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Designing biophilia in senior living communites

Biophilic design promotes elements that allow the outdoor natural world to be brought inside, or provide views to the outside and access to sunlight from within.

Jami Mohlenkamp
Principal and senior living practice leader, OZ Architecture

Humans have an innate connection and draw to the natural world. Whether it’s the feel of flower petals on one’s fingertips, sun warming one’s skin or the feel of snow falling on one’s face, a connection to the outdoors can help us thrive with an enhanced sense of well-being.

Older adults who move into senior living communities may find that their connection to the outdoors changes depending on their acuity level, their mobility or their age. While some of this access to see and experience the outdoors depends on the level of care they need, architecture and design can help play a part in ensuring that the benefits of the outdoors are accessible in different ways and for different populations.

Perhaps the best way to ensure that older populations can continue to experience the outdoors is to physically provide access outside, whether via open-air patios, pathways, gardens or accessible greenspace, at all levels in a building.

However, for those who aren’t able to move or achieve that traditional access, the challenge is to bring the outdoors in. In the industry, we call this biophilia. Biophilic design promotes elements that allow the outdoor natural world to be brought inside, or provide views to the outside and access to sunlight from within.

In terms of senior living communities, there are a few ways to achieve this:

• Enhance the visual experience. One way to help achieve the benefit of the outdoor experience is visually. This concept lends itself to designs with as much glass as possible, to visually let in the light and the view outside.

The typical older adult residence may have a traditional residential window centered in a room. If the glass can instead extend from floor to ceiling, it allows for a better sightline to vegetation and sun from both a person standing and someone in a wheelchair. Careful selection of window coverings can maximize visibility out while also helping control glare and harsh direct sunlight.

Enhancing the visual experience with intentional views out the window is important not only for the resident but also for the caregivers and staff. In higher acuity situations such as skilled nursing or memory support environments, the staff are frequently engaged within the unit. Place windows so that when a caregiver enters, their focus is out the window, giving the staff a glimpse of the outdoors and a pleasant visual pause from the day’s tasks as they visit each resident’s room.

• Consider the window design. Thoughtful window design is part of improving this process. A common residential style window is often 3 feet wide by 6 feet tall. However, these windows usually have multiple frame elements, which can obstruct the view.

Design utilizing a window that is unimpeded in the middle where a person would center themselves on the opening can offer a more transparent view to the exterior, which can make all the difference to a person who has limited access to the outdoors.

It’s important that the views from those windows lead to something beautiful and eye-catching outside. Resorts do this well, often positioning trees or brightly colored flowers outside a window to draw the eye from the indoors out. Dense, tall vegetation, eye-catching trees, mountain views and even natural textures like wood or rock can draw the eye and give the person inside more satisfaction when they look out.

• Create a tangible experience. Creating the feeling of being in nature also can provide healing qualities. Taking the visual experience a step further, such as turning a window into French doors that open to a Juliet balcony, can get people even closer to an outdoor experience. This way, even the wheelchair bound would have the opportunity to lean out, feel the breeze and potentially even touch real plant material.

Inserting a person in an environment with the opportunity to feel the heat of the sun, the breeze in the air or the plants or rocks in the natural environment can have a powerful effect on the brain and outlook. In fact, we are often naturally drawn to textures like wood, stone or vegetation. Inserting these touchable textures inside the building – in the floor, along the wall, within furniture or in a touchable art fixture – can help create that organic outdoor feel indoors.

Considering exterior biophilia might involve creating outdoor space that feels completely separate from surrounding interior experience. Perhaps it’s a thoughtfully designed patio where older adult residents have access to go outside and feel the sun on their skin, or snowflakes on their cheeks. Maybe it’s an oversized skylight to brighten the corridor and showcase the clouds above.

While the job of a designer of older adult communities is to create safe environments, it’s also important for residents, staff and visitors to continue to experience the living, healing power of the outdoors as much as possible. Biophilic design intends to bring elements of the natural world in, while increasing access – both visually and physically – to the outdoor environment.

Featured in the October 2018 issue of Health Care Properties Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.