DESIGN 2011 Merit Winner: Merrill Gardens at The University, Seattle, Washington

Brian Runberg, AIA, Principal • Runberg Architecture Group PLLC

Congratulations to all Citation of Merit winners!

The evolution of Merrill Gardens at The University is a tale of two generations. Set in the established Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle, the 2.5-acre building site, comprising both seniors housing and market-rate apartments, is but a few blocks from the University of Washington’s main campus. With the intermingling of such markedly different community residents—both student and aging citizen—already taking place, bridging the generational divide was an unavoidable certainty for this project.

“As the ownership and developers started putting the project together, more and more parcels became available,” says Brian Runberg. “The program grew and was redefined a number of times to the point where there were nearly an equal amount of market-rate apartments as there were senior housing units.”

A true multigenerational complex, Merrill Gardens at The University combines 123 independent and assisted living units with 103 market-rate apartments, which are inhabited by a significant number of University of Washington students. In addition, the ground level houses 24,000 sq. ft. devoted to restaurants and specialty retail shops. While it may seem like a bold, perhaps adventurous mixture of occupants, Runberg says consolidating these two ends of the aging spectrum is actually quite complementary. “Knowing how students socialize and live, they can often feel equally as isolated as seniors do,” he says. “So one half of this project has people in their first independent type of living experience. And on the other side, literally across the courtyard, has senior citizens who are in their more reflective sunset years.”

Photo courtesy of Merrill Gardens

The courtyard itself serves as a versatile space—a “mixing chamber,” as Runberg’s team calls it—for both generations to engage one another. Residents play bocce, hold outdoor movie nights, and even invite the University of Washington band to play music. Inside the complex, a wine bar serves coffee in the morning and holds happy hour in the late afternoon, which graduate students and seniors enjoy with one another. Students also purchase meal plans through Merrill Gardens to use in the dining area, which is more like a restaurant with full-scale menus. “They even have these Nintendo Wii bowling contests. They’re very competitive about it and the seniors are more competitive than the students,” Runberg says lightheartedly.

While it is easy for student and senior to regularly interact, the layout of Merrill Gardens at The University thoughtfully separates all occupants into specific locations. For instance, the retail shops and apartments line the active, commercialized main street. Because the western half of the block faces a quiet residentially zoned property, it made sense to place “the more passive” seniors housing units there, Runberg says. Everyone is then linked one way or another by the central courtyard, which is critical to the paradigm shift inherent to this multigenerational campus.

“Eighty is the new 70,” Runberg says. “Seniors are living longer not just based on modern medicine but on how people are being more active. I think living in the right environment helps lend to that.” And for the students? Well, being exposed to their elders must certainly be valuable. Access to that kind of wisdom can’t be found in any classroom.

Topics: Design