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A Shared Vision

June 1, 2011
by David A. Dillard, AIA
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A senior community's design-driven rebirth drives marketability

The Design Challenge: To position an aging Austin, Tex., retirement community to capture the growing independent living market, while enabling best practices in healthcare and memory care-all within a modest budget and without disrupting the lives of residents. The design result was a largely reinvented campus that embraces the latest in socialization and culture change-across a full continuum of care-that can now compete with any in the market area.

Facility: GreenRidge at Buckner Villas, Austin, Texas

Owner/Operator: Buckner Retirement Services, Inc.

Architect: D2 Architecture LLC

Interior Designer: Barbara Vessels & Associates

Contractor: SpawGlass Construction Corp.

Number/Type of Housing Units (before/after): Independent Living (24/86), Assisted Living (0/20), Memory Support (29/40), Skilled Care (76/76). www.greenridgeliving.com

Total Area (sq.ft): 177,000 (new construction)

Construction Cost/Sq.Ft.: $30,000,000, including site work

The GreenRidge Great Room offers a relaxed communal ambience
Photos: Steve Armstrong Photography

The GreenRidge Great Room offers a relaxed communal ambience

It was the best of campuses. It was the worst of campuses. With apologies to Mr. Dickens, I was indeed struck by the contrasts on our first site visit to GreenRidge at Buckner Villas

-a Buckner Retirement Services community in Austin, Tex. One one hand, the community was wedged between an elementary school, a

Back to the Future-looking neighborhood and a row of commercial warehouses. At least two buildings were unoccupied and literally falling apart. Not to mention the economy, which was also falling apart.

On the brighter side, the community did offer a full and well-run skilled nursing facility, a few townhouses, and it had a fabulous reputation for caregiving and a humanitarian corporate culture-first impressions notwithstanding. And there was a deep commitment by Buckner to do whatever it took to evolve this community into a fully competitive continuing care retirement community.


Unlike many clients, Buckner placed a diaphonic emphasis both on upgrading its independent living (IL) portfolio (more, larger and conspicuously “hospitality”-oriented) and on moving its higher levels of care-particularly memory support-into the modern era with cutting-edge layouts and a household model of delivery. Specific solutions in the latter category can largely be credited to Dr. Pearl Merritt, then-president of Buckner Retirement Services and Charlie Wilson, senior vice president.

The owner's perspective

GreenRidge at Buckner Villas is now a vibrant place for people to live life, discover and learn. Successful repositioning happens when the owner, architect, contractor and interior designer all share the vision. Working with SAGE the last few years has helped Buckner understand how important it is to have everyone focused on the resident. We have to understand our resident so well that we can bring to life something to fulfill their needs and desires.

D2 Architecture and principal, David Dillard, were able to create a physical environment that embodied the vision and brought it to life. This community is exceeding all projections in a bad economic environment. The delight experienced by the residents is truly only understood when you visit the community and talk to them. Typically a Buckner community is all under one roof, but this was not possible in Austin. The independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing are all in separate buildings and this does present an operational challenge. The “green” idea that David came up with ties each area of this campus together with a very nice community feel.

-Charlie Wilson, senior vice president

Buckner Retirement Services, Inc.

Our first step was to virtually camp out on the site. In fact, we literally did that via our Sleepover Project-an immersive and proprietary model we have recently introduced to the senior living design industry. Unless we took time to blend the subtle nuances of this project with the national trends and market forces at this point in time, we might misfire. And when architects misfire, it gets expensive.


In D2's experience, the two big trends in the senior living design industry right now, salient even within this listless economy, are (1) hospitality-like upgrades to independent living and (2) thoughtful, progressive expansions for higher levels of care, integrating some form of culture change.

Regarding independent living, our own experience showed a trend line of units swelling in size over the past 10 years, and then reversing slightly with the economic downturn. Clients couldn't afford to offer less and be competitive. Rather, they had to charge less and offer what felt like a better deal to the consumer.

So for a brand-new set of modestly sized units, including two new duplex villas, most of the “zing” would be showing up in the Commons-indoors and outdoors. That's where the living-on-a-cruise-ship atmosphere would be most visible-to the resident and to the other family members involved in the shopping process. This emphasis on making a great first impression and promoting socialization was our mission at GreenRidge, and remains today one of the most frequent requests from other clients, particularly those with properties they are challenged to reposition.