Enthusiastic and forward-thinking senior living teams are providing ever more outdoor space for assisted living residents. The reasons are obvious, even if some of the benefits aren’t.

In fact, a British and Chinese study published in 2009 questions the link between sun exposure and vitamin D production in the elderly. Nobody, however, questions the fact that an outdoor space is a marketing asset and, when combined with a patio door, a great way to get pleasant natural light into a resident apartment. Balconies can help assisted living feel much more like independent living, which can only be an enhancement.

But what of the concern that a balcony might pose a fall risk or even a suicide risk for residents with depression or early in a dementia progression? Those concerns are real, and tragic examples of both have happened in the past few months. Not to mention the facility’s risk of doors being left open in the rain and the tricky nature of getting water off the spaces without damaging interiors. An operations team needs to be comfortable with all aspects of the risk.

We recently were engaged for a project in South Florida that was neck-deep in this debate, and we have helped others weigh the options in the past. Certainly, the legal and operational teams at any community need a loud voice in this conversation, but here are a few development-specific ideas we use in our balcony debates.

  1. For the community that sees too much risk in a private balcony, we look at window sizes, location and the orientation of the building to the sun. To the extent that we can maximize sunshine for the resident, we’ll do it. Depending on the project size, it’s even possible to design units that have sun exposure on two sides, which is exponentially more pleasant than even large windows on one side. Also, you can offer patios on the first-floor units and charge a premium rent for this outdoor space. Personally, I like having price-point options in the unit mix, and the differential can be an asset. I call this the “safe route.”
  2. If everyone agrees that balconies are a manageable risk and worth building, then we typically recommend raising the railing six inches from the typical 42 to 48 inches above the deck. This is a low-impact safety precaution. A trade-off exists in that a resident sitting in a balcony chair has a slightly more obstructed view. This negative can be mitigated by running the “pickets” on the railing horizontally instead of vertically, as most railings are. On projects that have the budget and a more modern feel, glass railings are a great solution as well, but they are expensive.
  3. In between these first two options are “Juliet” balconies, which essentially are not balconies at all but rather just the patio door (for light) and a railing mounted to the outside face of the building. In this way, the patio door can be restricted to prevent a resident from going out, but all the natural light and fresh air can be let in. I like to use these features on taller buildings, where it isn’t so obvious that there is no balcony but the railing can add visual interest to a large mass.
  4. Another “hybrid” option that we’ve used with great success is to eliminate private balconies on the apartments but put one or two “public” balconies off of common rooms such as living rooms, lounges, dining rooms or even corridors. These balconies have become social destinations and offer a great way to add visual interest to the architecture. Their public nature makes it easier for staff members to monitor, and the public exposure can be a safety mitigation in and of itself. One or two balconies also are much easier to orient toward a special view or other social spaces, such as a courtyard. As often happens with construction budgets, when costs need to be cut, switching from many private balconies to one or two public ones almost always leads to savings and actually can add to the vibrancy of a community.

I also would add that some governing bodies count balcony space as half or even zero square footage. So if you’re bumping against floor-area ratio limits or total-area limits, then see whether you can pick up some space by trading out social space for balconies.

It’s no crime to avoid balconies, but it’s also not all or nothing.

Michael Hass is a managing partner at Drive DP in Arizona.

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