makes the return on the investment of that solution clear and apparent.

Straightforward Steps

Usually, we like to think big. But in the case of budget-friendly, impactful design renovations, thinking big may not be possible. Even small, incremental upgrades can make a significant difference in both the aesthetics of a space and in the health and well-being of residents and caregivers. Here are some straightforward places where small design can have a big impact:

  • Lighting: Not only is lighting an important functionally, but it also impacts the mood and overall feel of a space. Beyond the quantity of light, the quality of light can have a significant impact. Look for opportunities to upgrade to energy-efficient lamps and fixtures that provide a warmer spectrum of light, which can support truer color rendition to aging eyes. Additionally, reducing glare and unwanted shadows can add to the perceived quality of the space and counteract challenges with depth perception.
  • Cosmetic upgrades: Cosmetic upgrades such as new finishes and furnishings can have a meaningful impact.
    • With the changing posture of older adults, a focus on finishes below six feet can help enhance their living experience.
    • Simplifying flooring transitions is not only more aesthetically pleasing but can also create a safer environment that enables improved mobility and wellness.
    • Replacing dingy ceiling tiles helps brighten and freshen up a room.
    • Replacing doorknobs with door levers empowers aging residents to remain more independent for a longer period of time.
    • Installing automatic door openers can positively impact the accessibility of outdoor wellness and socialization spaces that may otherwise go underutilized.
  • Artwork: Appropriately sized, strategically placed and tasteful artwork can help a space feel more modern and welcoming. A few large pieces go a lot further than several small, framed prints, so focus on investing in select items. Beyond the quantity and size, the content of the artwork should be relevant and meaningful.
Baptist Retirement Community, Henley-Mabee High Rise in San Angelo, Texas by RDG.
Photo by Alise O’Brien.
  • Signage and wayfinding: Signage and wayfinding are other small enhancements that create big returns.  Community branding can be reinforced through signage and wayfinding, and naming wings, halls or households can create a greater sense of community among those who live in those areas.  When signage, wayfinding and artwork come together, they can reinforce a positive resident experience and enhance other uses of those renovated environments.

These simple, straightforward upgrades can be done incrementally and even as part of a community’s overall vision and capital improvement process. Master planning is key to seeing how small upgrades can be planned and executed as part of a larger picture. In particular, a five-year capital improvement plan that brings both architects and interior designers together creates a practical road map for keeping a community fresh and relevant. In today’s competitive environment, this interdisciplinary proactive approach is critical to ensuring a community’s longevity and relevance.

What This Looks Like in Practice

One real-world example of a small-scale renovation having a big impact is our work with Baptist Retirement Community, in San Angelo, Texas. Seeking to enhance the experience of residents, Baptist Retirement Community and Buckner Senior Services engaged our team to renovate amenity spaces within the Henley-Mabee High Rise for independent living. Following many of the “where and how” points of this article, we worked closely with the client to understand their vision for the community, identify where the deficiencies were and then create a design concept that was both affordable and highly impactful. The resulting design transforms the building’s main lobby and dining spaces to improve efficiencies, enhance wayfinding and ultimately create elevated environments where residents can socialize and connect.

“RDG designed a polished West Texas interior esthetic that reflects a modern yet convenient and comfortable lifestyle. On a nominal budget, we desired a high-impact result for the community – and this was achieved by the design team at RDG.”

Buckner Retirement Services Vice President Brian Robbins
Henley-Mabee High Rise reception desk before and after.
Henley-Mabee High Rise reception seating area before and after.

Before the renovation, the resident lobby, which served as a gathering and living space, felt closed off and disorganized. RDG’s design relocates the front desk from a nearby corridor to a central visible reception desk and, combined with enhanced wayfinding, creates a distinct and welcoming concierge area. The gift shop was relocated out of vacant resident units into the west lobby along the path to the restaurant, a strategic location that places the shop directly adjacent to the visitor entrance to help increase awareness, foot traffic and gift shop sales.

Henley-Mabee High Rise dining room before and after.

“Renovations to the high rise have been a welcoming sight to my aging eyes. After living in Baptist Retirement Community’s multi-story apartment-style building for over five years and on campus in a home for over 20 years, I have greatly enjoyed, especially during this pandemic, an engaging, fresh look for where I call home.  This remodel has definitely brightened my outlook on my life and the future of BRC.”

Corine Music, 95, resident at Henley-Mabee High Rise

As evidenced by our work on the Henley-Mabee High Rise, upgrading a facility so it feels fresh and modern is entirely within reach. The planning and design process we’ve outlined here provides a roadmap for renovation strategies that can have a significant impact – both on the space itself and on the people it serves.

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Click to learn more about RDG’s approach to senior living architecture and senior living interior design. 

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