2019 Design Champion: Vassar Byrd, CEO, Rose Villa Senior Living (Portland, Ore.)

Working as an economist and consultant, Vassar Byrd became a certified long-term care ombudsman for the state of Oregon in 1995 and was assigned to a nursing home “that had terrible problems.” She eventually uncovered that leaders were selling and using narcotics prescribed to residents and helped to have their licenses revoked. The experience angered her but also opened her eyes to the possibilities that exist to improve seniors’ lives.

Fast forward to 2006, and Byrd made an even deeper commitment to senior living by taking the helm as CEO of Rose Villa Senior Living in Portland, Ore. When she first arrived, the cottage community was old and rundown as well as financially burdened. But despite the dire conditions, she found spirited residents who loved their way of life there. So, Byrd set out to improve upon it, starting with Phase 1 of a major repositioning that demolished a significant part of the campus to introduce pocket neighborhoods with common gardens, connected walking paths, and a cool town center complete with loft apartments.

Described as “determined, visionary, fearless,” Byrd continues her personal mission to support adults in their journey to live the lives of their choosing. Most recently, she completed Phase 2 of that project in June, introducing more pocket neighborhoods, Garden Grove, as well as the Pacific Northwest’s first zero-energy senior living community, The Oaks. Here, she shares more about what drives her and what’s next.

Environments for Aging: What has this years-long journey to reinvent the Rose Villa campus meant to you, and why was it so important to pursue?

 Vassar Byrd: The senior living services space has become robust, diverse, and extremely competitive even just over the past 5-7 years. It’s completely unlike the generation before. Without a clear vision of the future—including what unique strengths and opportunities your specific community offers—it’s unlikely a single site (or poorly run multisite) will survive. Rose Villa is very different from any of the other choices in the Portland area. Nowhere else are there so many options to live in a cottage with a front door and a back door and all the freedom that entails. That attracts a specific type of person, who tends to be very independent as well as understanding of the interdependence of a great neighborhood. This model is important to grow and strengthen.

Tell us about Phase 2 and what you hoped to achieve though this piece of the project.

We wanted to created even more choices for how to live your life at Rose Villa. Our pocket neighborhood cottages are extremely popular. We also heard a desire for more modern architecture, which we were able to satisfy in the Garden Grove neighborhood, as well as offer a stunning view into our large community garden and the river below. And, of course, The Oaks is a one-of-a-kind neighborhood in a senior living community where our residents can really live their values. Growing the size of our community a little bit also makes financing our next phase more feasible.

How does The Oaks help residents live their values?

I have found that elders in our area really care about global conservation and preservation of habitat. They have the benefit of perspective, which gives them a much better grasp of consequences. A lifetime of achievement and experience also tells them that each choice they make does make a difference. I believe this is true of elders in general, and it is particularly true of elders in the Pacific Northwest. I knew that a zero-energy neighborhood would be compelling; I just wasn’t positive they would pay for it. I cannot say that I am surprised, but I am deeply appreciative of the leadership role these residents have taken. They are well aware that their example helps to pave the way to change how we build buildings in the future.

How are you fighting to reinvent this industry?

Every study shows that when you ask an older person’s family what’s the most important thing to them about their loved one’s living environment and life, the family members overwhelmingly say “safety.” When you ask the elder, they say “autonomy.” Being able to make choices, to create your own path, is the most precious aspect of an adult life. My goal is to ensure that ability to choose is not compromised. I fiercely believe that anyone who is tough enough to make it to their 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond is fully capable of continuing to drive their own bus. That means take risks, enjoy life, make friends, fail, get messy, laugh so hard you can’t stand up—the whole thing. What a community can do is support those choices, make sure those choices are informed, and assist elders to create their own, unique futures, regardless of healthcare “status.”

What’s next for Rose Villa?

Well, we have a whole bunch of awesome new Rose Villa residents moving in, which is deeply gratifying. And our newer residents connect strongly with our existing residents, regardless of age or other demographic details, because everyone has chosen Rose Villa for similar reasons. As a result, our community continues to get stronger in its heterogeneous, quirky, unique way. We’re now working, designing, and building a next-generation 24-hour-care licensed neighborhood, which will have a child development center on site as well as a cool grey water reuse system (if we can afford it). We want to keep pushing the limits, and we’re pretty sure we can do anything we set our minds to.

What does innovation mean to you, and how can the senior living design industry do a better job of embracing it?

Innovation means stepping outside of senior living as much as you can when you think of how life is lived. You need great design to invisibly support people as they age, but the main word there is “support.” Those considerations should not define or control the design. Older people are just people, right? Too much focus on age—particularly as something that separates rather than unites us—leads to poor design, an us-versus-them mindset, and, frankly, a joyless life. You design for the personality of your neighborhood first, and then add the supports for the people who live there underneath.

To read Q+As with all of the 2019 Design Champions, visit efamagazine.com/trends/reaching-for-the-stars-efas-2019-design-champions/.