Adaptive Architecture for Older Adults

How can we provide the necessary infrastructure to care for older people in a way that maintains design integrity and doesn’t stigmatize or infantile these groups? We have an opportunity to create an innovative approach to housing for older people that can benefit individuals and communities alike.

In 2021 I prepared a research proposal for the Fulbright Program 2022-2023 grant year. Although I did not submit this proposal it remains a representation of my passion for research, my drive to expand my knowledge of the world, and my interest in how interior design can be used to achieve humanitarian goals.

9 month Study/Research: Creative Arts
Proposed Location: Belgium, University of Hasselt

Grant Title: “Adaptive Architecture for Older Adults”

Statement of Grant Purpose

The population of the world is aging. The 2019 UN World Aging Report estimates that by 2050 one in six people worldwide will be over sixty five years old; a sixteen percent increase from today. This growing percentage of older people is often presented as a threat. Younger generations are more independent and less likely than ever before to become caregivers for aging parents, there is not enough capacity in existing facilities for older people, facilities of high caliber are prohibitively expensive, and our current healthcare and economic systems will be overloaded by this shift. These factors outline a design problem that we will have to overcome within our generation. Instead of a threat, our changing demographic should be seen as an opportunity to create positive change. In collaboration with the University of Hasselt IM Adaptive Reuse in Interior Architecture and with support from the Fulbright program I will uncover how to provide the necessary infrastructure to care for older people in a way that maintains design integrity and doesn’t stigmatize or infantile these groups. We have an opportunity to create an innovative approach to housing for older people that can benefit individuals and communities alike.

Adaptive reuse is an architectural term that denotes projects where an existing, most often abandoned, building or area is developed into a new use. My favorite definition comes from a paper by Justine Clarke, Adaptive Re-use of Industrial Heritage: “Adding a new layer without erasing earlier layers, an adaptive reuse project becomes part of the long history of the site.” Older people contain their own long histories. Keeping care facilities integrated into our communities is critical for cross generational engagement and I see adaptive reuse as a sustainable long term solution that is worth investigating.

The nine month International Masters program at the University of Hasselt culminates in a thesis project. For this project students choose an existing local site with potential for adaptive reuse and use the collected research to fully design a facility from concept to construction drawings.  This project will give a real example of what this new genre of housing for older people could look like. In collaboration with the faculty and the University research group ArcK I hope to take this a step further to create a new language around what designing for older people should look like. Design for older people should be design that dignifies, that elevates, that has integrity and beauty and practicality all combined.

In design and architecture one integral part of the pre-design process is called programming. Architectural programming encompasses the research and data gathering that defines the scope of work for a new project. It typically includes interviews, questionnaires, site visits, background research, and more. After the data is gathered all relevant information is pulled together into a document that is then used as a reference to establish goals, strategize, and ultimately inform design decisions. This is the foundation on which good design is built. During my nine-month affiliation with University of Hasselt and Fulbright I plan on creating an architectural programming document for adaptive reuse senior living facilities. This document will be an extremely useful reference for architects in Belgium and in the United States as the need increases for new, and better, nursing homes.

The program for senior living facilities will consist of qualitative interviews with seniors and people with elderly relations, quantitative interviews with institutional facilities, and questionnaires and evaluations of existing facilities. Gathering data from residents and families will provide information about the wants and needs of that group, which in turn will help inform the design of these facilities. Gathering data from government offices, developers and healthcare providers will help determine the practical aspects of turning this ideal facility into reality. 

Seven out of ten people will require long term care in their lives. In the United States the average cost for a shared room in a nursing home is $90,155 a year. According to Census Bureau data from 2018 the median household income was $63,179, and in 2017 the Center for Retirement Research published a report stating that the median total amount saved for retirement by age 64 was $104,000. This means that without insurance the majority of the U.S. population will be unable to afford one year of necessary care for themselves or for their family members. In his book Being Mortal, Atul Garamber writes that the goal of end of life care is “not just a good death, but a good life to the very end.” This unaffordable goal of a shared room in a long term care facility is not the good life I have imagined for my parents or myself.

Dr. Michelle Carson from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a study in 2008 in which 149 older adults volunteered to spend 15 hours/week tutoring elementary school aged children. The study found that after six months the memory and executive function of the tutors showed improvement, especially in patients with already impaired executive function. The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a longitudinal study that has been following a group of men from the 1938-1944 graduating class to identify the factors in healthy aging. One of the primary outcomes of this ongoing study is that relationships with younger generations as we age are critical to continued physical and mental well-being. These studies are two examples from a vast body of research showing how interaction and engagement with younger generations and the culture at large produces favorable outcomes for older people. Creating beautiful islands where we can place our older people is not the answer. I believe that effective housing structures should be integrated into the fabric of our cities and communities. This allows for vital interactions to happen naturally, consistently, and separate from individual family groups.

