How to renovate and reposition your senior living community

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Dean Maddalena
Dean Maddalena

Despite the grumbling about certain senior living market centers across the country being overbuilt or saturated, I notice a discernible uptick in one specific market area: renovations and repositioning.

This phenomenon is happening at the same time that some older communities find themselves competing against brand new arrivals in their cities and towns that are built to a higher standard of design and amenity than was considered even just a few years ago. Some owners of older communities are deciding to cash out and leave the remodeling and rebranding to newer players, or they are looking to forward-thinking operators. Developers are looking for value properties that can be revitalized by upgrading and rebranding at a fraction of the cost of new construction.

There is no question that even a few years back, communities had a much more institutional appearance and mode of operation. As expectations for seniors housing have risen with the new communities that have opened, the new owners of these older buildings — and the longtime owners who have decided to stick it out — look to get the biggest impact from upgrades for the lowest cost.

When to upgrade, and where to start

The time to plan for an upgrade renovation is not after the other, new, competing communities open; it is when you know they are beginning to build. New communities opening in saturated markets are taking residents away from existing communities, but an existing community has the advantage of established relationships and reputation over its new neighbors.

You cannot just slap new lipstick on the old building, so to speak. Develop a long-range plan to transform the entire community and immediately start setting aside the funds to do so. Create a master plan, including items such as design/brand identity, critical path/priorities, budget, implementation schedule and marketing efforts to excite current residents and the surrounding community.

Investigate the new competing communities; determine the nature of their brand, the amenities they offer and their design direction. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to mold your renovation/repositioning to be unique in your marketplace.

It's not enough to merely match the appeal of your competition; you'll want to surpass their appeal with fresh ideas, better food service and bright environments that will appeal not only to prospective residents but also to their baby boomer children, who are helping them decide where to live. This also is a good time to revisit your care model to see whether you can implement new approaches that will improve the level of service provided to your residents.

Three places to focus

Three primary areas to focus on are lighting, dining and flooring. New furnishings, window treatments, artwork and accessories also must be considered as major elements in the new design.

Replacing recessed or surface-mount fluorescent fixtures with new LED fixtures and supplementing them with decorative lighting brightens a space and makes it feel more homelike.

Providing choices in food service options for residents and families has been a trend in new communities for years and is now a major consideration when renovating or repositioning. We are carving out areas of underutilized space to provide destinations for casual, on-demand service throughout the day. These can be anything from “hospitality bars” offering self-service coffee and snacks to full-service café/bistro amenities serving soups, salads and sandwiches.

Advances in carpet manufacturing techniques and fibers allow us to specify carpet in areas where many older communities now have vinyl composition tile. Carpeting not only helps to create a more homelike aesthetic; it also helps with acoustics, which tend to be an issue in older buildings with gypsum-board ceilings and hard-surface flooring with little to absorb noise and creating a more stress-free environment for residents and staff.

Attracting new residents, short-term and long-term

Because most renovations/repositionings are budgeted and implemented over a two- to three-year period, it is important to design all aspects of the long-range plan up front. Implement the upgrades that will have the largest initial impact (“wow” factor) and will excite current residents and families and start the buzz in the market.

When completed, the design of the whole community will be unified and will properly compete with the new competition and retain residents, and your reputation will draw new residents continually, looking forward.

B. Dean Maddalena, AIA, NCARB, IIDA, ASID, is founder and president of studioSIX5, with locations in San Antonio and Austin, TX.

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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