Our Aging With Freedom blog shares our search for the best in senior living so you can avoid the rest. One of the joys of this work is finding the leaders that “get it right.”
Leadership isn’t determined by size. Big often just means average. The law of regression to the mean.
Senior Living Landscape Design: Getting Senior Living Design Right
In our world, leadership is defined by those who understand the customer and the future. Leaders deliver innovation and solutions that customers need, want, and for which they are willing to pay. Customers can’t always articulate what they want. But they are very clear about what their problems and what they don’t like. Leaders listen, learn, and solve for the future.
Creating places that work
We found a team of leaders in design. Brad Smith Associates Inc. Planning & Design is an Ocala, Florida Landscape Architecture firm with a national practice and expertise in senior living and healthcare.
The lead partners are Brad Smith, ASLA, and Scott Girard. Brad is grounded in the practical work of design and execution but inspired by the big picture “what ifs” that underpin great design. Scott is BSA’s Director of Imaginality™ and former Disney Imagineer and Director of Horticulture for Walt Disney World. Together they bring both disciplined process and design excellence.
“We emphasize PLACE-creation™ in the built environment that fully realizes the users’ needs for social and natural connections,” explains Brad. “We’re social creatures. We long for spaces that support togetherness. Senior living shouldn’t be boring boxes of soul-killing drudgery. The best projects have a unifying design theme that sparks our favorite memories and rekindles fervent hopes. Communities should bring us together and not isolate us.”
“The best way to deliver that vision is as part of unified project team building to a common vision,” according to Scott. “We’ve got experience integrating across the silos of responsibility to make sure the owner and the end customer both get the best design for their money.”
Operating Costs overwhelm savings in Design and Installation
“And we address operating costs, not just the design and construction budget. The design has to work after we hand it over,” according to Brad. In fact, BSA employs a proprietary software tool created by Scott, LandEconics, to evaluate alternative landscape designs for ongoing maintenance costs.
“High-cost maintenance landscapes run two risks, both bad for future community residents. Either the maintenance costs unnecessarily inflate monthly resident fees over time, or communities can’t afford proper maintenance and the property falls into disrepair. Both discourage sales and increase churn. Worse, the disrepair and neglect fuel the downward market spiral as potential residents see the bedraggled landscape and infer more serious neglect of residents. Either way, the time to avoid these mistakes is when planning the project, not in the annual operating budget. The costs are baked into the design,” explains Scott.
New Urbanism inspiration
The BSA team cited New Urbanism inspirations and backed that up with personal experience. Scott was an early resident of Disney’s new urbanist planned community, Celebration, Florida. Celebration is known for recreating the small-town community feel. Celebration offers beach cottages complete with front porches and prominent public structures by famous designers like Robert. A.M. Stern and Michael Graves and more. It was early proof of the ability of designers to create thriving neighborhoods that work as social units in new urban settings.
The growing use of themed or niche senior living communities reflects the New Urbanist lessons and trends. Yes, retirement communities or senior living communities must succeed financially, just as any real estate investment. Therefore, they must sell well. But architecture is only part of the promise. A community that fails to create a cohesive, social community fails. No one wants to move someplace for social support and togetherness only to be more isolated and lonely. A design must encourage social connections and reflect management’s priority to build a community, not just a building.
We will review a few developments recommended by BSA Planning and Design. Always like to see great examples. We’ll let you know and return for some commentary by the designers.
Which costs more?
We asked which is more expensive, good design or bad design? Brad laughed. “Of course, bad design. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, year after year. Long after the crime. Developers lose potential sales and income to an inconsistent message. Operators pile on inefficiencies and excess operating costs. Often unknowingly. The market studies said it should all work. But it doesn’t. Why? Bad design is often the culprit. Customers stay away in droves or residents leave in frustration of unrealized hopes. You must invest upfront in getting the design process and the design product right. Get it wrong and you pay. And pay. And pay. Our job is to facilitate the process to get the design right for that local market.”
Designers “Get it”
Brad and Scott demonstrate both real-world insight and ambitious vision. They call it Imaginality™, creativity+practicality. We can tell it is an animating principle and not just marketing-speak.
Site planning and landscape design shouldn’t be the leftovers in a design or construction budget. Common mistakes are costly in many ways. Bad design is inherently expensive. Great designers are worth the investment. We wish more communities prioritized great design. But lifeless corridors and commercial coldness are more the norm. It’s why we shout for joy to find the exceptional leader.
The best communities are products of leaders that understand the senior living resident. The leaders have been there and done that. They keep development partners from making expensive mistakes. They build functioning communities not just buildings and grounds to specifications. They fully realize the dreams of planned residents. They evoke our highest hopes where prospective residents can say, “I can see myself being happy living here.” And then help make that vision come true.
Brad Smith’s passion for great design is contagious. We’ll share more on community examples after we tour. These leaders, “Get it.”