5 design considerations for high-rise senior living communities

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Jami Mohlenkamp
Jami Mohlenkamp

Common in urban and cosmopolitan areas, high-rise buildings often house corporations, hotels and residences.

Although precise definitions may vary, building codes define high-rise buildings by height rather than number of stories, with the term “high-rise” applying when the highest occupied floor is more than 75 feet above fire department access. Depending on the distance between floors, buildings between six and eight stories or higher are usually considered high-rise.

Many considerations for high-rise building design are the same no matter the occupant, but it is important to make thoughtful accommodations for the aging. When it comes to designing high-rise buildings intended for seniors — as well as care staff and visitors — remember several architectural considerations.

1. Resident movement and mobility

Movement and flow throughout a building are important factors in how residents use a space, especially for seniors. For instance, residents living in memory care or skilled nursing units should not be moved frequently between floors.

When it comes to residents in assisted living communities, mobility still is possible, although it often is restricted with the use of walkers and wheelchairs. In this case, it's important to keep distances shorter and travel to a minimum. Where travel distances are longer, resting points should be considered.

In either case, designers may need to think about where to locate certain services to keep residents comfortable and, if necessary, stationary.

2. Access control for staff and visitors

With senior living buildings, access control is another important consideration.

Visitors should be directed to the reception area and should not be allowed free access to all levels of the community. Staff and resident circulation should be via separate elevators or access controls.

With respect to high-rise buildings, architects often deal with constrained site parameters. The most efficient design solution may be to place parking directly underneath the building. In this situation, visitor and staff elevators often reach underground. Generally, access control will affect where elevators are located and how high or low they go.

3. Location of kitchens and common areas

It's more common than not for kitchens and dining rooms to be located on the first floor, with senior residences on higher floors.

For those in independent living situations, the extra movement usually is no problem. Sometimes, however, smaller kitchenettes and even full commercial kitchens exist on the highest floors, which can be convenient for those who have mobility constraints.

Additional pros and cons exist for each:

• Locating the kitchen on the first floor. The primary reason for locating the kitchen on the first floor is infrastructure and plumbing. It's often safer and easier to know that a leak that springs up in a kitchen or serving area would have no effect on residential areas below. What's more, receiving food and equipment is more efficient on the first floor, with loading docks and commercial refrigeration units within easy reach. Generally, having the kitchen connected to the dining room is the most sanitary option, and locating the dining room on the first floor helps encourage visitors and staff to congregate in a central location.

• Locating the kitchen on the top floor. That said, situations exist where designers plan kitchens and dining rooms on a higher floor, even the topmost floor. Similar to hotels and office buildings, doing so offers a certain “sizzle factor,” because top floors can offer sweeping views and scenic landscapes. By creating a common amenity at the top floor, the best views can be shared by all. Additionally, technical requirements, such as venting a kitchen hood, are more easily accomplished the closer one gets to the roof. Taller buildings often are constructed with a dedicated freight elevator straight to the top floor for kitchen deliveries. What's more, should an operator want an outdoor dining patio or terrace in an urban environment, then it may be easier — and more affordable — to capture outdoor space on a rooftop rather than extend the building's footprint on the ground.

From a user-based experience and amenity standpoint, there's a lot to be said for locating these amenities on the upper floor. Yet, from purely practical perspective, many designers prefer to locate common areas and shared amenities on the first floor.

4. Plumbing, ventilation and mechanical logistics

Plumbing and kitchen ventilation always are considerations — especially in high-rises.

In the kitchen, building codes require a grease hood ventilated all the way to the roof, through a shaft from the first floor to the top floor. Likewise, a grease trap must exist for any grease or kitchen waste, which is in line with the sanitary sewer system. For top-floor kitchens, this means a dedicated drainage system that extends all the way down to the ground. Typically, drainage pipes take up less space going down than ventilation shafts going up, which is another consideration.

Just like any high-rise, a fire pump and domestic water pump are required to carry water all the way to the top floor, as well as a circulating domestic water loop to ensure that hot water reaches facilities and resident rooms throughout the building.

Another mechanical requirement in high-rise buildings is a fire command room. The fire command room — at least 200 square feet in size — must be approved by the local fire department and made easily accessible from the exterior of the building at ground level. The fire command center is designed solely for the fire department to use in the event of emergency, training or maintenance.

5. Location of outdoor amenities

One characteristic factor of high-rise buildings is that they often are located in densely populated urban areas where there is limited open space on which to build, and outdoor space is at a premium. Vertical construction, therefore, is more attractive. Unlike apartment buildings, there are often no private outdoor balconies in senior living residences. Instead, residents are invited to step outside their rooms to a shared outdoor space to foster socialization.

Some senior care buildings locate these outdoor common areas — such as wandering gardens — on the first floor, which offer more opportunities for natural vegetation than a rooftop outdoor space. On the other hand, some developers make a point to locate outdoor common areas on the rooftop when another use is desired on the ground floor.

For skilled nursing communities, where mobility may be more restricted, a smaller outdoor space on grade or on the roof can work. For memory support residents, an outdoor space at grade offers more opportunity to explore in a secured courtyard. For those at lower acuity levels and with greater mobility, multiple outdoor spaces on multiple floors can provide greater variety and the feeling of destination spaces.

Designing high-rise buildings for senior living communities requires many of the same considerations as any high-rise building would, but understanding the levels and variety of acuity will allow designers to craft spaces most appropriate for aging residents.

Jami Mohlenkamp, above, is a principal at OZ Architecture and the leader of the firm's senior living practice area. He is passionate about creating spaces that elevate the daily living experience, enable aging in place and allow for independence and wellness of residents. He can be reached at jmohlenkamp@ozarch.com

Darrin Jensen, left, is a senior project manager at OZ Architecture, with extensive experience in healthcare and senior living design. He may be reached at djensen@ozarch.com.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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