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As COVID-19 evolved in 2020, design and construction teams faced several challenges, and two in particular: how to create safe spaces and how to manage operations during a global pandemic. These obstacles were especially urgent for the senior living industry.

Navigating the senior housing process—from conception, through completion and to move in—requires a deep understanding of design, construction, finance and operations. Throw a global health crisis in the mix and managing with a holistic view becomes even more necessary for teams and stakeholders to work together toward protecting those who live and work in senior living communities.

As an integrated services provider specializing in senior living, Ryan Companies was able to identify key design-build considerations, along with asset management tools, to help senior housing operators and owners make informed decisions on how to address COVID concerns in their communities. The company commissioned deep, yet rapid, research to uncover challenges, opportunities and cost implications to support decision-making by financial partners and investors in the communities.

Working hand-in-hand with more than 20 industry-leading senior living operators and partners, Ryan identified common design and construction themes through a series of surveys and a focus group, taking special note of which ideas were supported by data or science.

The research showed there were several features of already designed and built communities that met the evolving health standards of the pandemic. For example, granite countertops, large dining spaces, touchless features, self-contained HVAC systems and an abundance of outdoor areas were already incorporated in many existing senior living communities.

The research also brought to light several forward-looking opportunities that focused on resident safety and long-term value. Using the information gathered, the team created a menu of high-impact design and construction options and associated costs for stakeholders to consider. This allowed owners to feel confident making decisions based on real-time cost data and aesthetics. The following are a sampling of themes that emerged, to inform design-build decisions for existing communities and future senior living developments.

Demonstrate the total impact

As adjustments were being considered at the beginning of the pandemic response, it was important to demonstrate the total impact of changes as they related to enhanced safety. With potentially expensive and disruptive solutions identified early on, the team was able to explore effective, yet less disruptive interventions, while helping project partners understand the upfront and long-term operational costs and benefits of each proposed change.

Ryan encouraged senior living community partners to consider the most effective upgrades to HVAC systems throughout the buildings, including installation of needlepoint bipolar ionization, MERV filters in HVAC systems and negative pressure in some common areas. Other impactful changes included the use of naturally antimicrobial surfaces in active areas and touchless doors and fixtures in common spaces.

Balance safety and aesthetics

The senior living industry has spent a lot of time creating home-like residential environments with hospitality and comfort in mind; it is critical to incorporate design solutions in a way that avoids creating an institutional feel. For example, elements such as increased hand-washing stations are important for safety but need to be thoughtfully incorporated.

Finish and furniture selections are also part of this balanced approach. Moving forward, senior living operators will likely incorporate more interior products that are impermeable, scrubbable, gasketed, and seamless. Helping operators and owners think through the aesthetics, maintenance requirements and lifecycle costs of these changes or additions is an important part of this balanced approach.

Focus on long-term value

Many of the recommendations that came out of the research have benefits beyond the current pandemic. For example, improving air quality with upgraded filters or bipolar ionization should help reduce viral transmissions now and in future flu seasons or during other unforeseen outbreaks and pandemics. In addition to providing architectural, design, and construction services, Ryan also owns and manages senior living real estate assets, so the company is uniquely positioned to analyze the long-term benefits of proposed design-build solutions.

Building layout, technology, and mechanical systems were all evaluated with safety, efficiency, aesthetics and cost taken into consideration, with the number-one goal of keeping residents healthy and safe.

Leverage technology

In addition to planning for the right amount of infrastructure to support increased tech use for needs like telemedicine, project teams can also leverage technology to help future residents visualize a community. Through interactive renderings, animation videos, 3D unit plans and virtual tours, senior living teams can significantly boost marketing efforts and create a level of comfort and confidence for all involved in the project.

Thoughtful research, planning, and execution is vital for overcoming the safety concerns that COVID has created, particularly in living environments. Taking an integrated approach to the design, construction and ownership of senior living communities will result in safer spaces and peace of mind for everyone who plays a role in bringing senior living communities to life.

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