In the age of COVID-19, senior living designers have been hard at work to figure out what a “new normal” might look like within the industry. Although an array of ideas have been proposed, speakers at September’s Ziegler Finance + Strategy Virtual Conference agreed on three key elements that future developments, expansions and renovations are likely to include: a focus on outdoor spaces, a reimagining of ventilation systems and a return to greater compartmentalization.

What was once an area famous for cost-cutting, outdoor spaces are becoming as relevant, well-designed and used in the post-pandemic era as indoor ones, noted Alejandro Giraldo, associate principal and senior director at THW Design.

“Outdoor spaces are now a key component of developments,” Giraldo said.

Tim Mueller, president of SFCS, added that several projects his firm has been working on lately have been focused on reconfiguring a community’s storm retention areas into walking trails and exercise areas for residents, to help create a sense of community — and use those open spaces in a new way.

Mueller also pointed to ongoing research looking at mechanical systems and how they might be able to help mitigate the virus. 

“The industry is really thinking through how to best manage airflow,” he said. “Bipolar ionization and dry hydrogen peroxide systems designed to minimize the airborne infectious capabilities of the space is really happening.”

Firms also are focused on how to reduce the amount of recycled air being circulated through senior living communities and introduce more external air, noted David Dillard, associate principal and senior living practice leader at HKS.

“Codes are going to change on all these things in the near future, and communities are going to have to make adjustments,” Dillard noted. He added that the firm also is having conversations with all of its clients about airflow and ways to accentuate the disappearance of particles as opposed to pulling them back up through space, as is typically done.

Finally, flexibility in design will be key, and that means more compartmentalization, Dillard said. For example “big, dumb dining rooms” are being swapped out for plans that allow for more separation between residents. Within skilled nursing and assisted living, private rooms also are likely to become mandatory in the not-to-distant future, he added. 

These efforts to reimagine the future of senior living will be critically important moving forward, as a way to prove the industry’s value, the speakers said. 

“This has been a tragic experience for the world, but it also demands that we make this about reinvention and innovation and transformation moving forward, and address some of these challenges that we’ve been putting off for years,” Mueller said.

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