WELL Design Series: Reckoning with Pandemics and Tsunamis

How the WELL Building Standard can address the need for safe and healthy multifamily communities for the next generation of seniors.

The Silver Tsunami. It sounds like a phrase we might use to announce a looming climactic weather event. In fact, the Silver Tsunami is a metaphor used to describe the anticipated increase in the senior population as Baby Boomers continue to age. We will see the number of people aged 65 and older grow from 15 percent today to more than 20 percent in the year 2050. As our nation ages, this growing group of the population will need access to environments that support seniors at varying levels of care, increasing the demand for these environments in unprecedented ways. But, like so many aspects of our lives over the last year, these expectations have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Silver Tsunamic had been projected to bring an increased demand for senior living communities and with that, a new set of expectations that would revolutionize the industry – yet the COVID-19 pandemic has driven occupancy levels to all-time lows. Can consumer confidence in multifamily environments be restored?

Seniors justifiably have concerns about virus spread within multifamily environments. Home health options that allow individuals to age-in-place in their home provide a tempting solution to virus spread but fall short as the best option for the overall health and wellness of many seniors. The attractiveness of home health is obvious, and the law of inertia suggests that a move at any age is a large hurdle, let alone one filled with decades of memories. The home that was so great for building relationships with neighbors and for raising children can potentially become a barrier for seniors as maintenance mounts, younger neighbors move in and social needs change. Senior living communities with multifamily environments provide an opportunity to reduce the burdens of living in a single-family home and build new relationships – something that we’re discovering is ever more critical, as studies continue to provide data connecting social isolation and cognitive decline.

The lounge at Wyndemere Independent Living in Wheaton, Illinois by RDG. Photo by Jim Corbett @ Alise O’Brien Photography.

Declining mental health and sensory function, as well as lack of social engagement, can be considered indicators of future health issues, and so for many, the beneficial long-term impacts multifamily environments have on the well-being of senior residents outweigh the disadvantages. What’s more, many of these oft-cited disadvantages can be offset by incorporating features of the WELL Building Standard (WELL) to give residents confidence that they’ve chosen to live in a safe and healthy environment. As we explore the ways WELL can respond to the concerns seniors have about multifamily housing, let’s first look at the benefits these spaces can offer.

The Wellness Benefits of Multifamily Senior Living

Baby Boomers have vastly different expectations about senior living than the generations before them. Previous generations treated senior living as a healthcare intervention that they didn’t move into unless they had to based on necessity, but Baby Boomers are reframing the industry just like they have so many others as a lifestyle choice to support health and active aging. This choice boils down to one key component: a heightened emphasis on wellness.With a heightened emphasis on wellness comes a reimagining of how we design these spaces. Gone are the days of wellness meaning a one room gym with a couple of weights or a vegetarian option on the dining menu. Instead, designers are considering how to expand, enhance and redefine what wellness means in senior living, responding to the changing demands of the next generation of Baby Boomers, and placing a greater emphasis on all-around health and well-being, including:

  • Fitness centers that focus on multimodal and group activities. In today’s senior living environments, a fitness area is no longer just a room with a couple of pieces of equipment. Today, these spaces are being transformed into state-of-the-art environments that incorporate organized group fitness (e.g. yoga, Zumba) and expanded gyms that include cardio equipment, weight machines and free weights. Beyond the gym, communities are adding indoor pools with spacious locker rooms, and are looking for ways to enhance access to outdoor walking trails and areas for group exercise that add variety to the fitness experience.
The fitness center at RiverWoods Exeter in Exeter, New Hampshire by RDG. Photo by Alise O’Brien Photography.
  • Spa and salon spaces that elevate the experiences. In discussions about amenity offerings, the salon experience continues to gain momentum. The single room with one styling station and fixed dryer chairs is a thing of the past; today, we’re seeing multiple styling stations, manicure bars and pedicure chairs, often set up so friends can enjoy services together. Waiting areas that include salt walls and hydration stations, along with massage rooms that are equipped for facials and single and couple’s massages are gaining popularity in these communities.
The salon at Menno Haven Life Center in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by RDG. Photo by Alise O’Brien Photography.
  • Dining venues that offer choice and the chance for fellowship. Baby Boomers are increasingly seeking out variety and flexibility in both the type of dining venue and in the food offerings themselves – they want choice in the experience and what fits into their daily schedule. As such, an increasing number of senior living communities are incorporating multiple dining venues that offer variety, allow residents to choose from various menu offerings, opt for indoor or outdoor seating and have the ability to eat at any time throughout the day, outside of the normal breakfast, lunch and dinner timeframe. Other non-traditional “hotspots” that offer an array of options include coffee and juice shops, smoothie bars and grab-and-go markets, or even an outdoor dining area that can incorporate local food trucks and live music.

