Vanessa ShumateVanessa Shumate, NCARB, LEED AP, senior project architect, senior environment specialist, American Structurepoint Inc. (Indianapolis)

Vanessa Shumate’s approach to senior living design is guided by a deep commitment to establishing trusted partnerships with not just her clients but the residents they serve. She achieves this via a research-driven approach that digs deep into each community’s specific needs to identify the environments that will best serve both residents and staff.

Key to this process is data. Vanessa, who serves as senior project architect, senior environment specialist, at American Structurepoint Inc. (Indianapolis), applies numerous research methods to gain the information necessary to guide design and push for new solutions.

In the past 18 months alone, she applied these methods to a mature existing community to understand its current state and future needs, collecting data from staff and resident meetings, community board members, and through deep-dive meetings with staff and administration.

This work helped uncover the need for additional residential care apartments and new memory care suites as well as dining and amenity updates. With budget in mind, Shumate developed a plan to renovate a portion of the existing campus for the needed apartments while also creating a new memory care household. And she accomplished it with residents and staff by her side, ensuring they could “tour” the design via virtual reality headsets and provide feedback on the design as it progressed.

Throughout the nine-month process, she created a design that responds to current trends while also supporting what she learned from users along the way.

Here, Shumate shares insight on her career and the industry in a Q+A with Environments for Aging in recognition of being named one of the magazine’s 2022 EFA Design Champions.

Your portfolio of work ranges from 10-bed small-house communities to large CCRCs. What are some driving factors that define your design approach and mission?

Vanessa Shumate: I design spaces that encourage residents to live with dignity, grace, and joy. This includes innovations in support technologies and building infrastructure to promote sustainable independent lifestyles. I want every resident to be able to experience the full breadth of the community and not be limited in any way, so accessibility is a key component to every design.

One of the best ways I have found to improve resident satisfaction is to also increase staff satisfaction. While many elements that lead to staff retention are operational in nature, there are key components that can be designed into the built environment, as well. These components vary in scope from something as small as having easy access to technology to larger features like well-appointed staff break rooms and private facilities.

My approach for every project is driven by data, too. Data works within my projects through multiple means. Evidence-based design resources are key, but I also connect with stakeholders for each project. That can mean deep-dive sessions where I focus on specific areas within a project with key staff members, a community forum for existing residents to review and comment on the design, or virtual reality tours with residents and staff to compile adjustments needed for the design to succeed.

Recently, you helped guide the transformation of a mature community to be ready for the next generation of seniors. Tell us about the research you conducted and what you learned.

This community has been in place and growing since the mid-1970s, so they have a lot of history that needed to be understood to create a successful design solution. I began by meeting with their project team, which includes staff, administration, and residents.

From those meetings, we were able to define the needs of the community and the opportunities for growth on campus. The determination was made to convert three floors of independent living (IL) apartments in a residential tower to assisted living apartments and then to convert the first floor IL units into a memory care household with an addition.

We pursued the project in a two-fold manner. To start, we provided precedent imagery boards for the community residents to review and offer opinions. That helped us discern the feel of the community.

Secondly, we were data mining. We met with clinical, operational, and administrative staff to talk about how they currently operate and what modifications would be necessary to expand their services. They gave us great input on how these renovated areas would function. This led to deep-dive sessions with department staff at every level, covering everything from food service functionality to individual apartment needs.

We then fused the data into a design that we presented to the client in 3-D formats that included renderings, digital walkthroughs, and eventually virtual reality (VR) tours of the impacted areas. Residents and staff engaged in every step of the process so that we could be certain the final design worked in their specific community.

What are some bigger-picture trends you’ve identified in terms of where senior living is going next and how have those informed your project work?

In the Midwest, there’s a push to design smaller. The success of the small-home model during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. Small homes were better able to align themselves with social distancing while still maintaining connection, whereas larger communities were forced to make radical adjustments to their facilities to meet the demands.

Resident mental health jumped to the forefront of our thoughts as we seek to develop designs capable of improving outcomes. When you combine this knowledge with the fact that rural catchment areas may not be able to support large facilities, the small-home model is a flexible option that allows owners/operators to grow over time with much less initial cost.

Each community is different, though. My portfolio ranges in size because each client has a different story to tell, and each market consumes different products. The current consumer of age-restricted housing is different from previous generations. This generation interacts with technology far more than the generations before it, and the generations after will utilize technology even more.

We must be aware of that and push to meet those demands as well as think ahead to tomorrow’s demands. What infrastructure can we place now to support residents 5, 10, and 20 years into the future? How can we, as designers, utilize technology to develop and present our work in the most meaningful way, knowing that sometimes our clients may be in a different state or country?

