Johnny Dagher

(Image credit: Baker Barrios Architects)

The forecasted growing senior population has started, and few property sectors stand to benefit more than senior living.

How can architects, designers, and developers meet the demands and desires of this still-active demographic today without losing those residents as they transition from independent living to assisted living in the next decade?

The answer lies in a hybrid design approach, which creates a community to meet the needs of today’s seniors, while also pre-planning for changes, such as the addition of exam rooms and increased building code requirements, as senior living communities transition to serve different populations.

Rise in active adult communities

In recent years, the U.S. has seen a steady increase in age-restricted, amenity-rich active adult senior living communities in locations that are as diverse as the baby boomer generation itself.

By design, these active adult communities bear little resemblance to previous senior living models, catering to older adults who move there because they want to, not because they need to. Then, as residents require more care, they might transition into independent living and, eventually, assisted living, either in the same development or nearby.

Hybrid designs give architects, designers, and developers more control over what type of housing is provided, and when, based on market demand.

Two common hybrid strategies stand out. In one, a community functions as independent living but has the required infrastructure to transition into assisted living in the future.

Another option is a master-planned model that allows for the eventual addition of assisted living or memory care components to an existing campus.

Here’s a look at both models and some of the necessary planning and design considerations.

Strategy 1: Independent living conversion to assisted living

As senior living project teams know, the building requirements for an independent living community are quite different than the specifications, including construction methods and building systems, for a licensed assisted living community. This makes it cost-prohibitive to convert an independent living community into assisted living.

Using a hybrid strategy, an independent living community is designed with the infrastructure to convert to assisted living down the road. This planning can include elements such as firewalls, smoke compartments, dedicated fresh air into resident units, and appropriately sized generators.

Additionally, assisted living communities house medical exam rooms, commercial laundry rooms, nurses’ stations, and additional amenities that aren’t needed for an independent living community but are required for assisted living licensing or operations.

Developers can future proof their properties by investing in an appropriately sized electrical service and installing electrical and plumbing rough-ins in rooms and spaces that can initially be used for storage but later converted to other uses for assisted living.

Resident unit composition is also a consideration when designing for a future transition from independent living to assisted living. Although independent living neighborhoods typically offer larger residences, factoring in more studio and one-bedroom units will reduce the time and cost of a conversion to assisted living.

Strategy 2: Master-planned design

Taking a longer-term, broader view of a community is another hybrid strategy developers can use to transition a property from independent living to assisted living.

Using a phased timeline, a community can start with the development of the independent living portion and then add services, such as assisted living and memory care. This approach allows a community to respond to market demand, rather than start with all service levels that may remain vacant until the demand is there.

In this approach, a second phase of development can include a new building, or an addition to the existing building. This new structure can be built with the needed features and amenities for assisted living (such as those noted previously, including stricter code standards and space for medical care), and can serve the independent living units needed today but will be turn-key for adjusting to a future assisted living model.

This future-facing strategy offers many benefits to developers, investors, and project stakeholders including a potentially easier path to financing.

Additionally, because independent living buildings are less expensive to build and require less staff, waiting to construct the portion of the development that would qualify for assisted living licensure could put developers in a better position with more favorable construction costs, interest rates, and labor availability.

Planning for future senior living needs

Of course, adding on to a senior living community isn’t a novel concept. But what is different in these types of projects is the strategy—that is, planning future phases from day one in anticipation of future demand.

While the senior living sector has faced a few patches of choppy water coming out of the pandemic, most seasoned developers don’t foresee a need to trim their sails, at least not yet.

Instead, they are partnering with forward-thinking architects to design flexible and more marketable residential communities that will position them to meet the market’s growing need for years to come.

Johnny Dagher is principal of Baker Barrios Architects, Tampa, Fla., and be reached at