Adaptive use projects are all the rage these days, with a wide variety of structures such as factories and underutilized Class B office buildings being converted to new uses such as multi-family residential and retail. While this appears to be a very recent trend, when it comes to senior housing, this is actually a very old-school trend, and not necessarily a good one.
For decades, facilities such as small, underperforming hospitals have been converted to affordable senior housing units and nursing homes. However, rather than acting as catalysts for revitalization of interesting historic properties, these conversions have all too often been exercises in “downcycling,” that is to say, converting to a lower use with a minimal investment of resources.
Rather than looking to invest a minimal effort in revitalizing a property, if one looks at the broader context of a community and the fact that some of these older properties have a number of attractive features, a more compelling case can be made for the thoughtful adaptive use of a wide variety of underutilized structures. Newer models of senior housing are pointing towards a more urban, connected, pedestrian-friendly environment. It is frequently within an urban, connected, pedestrian environment that underutilized structures awaiting a new purpose can be found.
So, how can one produce quality senior housing through a strategy of adaptive use? By focusing on quality and connectivity. Rather than slapping yet another coat of paint on a series of tired and outdated renovations, consider bringing a structure back to its former glory, taking advantage of historic features, reopening old openings and restoring a sense of purpose and place to older structures. Older structures were frequently built with a sense of quality, style and detail that is difficult to replicate these days – why not take advantage of these attributes to create a fuller, better sense of place?
These sorts of renovations can also help serve as catalysts to revitalize a neighborhood by taking advantage of the inherent, if currently underutilized, assets of an existing urban community. Furthermore, it is important to develop ways to tie the project into the surrounding neighborhood, integrating both the building and the residents into the community. If residents can walk or take public transit to destinations, they dramatically reduce their reliance on driving themselves – providing an ongoing stream of customers, volunteers and citizens to support a diverse and thriving community.
Kreider Commons in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is such a building. Originally a manufacturing facility for Oxford tie shoes, the ones worn by Boy and Girl Scouts, it is now becoming an affordable senior living apartment building. Within walking distance to the center of town and even closer to the neighborhood elementary school, convenience store and town park, the six-story brick Kreider Commons structure can be seen above the predominantly two-story homes in the town of 25,000 residents.
The existing timber structure has high floor to floor heights and windows that reach the ceiling edge offering scenic views and plentiful sunlight, but what makes this adaptive use a senior living facility? Two elevators have been installed even though the unit count is just 60 total, but with the high ceilings comes lots of stairs which can be prohibitive to an elderly population. The elevators are also placed at far ends of the building making it easier to carry groceries from the convenience store nearby. Out of the 60 units, 10 are handicap accessible and all of the units have either one or two bedrooms. All of the units have 36-inch doors for walker access, grab bars in the tub area and adjacent to the toilet, and all hallways are a minimum of 36 inches clear.
Outside of the units there are a variety of shared spaces for the residents. A grandchild playroom is located adjacent to the lobby as is the community warming kitchen. Each of the upper floors is equipped with either a library, a computer room with free internet access or an arts and crafts room. A small fitness center is also provided – small because the Lebanon Family YMCA is within a few blocks of the building.
By creating a demonstrably superior environment with access to a more extensive variety of nearby amenities than more traditional development sites, one can create a more desirable, more compelling project that will appeal to a broad swath of today’s seniors.
Learn more by watching our recent webinar, “Designing the Future of Senior Housing: The Market, Emerging Trends and New Models,” led by our own Mark Heckman and Faith Nevins.