The future of senior living design, architecture

Jami Mohlenkamp
Principal and senior living practice leader, OZ Architecture

Across Colorado and around the world, older adults have been among the hardest hit by the impacts of COVID-19. In Colorado, public health orders, prevention, response plans and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control have helped senior living owners and operators navigate this new normal in the short term. However, with seniors at such high risk, changes will need to be made to the design and construction of their communities to reduce the spread of illness in the future.

In recent years, senior living has shifted away from the health care-oriented design of facilities for skilled nursing and hospitals in favor of spaces that feel more like home and foster a sense of community. The global pandemic, however, has highlighted new design challenges around the spread of infection in shared living spaces.

Owners and operators would be remiss to convert these environments back to higher-acuity medical settings. Instead, designers should look for strategies that keep physical, mental and emotional well-being all top-of-mind. The following considerations demonstrate how we can help reduce the spread of germs through design, while still creating spaces that feel good and foster a sense of connection.

Compartmentalization The ability to compartmentalize will be a key factor in the future of design for older adult communities because it can help reduce the number of interactions with potential germ sources. This can include:

Designing small-house capabilities. Just as older adult communities often have smoke “compartments” to increase safety, so too could they compartmentalize to reduce the number of interactions residents may have with potential germ sources during an emergency. Breaking the community into compartments that don’t co-mingle, yet still provide care-giving services like individual small households, can help curb the spread of germs to the entire community.

Designing around a common node. Larger assisted living and memory support communities could be designed as a cluster of smaller household models with a common node. This connectability can allow for staff and resource flexibility in an emergency situation, while maintaining the benefit of having fewer individuals in contact with the separate households.

MEP and HVAC. Zonal isolation in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems can ensure that residents and employees are not only isolated from contact spreading and physical cross contamination, but also through droplet and particulate exposure through air. Touchless plumbing and electrical fixtures can further reduce the spread of diseases by limiting the number of people who touch shared surfaces.

Small-house model. The small house model may see an increase in popularity in the post-COVID era because it mimics the look and feel of home while limiting the number of staff and residents in a shared space. This model typically contains 10 to 12 suites that can be broken into smaller neighborhoods, meals can be shared in smaller spaces and airflow can be easily broken into individual zones.

Reducing Entry

Limiting the number of outsiders who enter the community also can help reduce exposure to germs. Several design considerations could eliminate or reduce otherwise regular entry by people delivering mail, packages, food and supplies, as well as third-party staffing sources for amenities like salons and fitness classes.

Locating all spaces that require access by third-party operators on the exterior perimeter of a building, accessed from directly by an entry into those spaces, significantly reduces outside source interaction within the community. These can be architecturally designed to look like shop fronts, giving the appearance of mixed-use design for visiting the salon or barber, fitness clubs and more.

Another design option is to move the mail room to an exterior wall and incorporate rear loading mailboxes or automated parcel lockers, which drastically reduces the mail carrier’s need to enter common areas of the building.

Just as limiting the number of people who enter the building can help prevent the spread of germs, so can limiting the number of people who enter individual living spaces. Moving certain service related access to the corridor wall of each suite can benefit both residents and staff.

Designs could include locating trash in a cabinet adjacent to a corridor wall, which staff could access from the hall in order to remove and empty trash without entering the unit. Lockable medicine storage and unit plumbing shut-off valves also could be located in this access area to allow emergency access while limiting the number of staff members entering the suite.


Technological advancements also will play an important role in the future of design for aging adult communities. Technology can reduce the spread of germs, limit the number of interactions with potential germ sources and help residents feel connected during times of quarantine and social distancing. Examples include:

• Virtual conference platforms, communication technologies, and exercise and entertainment options can help older adults feel connected to loved ones and the outside world.

• Robotic vacuum cleaners and food preparation robots can help reduce the number of people entering private suites.

• Technologies like Microban utilize silver and copper ion antimicrobial technology, which can help eliminate microbial growth on solid surfaces.

• Some products are proving to be successful at utilizing light to kill bacteria. For example, broad spectrum UV lights such as Puro Lighting’s M2 mobile disinfecting light can eliminate 99.9% of bacteria and viruses in a space.

The New Normal

In addition to compartmentalization, technology and strategies for reducing entry into buildings and suites, site design, interior design and innovative models like stackable floor plans also will have a more prominent role in creating shared living spaces that meet the needs of both safety and community. Although many of the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the senior living industry have yet to be seen, it’s clear that thoughtful design and architecture can help curb the spread of disease without sacrificing hospitality.

Featured in the July issue of Health Care & Senior Housing Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.