Feature Article - January 2017
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Coming of Age

Shifting Trends in Design & Programming for Active Older Adults

By Rick Dandes


That is the key to the big issues facing programmers and designers—switching from passive to active aging centers, while at the same time taking a complete wellness approach. "It's no longer just about socializing," Stein said. "As a firm, we design these facilities for mind, body and soul. You develop your mind. Then you develop your body through physical activity and your soul through interaction with your peers. Your quality of life is improved through socialization.

"No question," Stein continued, "the program needs of active agers has changed how we design a building. In the past, the centers we developed had absolutely no space dedicated to physical, active activities. Now we are incorporating fitness space, gyms and warm-water pools. If the recreation space is essentially a standalone active aging center, we are looking at regular fitness zones that take into consideration people's accessibility."

For the team at Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, of Austin, Texas, their transformative designs began with a major, challenging project completed in 2010, said Stephen Springs, a senior principal with the firm. "It is a $23 million facility called The Summit, in Grand Prairie, Texas. Financed by a sales tax bond, it took the concept of senior centers to a whole other level," he explained. "In fact, this was when we stopped calling these facilities senior centers, and began referring to them as recreation centers for adults."

The Summit was a milestone project, not only for Brinkley Sargent Wiginton, but also in the recreation facility market for active agers. "When we began our preliminary research and design sketches, we had no reference, nothing to go on in the public sector," he said. So, as a model, Springs looked at successful facilities in the private sector, such as Robson Ranch, an adult active luxury community in Denton, Texas.

"We conceived of a multigenerational facility within the senior population, which had not been thought of in that way before," Springs said. "We realized there were really two distinct generations: the active ager and the traditional senior veteran."

Once Springs had that epiphany—that his firm had to build a center for both traditional seniors and the boomer generation—"it drove our design," he said.

Each generation would have its own amenities, its own attractions—their own turf, in a sense. But it would all be under one roof, and it all had to work together.

Designing for Innovation

Physically, The Summit does not have wings. "It is a linear building," Springs said, describing the layout. "To one side of the central entry we have the passive side. The other side, the active side. This design made it easy for users to know where to go for one or another type of activity. The social spaces are in between, in the middle, the lounge, the lobby."

Each generation of "agers" has their own space at The Summit, Springs said. But there is also a common area in between that serves both. It allows for free-flow interaction, where people could do one side one day or another side another day. "The spaces are completely available for clients to flow either way without having to sign in," he noted. "We think this created the best of both worlds for whatever people wanted to do."

The feedback on this arrangement has been quite instructive. What users liked most, Springs said, "is it got them out of their homes and into a social environment, even if they weren't doing a lot of physically active things. At least they weren't at home on their couch. They were doing programs and interacting with others. There is a tremendous benefit to that alone."

An unintended consequence of this setup has been the interaction between the traditional senior and baby boomers. "We're seeing the creations of mother figure, father figure mentor relationships," Springs said. "And that grew out of them all being in the same building. Boomers and seniors bonded. They take classes together. We saw spaces that weren't territorial; it was no longer older seniors here, boomers there. The building broke those boundaries down."

Barker Rinker Seacat has begun developing what they call "life studios." A life studio might be a little bit smaller, dedicated personal fitness space that can accommodate a small group, explained Andy Stein. "You can also program that space for personal training or massages, on-demand fitness, therapy—smaller activities." When it comes to fitness activities, Stein said, "we see active agers as someone who doesn't necessarily want to be in the mix with lots of people, not only for just the intimidation factor, but also sound and noise starts to bother them and they don't want that as part of their space."

For the pools, Stein said, "we are looking at warm-water exercise pools, not just therapy pools. Something that can offer more diverse activities, those that limit wear and tear because they are low-impact. I've seen many facilities do aqua Zumba, aqua aerobics, movement classics, but still incorporating some deep water for people who want to swim the laps and get involved in therapy sessions in deep-water areas."

Gymnasiums are also getting smaller in these facilities. "Active agers don't need a full-length high school basketball court," Stein explained. "Some people will still be playing basketball, but it's rare. We're looking at smaller courts that offer all the same sports, but just not a full-range offering. Pickleball, exercise class … a smaller footprint still allows you to have fitness classes. We're talking multi-use space, but still allowing for traditional activities of a gym. That's a key point: This generation of active agers are busy. They don't want to just play cards or meet in a library or just socialize. A lot of them are still working, consulting, volunteering, so we offer shared co-working spaces and classrooms that incorporate technology and collaborative spaces."