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LeadingAge magazine November/December 2012

The Power of Place in Design

by Leslie Moldow
Why is it that senior living communities tend to look alike? Whether located in Florida, California or Michigan, the profile is often predictable: a large building with hub-and-spoke plan and an oversized porte-cochere entry situated in a sea of surface parking. Yet prior to their senior years, people generally live in human-scale structures that suit their unique tastes and personalities and that may reflect regional characteristics. While senior living settings must address common expectations for individuality, security, and comfort, it is possible to use unique design elements that use the “power of place” to make locations stand apart and enhance individuals’ experiences.

Quality of Experience

As the upcoming 77 million baby boomers age, the demand for senior living environments that reflect the discriminating tastes of this active, engaged generation, which has expectations far different from their Depression-era parents, is on the rise. Throughout society, aspects of daily life are moving toward increased personalization—of the media, our music, and soon, our medication. It stands to reason that individuals also expect their living environments to be tailor-made.

Creating unique communities is a nationwide trend. More residents are rejecting homogeneous places in favor of more interesting identities. Cities across the country are adopting strategies to create a sense of place in order to keep residents, draw new ones, and, for many, attract visitors.

When communities celebrate a special character, residents feel more comfortable and at home. In senior living environments, the same concept of power of place can be tapped to make both current and prospective residents feel more themselves and connected to their surroundings.

Recognizing the Power of Place

Defining the power of place can be difficult, although you know it when you experience it. Most people can recall a remarkable place that evoked a sense of well-being, or a memorable environment where the character still transmits a strong identity. For example, while both The Plaza Hotel in New York and The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite provide the same essential service—hospitality—and provide that service at a high standard, the experience of staying at each is different given design elements that reflect their unique settings.

In all cases, the feeling of a special place is not individualistic; most people generally have the same response to the quality. Christopher Alexander, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California-Berkeley, refers to this essence as “the quality without a name.” This essence is created through desirable characteristics that consistently create powerful places.

Characteristics of “Powerful Places”

Relationship to surroundings: Powerful places are knit together with the surrounding environment in a way that makes the ecosystem more whole. The materials used may blend with natural wood and stone from the area, existing trees may be saved or revitalized, or water elements may become the focus of a development. NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, MA (part of Hebrew SeniorLife), carefully established a contemporary design vocabulary where the distinction between interior and exterior is blurred. For example, natural bluestone can be found as a design element both indoors and outdoors, and naturally occurring colors and patterns reinforce connections to the outdoors.

LeadingAge e-mag Nov-Dec12 PowerOfPlace HSL 335w
Chris Cooper

The distinction between the indoors and the outdoors is blurred at NewBridge on the Charles, reinforcing the relationship to the campus' setting along the Charles River. For example, natural bluestone can be found as a design element both indoors and outdoors.

Authenticity: To be considered authentic, places need to be tied to the continuity of the communities in which they are sited in a meaningful, significant manner, be it through patterns of design, cultural infrastructure and events, or honest historical representation.

Timelessness: Powerful places are timeless and not built to resemble the fad of the moment or a style from the past. This also extends to communities with buildings dating from a century ago. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the environment, the context, the flexibility of structure, and use of materials so that a place will work well and feel right for a long time. The longer it evolves, the more timeless a quality it possesses.

Specific use: Powerful places are generally designed to suit a particular use. If a place is designed to be a space for all things, it loses its identity. The typical multi-purpose room designed to function as a theater, a chapel, an art room, or a classroom is not comfortable for anything; it cannot do its job for any of those things well. This is not to say that a space should not serve more than one purpose; but rather, it should be designed for one function though it also might be used for something else. In this way, the room has a character and a meaning that matters to the users.

Scale: Powerful places have a sense of scale in which people feel accommodated and with proportions that feel right. Scale is important at all levels of development, be it the exterior of the building, the shaping of rooms, or the selection of the furnishings.

Security: Powerful places feel secure, in the way a hug feels secure. In this day and age, it is natural to think about security in terms of walls and gates, although it really has to do with being able to observe the surrounding area by looking out of a window, having a sense of who is about and what they are doing. It has to do with orienting oneself to the environment, knowing where one is at all times—with cues that are subtle yet helpful.

LeadingAge e-mag Nov-Dec12 PowerOfPlace StJohns 226w
Chris Barrett

St. John's On The Lake: The ground floor of St. John's On The Lake in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was designed as a series of environments open to the general public, allowing for a mix of uses that engages the community while enhancing quality of life for residents and staff.

Sense of community: Powerful places encourage social interaction. Well-designed spaces have the ability to bring people together by leveraging an understanding of how people tend to behave. Victor Regnier introduced the concept of the “100% corner”— the place where everyone wants to be. It is a place where people will meet informally, and by so doing, reinforce the sense of community. The prime attribute of a 100% corner is that it is where the action is. Is there a view of the entry from the window? Is it a place people pass on their way to the dining room? Does it have informal activities occurring that allow for a casual drop in? Is it open to other spaces? If a place has these features, it is generally where people will gather. For example, locating mailboxes—a place where people come once a day—near a drop-in place is a favorable design element.

Connection to the Outdoors: Powerful places are not only about the built space. Powerful places are often about the creation of outdoor space.

Buildings that help define courtyards and gardens, that open up to views and outdoor activities and reinforce an indoor-outdoor connection, create a strong sense of place. Transitional zones with bays and trellises create a buffer between the two and improve resident enjoyment. All climate zones appreciate this connection, but particularly in benign climate areas where an outdoor lifestyle can be extended long into the fall/winter season, it is essential to plan and program these spaces.

Design Process

With a sense of the elements that may comprise memorable, unique, and powerful places, it is important to understand the conscious process employed to successfully create these spaces. First and foremost, clients should have high expectations and challenge designers in a dialogue that ensures their desires are heard and that their sense of mission and quality is captured in the spirit of the community plan. This dialogue needs to occur before any design work takes place, within a framework of distinct phases.

Investigatory Phase: Every process should begin with an exploratory phase that includes research to gather the following information:

  • History of the region
  • Context and issues of the neighborhood
  • Annual or celebrated events
  • Local institutions
  • Regional ecology relating to habitats and water
  • Site topography, geology, and flora
  • Climate and micro-climates
  • Local demographic and psychographic trends over several decades
  • Client’s history, mission, and future legacy

Once gathered, all of this information should be explicitly charted and listed in the form of site analysis diagrams, along with issue and opportunity site plans so that everyone on the team is able to share and process the same information.

Project Goals Statement: The issues and discoveries from the investigation phase factor into the next step of the process, the “goals statement.” The articulation of the goals allows a touchstone throughout the project. Goals should be unique to a project, stemming from the information gathered in the first phase. Goals are not the same as criteria for a project. For example, any retirement community would aim to create accessible spaces for seniors. This is not a goal that uniquely describes a project. The results of the project’s goals statement help the entire project team clarify a project’s core values. When tough decisions need to be made, clear goals help determine the appropriate allocation of expenses during value-engineering. The team easily can reach consensus since the values are clear, were outlined early in the process and are not arbitrary.

In a world where so many spaces have to do with movement, travel, and pressures of time, it is important that communities offer a counterpoint—as places to grow, to learn, to feel engaged and connected. Finding the special “power of place” is an important ingredient to the success of any community. For residents, visitors, and staff of senior living communities, design elements play a vital role in maintaining connections to the surrounding community and in finding comfort and support among familiar elements that offset the transition to a new living situation.