I believe that design integrity starts with research. Thorough research provides designers with a strong foundation and deep understanding of the human element. Understanding what residents need and want and dream about and applying that to the physical space will produce spaces that marry form and function. Well researched interior architecture can improve the living spaces available to older people through design that reduces isolation, alleviates dependence on family members for care, addresses health concerns, and promotes mental and physical well being. Adaptive reuse facilities close to urban centers can integrate older people into cities and communities, this cross generational contact can provide benefits to residents and to the wider culture. To meet a rising demand, housing for older people will be built. I believe that the existing templates for these facilities are outdated, ineffective, and stigmatizing to residents. Through my collaboration with Fulbright and with the University of Hasselt I hope to rewrite these existing templates and provide a better path forward.

Statement of Grant Purpose

Interior design is a deeply misunderstood profession. What certified interior designers are capable of executing is more similar to architecture than to the HGTV decorating that has become associated with this title. In modern practice interior designers act as specialists within the larger architectural team. In my work as an interior designer I have the education and expertise to produce entire sets of construction documents, work with contractors and clients, review electrical and mechanical drawings, space plan entire buildings to meet international building code standards, and more. The selection of materials, furniture, and finishes is also under a designer’s scope but that represents a very small portion of the work. Interior design is more than pillows and paint. We live, work, play, learn, and heal in the interior spaces of buildings. Placing that scope of work into the hands of a specifically trained professional holds the power to enrich and transform lives through the thoughtful design of interior space.

The similarities between Interior Design and Architecture starts with education and testing requirements. There is a path that interior designers must take to earn the title of certified interior designer, this includes requirements for education, experience, and examination. To be eligible for the most common track you must have a four year bachelor’s degree from a university whose interior design coursework is certified by the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ). After graduation you begin your apprenticeship. If you have the CIDQ four year degree you must then work as a full time designer under an NCIDQ certified sponsor for 3,520 hours, or two years. If an aspiring interior designer holds an associates degree in interior design, or a bachelors degree in architecture, the experience hours needed increases to 5,280, and if you hold any other bachelors degree the required hours increases again to 7,040 hours. Once you have completed these experience hours you are eligible to start taking the NCIDQ exams. These tests are so widely accepted that in three states there are legal title acts in place that prevent the use of the Interior Designer title unless you have passed the tests and earned your NCIDQ certification, and in twenty three additional states there is voluntary registration for NCIDQ certificate holders.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin I immediately started working at a design firm and met my eligibility requirements two years after graduation, it took another year of studying to take and pass the NCIDQ examinations. In order to further educate myself in sustainable building processes I then took another year and a half to study for, and earn, the LEED AP Building Design + Construction certification, an appellation typically specific to architects. Through my work with the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) I have been deeply involved with public education and advocacy for my profession. In 2016 we helped pass legislation in Utah that created the title of “Certified Commercial Interior Designer” which is a designation available through the state which gives designers the opportunity to permit their own work. It is imperative to understand that being an interior designer is so much more than having a good eye for color. It is a deeply technical professional title that takes a minimum of three years post graduation to achieve.

I am now at a point in my career where I am ready for the next step. Since my undergraduate I have wanted that next step to be humanitarian in nature because I believe that a design informed first by data has the power to drastically improve the quality of life for building occupants. My design philosophy focuses less on aesthetics and more on meeting essential needs in elegant ways. In the last two years I have watched my grandmother transition from living autonomously to needing around the clock care after a fall. We are doing everything we can to keep her out of nursing homes because of the many ingrained problems with that system. This experience brought the systematic issues around senior living into focus. I started asking the questions; Why is there not a better option? What happens to seniors who don’t have extended family to provide care? What can we do? I have the education and the experience necessary to start to make my own mark on the design community, and improving the available options for end of life care is what I want to pursue.

I would like to bring the experience made possible by a Fulbright grant back with me to the United States and apply it to my own community. We interact with the built environment every day, and as we age even more time is spent inside of designed spaces. The design of senior living and age in place facilities is ready for an innovative approach. I hope to be a part of that innovation by continuing to be inquisitive of my environment, sensitive to the problems inherent in the world around me, and steadfast in my commitment to making lasting change in my community.

Leave a Reply

Powered by

%d bloggers like this: