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Highways or hallways

March 23, 2011
by Carol Reitter Elia, ASID, LEED-AP
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Designing effective corridors

Webster's Dictionary defines a highway as a “main direct road.” So in healthcare for seniors, the corridors that link resident apartments to activity rooms, dining areas, and wellness offices, could then be considered the “highways” of the communities. And not only do residents, guests, and family members use these thoroughfares, but more importantly, staff use these arteries 24/7. Although many of the public spaces in our communities take varying degrees of abuse, hallways have an amazing tendency to wear out quickly and “ugly out” even sooner if the initial design does not address durability, function, and aesthetics from the onset of a project.

Over the past five years, our firm-CR Design-has redesigned more than a million square feet of hallways from independent living to skilled nursing environments and we have encountered many challenges along the way. Some stem from the unchanging architecture of the building, and the client calls us in for strictly a cosmetic fix. Other challenges are budgetary or driven by the fact that a newer addition might have caused the existing structure to require an upgrade. Renovations in corridors are often just that-a requirement-not just a preference. The redesign of these corridors must address innovative design upgrades, durability, product life span, cost, and wayfinding techniques. In addition, lighting, handrails, flooring, and acoustics are just some of the details that play a major role in the overall result of the corridor design.


First, we must address just who is using these internal highways. The answer quite simply is everyone associated with the 24/7 activities of the community. And having an awareness of the limitations of the resident prior to planning is the key to creating a good design. The senior living population varies, and so do the residents' physical limitations. Some of these physical limitations include loss of ordinary mobility, deteriorating eyesight, loss of grip strength, and hearing impairments. Many residents also suffer from diagnosed or even “undiagnosed” dementia or memory loss. By designing for all of these limitations we can provide a supportive corridor that is safe, durable, and inviting.


Take it from any physician: The best exercise is still considered walking. Foreboding corridors can often discourage a resident from leaving his or her room. Certain medications, obesity, cardiovascular deconditioning, and the limited range of motion associated with an aging body can cause loss of mobility. Changes in vision also contribute to this condition. By creating visual contrast between the upper and lower walls, the floor and the base, the handrail and the wall on which it is fastened, we can provide residents with more visual cues.

First and foremost it should be our goal in the redesign of a senior living corridor to create a residential model, one with the familiarity of home that will encourage independence.

Greg Benson Photography

Sometimes residents require encouragement to leave their rooms and interact within the community. They may avoid it altogether and stay in their rooms longer rather than join in with activities or meals. First and foremost it should be our goal in the redesign of a senior living corridor to create a residential model, one with the familiarity of home that will encourage independence. All finishes and furnishings throughout the design process should be selected with this in mind.

Just as the Department of Transportation ensures that our roads are safe for drivers, designers must pay particular attention to the durability of “roads” within senior environments by creating safe and comfortable passageways for the residents.


Long hallways are sometimes unavoidable when it comes to the traditional corridor. Certainly trends in aging design are often focused on households, but what if the client cannot afford a total renovation or if the buildings just cannot handle that much physical renovation? Often, designers are asked to make upgrades to a space without being given license to renovate the architecture of the space. Creativity plays a major role in how we solve the issue of the long, tiring path.

Signage and visual cuing are also part of good corridor design. Location of signage should be in keeping with the ADA regulations as they work for universal design. But signage alone cannot be the answer for visual cuing to our residents.

Greg Benson Photography

Overall, try to think more than just color and signage for creating visual cuing. Locating a particularly interesting piece of artwork can be a reminder of which hall one resides, or where the dining room is located. Making color changes at certain key areas in the hall can provide a natural wayfinding tool as well as add visual interest. “Rest stops” can be incorporated to help with the inevitable length of corridors. If the architecture permits, the addition of window seats can be an attractive and functional way to bring natural light into halls and add a spot for a tired traveler to relax.


Tom Crane Photography