You’re known for expertly balancing cost-effective environments with the needs of residents and staff. What have you found to be effective in striking that balance?

Establishing a firm budget at the beginning of every project is key. The budget lays the groundwork for the scope and scale of the project moving forward. As a designer, I can assist my clients in establishing the budget based on historical data and recent experience.

From that point on, I consider the budget in creating spatial relationships, material selections, and establishing sustainable goals. Certain initial costs can be offset by selecting sustainable and innovative solutions in the building design. For example, using daylighting to cut lighting loads, designing exterior wall and roof systems to reduce HVAC loads, and designing plumbing systems to reduce water loads are key components I use on every project to offset initial costs.

To stay within budget, I often assess the materials we are using in the building. Materials need to be easily cleaned, resilient to damage, and easily replaced to be successful in this kind of environment. I use a trusted network of material representatives, consultants, and subcontractors to assist me in developing a material palette that meets these goals.

I am also blessed to have many trusted partners in the construction industry whom I work with early in projects. These partners can back-check my information and provide alternates that can benefit the project while maintaining the budget. It is a wholistic approach that allows all parties a chance to bring their best value.

How do you manage user involvement and input, so it doesn’t become unwieldy and instead informs design for the better?

I work to establish the client’s decision-makers right at the start. Cultivating an open relationship with staff and residents means that there will be a lot of data to consume, and I need to know from the beginning who has the final say on the design and how we will address design revisions based on the data collected.

I collect data from residents and staff through various means including questionnaires, interviews, and guided discussions. I then analyze the data for commonalities that can be used to create content. That content is then reviewed first with the decision-makers and then with the staff/residents to confirm outcomes based on their responses to my queries.

This allows me to check any assumptions I make against the intent of the community. It also allows me the opportunity to press for change. If I receive a response and delve deeper into the “why” behind the response, I will often learn if the response is driven by unconscious bias toward maintaining current workflow or if responses are based on evidence and needs.

Clear communication and the establishment of the level of expectation is necessary for each project to be successful. Establishing priorities beyond staying on budget is a simple but steadfast solution for defining my design. If a client can tell me that certain components of the project take precedence over others, I can design with that goal in mind.

Building on that, you have embraced technology as a solution for gathering resident and staff feedback and to keep them engaged in the design process. What are some best practices you can share?

Virtual reality (VR) has its growing pains. There is often the desire to push content quickly so you can review it with your client. The question each team needs to ask, though, is what are the crucial elements that we need to discuss now and what can we work through later?

I hosted a virtual tour for residents and staff on a recent project. Certain design changes came from reviewing the space virtually rather than looking at renderings and drawings. The sooner this process can begin, the less impactful it is to the project budget and schedule long term. If you can break down the project into bite-sized pieces to present sooner, you can mitigate this effect on your schedule and efforts.

To make the best use of the technology, you need to establish expectations at the very beginning. A fully rendered VR model that contains real materials will take time to create, whereas a white-box model can serve the same purpose much earlier in the project. If you treat the model as an evolving organism that grows as you develop the design rather than a stationary object, you can provide your client more investment in the process and help them realize goals as they are created. The process takes time, so design schedules must be developed with the intent to share information in this manner.

Your recent work includes a focus on enhancing a memory care environment, specifically. What are some ways you achieved that, and where you think there’s still room for the industry to improve?

I ask each person on my team the same question on each project. “How would you want to live if you lived here?”  When you look at a design through that perspective, you start looking for the limitations you are creating with it. My goal is to eliminate those limitations.

Far too often we, as an industry, want to segregate our memory-impaired residents from the rest of the population, which limits mental stimulation and cognitive development. New experiences fuel our minds. When we create environments that offer residents the chance to wander, to touch objects, to have active time as well as alone time, we’re creating a safe place where they can thrive instead of exist.

Part of the design process includes delving into the science of memory impairment and the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Research has proven that we can stimulate mental function using the built environment.

Some of the tools I use to create a built environment that addresses these goals are wayfinding, art, interactive features, circadian lighting controls, and many others. The use of color, texture and visibility can all impact a person’s wayfinding skills. Interactive art and design features offer residents the opportunity to experience their environment.

And when additional sensory elements, such as sound and smell, are triggered as well, a place can create recognition for a resident. I know I, personally, am far more likely to remember a landmark when giving or receiving directions than I am a street name.

If we, as designers and providers, can approach these residents the same way we would any other resident—and not isolate and enforce limitations—we will create spaces for adults who still have a lot to give our communities.