As many of us have experienced in the past year, isolation of any magnitude can affect our mood and overall well-being. For seniors, this is especially notable; research shows that participation in leisure activities can reduce the risk for dementia, making it all the more critical for senior living communities to promote social engagement and make active lifestyles accessible. The physical and mental perks that come with being in a multifamily community, where many of these offerings are built-in, can have immensely positive impacts on residents’ overall health and well-being.

WELL Design: Addressing Concerns Around Multifamily Environments

As pointed out in the first part of our WELL Design Series, WELL marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research to harness the built environment as a vehicle to support human health and well-being. It focuses on aspects of a space such as indoor air quality (IAQ) and lighting, as well as ergonomics, food quality and the implementation of HR policies that positively impact mental health. Within each of these spaces, there are marked benefits to users, from improved blood pressure to decreased stress levels. WELL can also be a viable option in addressing the concerns seniors have about living in multifamily communities. Here, we look at a few of the most commonly cited concerns, and the ways the WELL Building Standard addresses those concerns.

  • I’m concerned about airborne virus transmission from neighbors in a close environment. WELL includes a multitude of features that address indoor air quality (IAQ) and can reduce opportunities for airborne transmission. The lowest threshold to certification, the WELL Health-Safety Rating, addresses the most basic requirements of maximizing ventilation, fresh air and filtration, and additional features can incorporate UV lights and advanced filtration techniques to further enhance IAQ. Material features of the WELL Building Standard focus specifically on building and furniture products that support a healthy environment and also emphasize cleaning practices and hands-free operation whenever possible.
  • I don’t want to deal with the added noise. One of the most common complaints people have when moving from a single-family home into a multifamily environment is concern over noisy neighbors. WELL asks designers to exceed the building code requirements for impact noise transfer and explore materials for all surfaces that absorb or reduce transmission of sound from one unit to the next. Outside of apartments, it encourages the design of spaces to support those who may be hard of hearing and to reinforce speech intelligibility.
  • I don’t want to live in an “institution.” WELL features a variety of design elements that create aesthetically rich and welcoming environments that feel home-like rather than institutional. For example, WELL design focuses on incorporating biophilia and connection to local history and art, all of which can engage the mind and spirit. Light features embrace the use of both natural and artificial light to boost mood and support circadian rhythms, a vast improvement on the sterile or cold environments of the past. Nourishment features within the standard ensure that any common dining venues serve high quality meals with several options (not reheated processed foods). One feature specifically addresses garden or greenhouse spaces, which not only promotes local and sustainable sources of food, but can also function as a community activity that works hand-in-hand with the movement features of the WELL building standard.
The lobby at Menno Haven Rehabilitation Center in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by RDG. Photo by Alise O’Brien Photography.
  • I don’t want to be shut off from my community. WELL design isn’t limited to a building itself – it also encourages civic engagement through volunteerism and charitable activities, and emphasizes the creation of community spaces within the project boundary that may invite the community in. Additionally, the WELL Building Standard also has features that focus on providing affordable units within a community and employee practices such as support for domestic abuse victims, childcare and responsible labor practices. These factors create a senior living space that feels more like its own community, catering to the individual needs of members and continuing to emphasize collective engagement and well-being within the multifamily structure.   

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors contemplating retirement living will have different factors to consider. Analysts expect that though it may take time, interest in senior living communities will rebound; and as it does, communities will need to grapple with a new set of challenges and expectations. The senior living industry has long been spearheading initiatives of wellness through education and activities, and now is the time to take these initiatives even further by focusing attention on ways the built environment can support residents of a new generation. The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, wrought as they are with difficulty and uncertainty, may, in the end, help us better respond to and design for the ensuing Silver Tsunami.

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Lara Slavkin, IIDA, WELL AP is a partner and interior designer who focuses on design for RDG’s Senior Living Interiors market. She has been a WELL Accredited Professional since 2020, and is actively involved in IIDA’s Gateway Chapter.

Jay Weingarten, AIA, WELL AP is a partner, architect and wellness advocate and has been a WELL Accredited Professional since 2016. In his work for RDG, he focuses is on strategic planning, design and project management for the firm’s Senior Living market.

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