Value-driven senior living design

What values are driving the design of today’s senior living communities? Convenience, community compatibility, safety, variety, amenities, and ease of wayfinding, to name a few. While identifying such values is easy, designing for such values is no small task.

Linden Wood Village in Gladstone, Missouri, grappled with many decisions in its design, but succeeded in creating a community that offers easy access to services, provides safety and security and fits well with the surrounding neighborhoods. Here are some insights into the community’s successful design strategies.


Convenient access to retail outlets is high on the Must Have list for senior shoppers. It’s helpful to locate near services like banks, dry cleaners and auto service garages. Non-retail institutions, such as churches, libraries and parks, round out the cultural setting for a retirement facility.

Community compatibility

Once a location is chosen, the next step is to bring the city commission and neighbors on board. These groups are understandably concerned about any development that would pose an eyesore or a noise nuisance to the community. Take community leaders on a tour of existing facilities in other metropolitan areas to demonstrate the non-intrusiveness of your facility. Be generous. The city of Gladstone was worried about the cost of increased ambulance service posed by the arrival of many elderly persons. To offset this concern, Scenic Development LLC, Overland Park, Kansas—which has also opened nine other centers like Linden Wood Village in Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri— purchased an ambulance for the city to provide the service free of charge in the city.

Will neighbors object to the aesthetic interruption in the skyline created by two- or three-story institutional buildings? To maintain consistency with the residential character of the neighborhood, Scenic Development’s design team placed only one-story buildings on the neighborhood edges of the village, with two and three-story buildings on the sides adjacent to the Wal-Mart and Hy-Vee grocery stores. It used roof slopes and earth berms to soften the vision impact of the project.


Safety lighting is a requirement for retirement communities, but extra lighting can have also had an undesirable impact on the neighbors, who do not to live next to an over lit commercial site. Part of the solution is to reduce the pole height from the industry standard of 20 feet to 12 feet. LED-based dark sky lighting with low perspective lenses make it impossible to discern the Village when viewed from above. The lighting design for Linden Wood turned out to be so effect that the city of Gladstone enacted site lighting criteria for future projects based on the work done for the Village.


Retirement facilities typically offer three standard levels of care: independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care. It’s a good design practice to connect the three areas to a common core. In this common area residents can engage with each other socially and make use of such spaces as a coffee shop or a fitness center. Consider including spaces for meetings, crafts work and mail delivery, as these are all activities that bring people together.

Residents should never be required to go outside to navigate to other parts of the facility. However, the design should encourage them to walk outdoors in good weather. By placing an atrium as its focal point, the designers of Linden Woods created a visible point of reference that can be easily seen from outside of the building. Anyone who goes out for a stroll can orient themselves by looking back at the atrium. Indoor way-finding is even more important. Design cues as simple as a round window or as grand as an atrium can help the explorer—and also visitors—to navigate with confidence.


Consider also including short-term lodging for persons who are undergoing physical therapy following procedures such as hip or knee replacement. For these persons, strength building devices, such as elliptical machines, stationary cycles, should be available in the fitness center. At Linden Wood Village, the occupational therapy unit has its own space that is connected, by an outdoor walkway as well as by interior corridors, to the fitness center, and so it is easy for staff and residents to move back and forth.

Consider including two or three guest suites similar to a hotel room, complete with bathroom and TV for use by guests or visitors at a nominal cost.  At Linden Wood Village, this has proven to be a selling feature for residents when considering a move.

If you are including a spa, make sure it offers a look and feel that is similar to commercial spas. It should include soft illumination, a fireplace, hot tub, shower and makeup facilities. Complete the picture with a large-screen wall mounted TV monitor and a sound system that plays soft music.

A coffee shop is most welcoming when it is conveniently located and has no doors. It should provide both soft and hard seating, sectional seating, and small tables. To keep corridors free of obstruction, design holding spaces for walkers or wheelchairs—niches just outside the coffee shop or dining room. Thus, when residents prefer to enter without the devices, they have a place to park them.

Food quality or variety is usually the first thing that residents will grumble about. Novelty and surprise are psychological boosts that help to make meal times more fun and interesting. Every day the chef at Linden Wood brings a different treat. It might be cookies or fresh fruit. There is always plenty of coffee, and the dining room includes a small refrigerator under the counter with treats and soft drinks, ice served in cups. Residents may also enjoy performing helpful functions such as picking up dishes or setting out dessert plates.

Front porches have consistently proven to be prized by residents, who love to personalize and decorate these entry ways with memorabilia. A mailbox can serve as an identity marker for the porch, although some centers prefer to use a mail room in the commons area, which functions as a social gathering place.

Residents want their home to be attractive and convenient for visitors—especially their grandchildren. Intergenerational design means providing spaces where residents can do more with their grandchildren than just sit and watch TV. At Linden Wood Village, it is common to see grandchildren enjoying a walk or a picnic with their loved ones within the well landscaped grounds of the village.


Residents should be encouraged to explore the facility at their own pace, but they appreciate tactful aids to help them stay oriented when away from their rooms. Niches in corridors are a non-intrusive aid to way finding for the residents. In the space of three or four square feet with down lighting from above, a painting or sculpture that is tied to the history or natural setting of the locality can serve as a familiar landmark. This spares residents from the embarrassment of having to ask staff for directions. To reinforce the residents’ sense of place, it’s helpful to choose art that tells a story. For example, at the Ames, Iowa facility designed by Scenic Development, students and faculty from the art department of Iowa State University helped to select the interior art pieces.

Space, the ultimate decider

Even when all the design considerations described above have been implemented, spaciousness remains as the key factor for people shopping for a retirement community. In addition to large windows and accessible bathrooms, units must have plenty of storage space, such as cabinets and walk-in closets.

Scenic Development has used this formula in all its retirement community designs. From the evidence of the strong buy-in of advanced bookings, the firm is providing a forward-looking model for other development ventures in welcoming the members of the Baby Boom generation to a comfortable and productive chapter in their lives.

Ron Reid, AIA, is President of Ron Reid Associates, Architects, Liberty, Missouri. He can be reached at or 816.792.3800.





Topics: Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) , Articles , Design , Rehabilitation , Resident Care