Designing for Wellness: Confluent, LifeStar Are Building Today for the Consumer of Tomorrow

As seen at Senior Housing News.

Senior living design teams are grappling with a constant barrage of new technology and the remnants of Covid-19 as they plan the communities of tomorrow; however, they cannot lose sight of the basics — programming and location — if they hope to create communities that fit the industry’s emerging wellness model.

Indeed, one of the biggest issues with senior living community design today is a disconnect between the design team and the operations team, according to LifeStar Senior Living President and CEO Joel Anderson. LifeStar oversees about 3,500 senior living units in Florida.

“The worst thing to … do is to design physical spaces that don’t actually accommodate the culture or the programming that you really want,” Anderson said on a panel at the recent Senior Housing News DISHED/WELLNESS event in Orlando.

And some projects are being built without any programming influence at all.

“I see so many opportunities out there … fully entitled, shovel ready and site ready to be developed … without an operator,” Confluent Senior Living Vice President Matt Derrick said at DISHED/WELLNESS. “That means they designed the building without operator input and I think that’s just a fool’s errand.”

So, Denver-based Confluent won’t move forward with a project without an operator tied to the future community. MorningStar, HRA and Cappella are among the operators across Confluent’s portfolio of more than 20 communities either completed or in process.

Even with a strong operating partner, designing for the future is not easy — but it is crucial to support the consumers’ expanded wellness-oriented goals and lifestyles.

“The one thing we know is that the resident of the future is not going to be happy with the community of today,” Derrick said. “We’re always trying to plan ahead, trying to look into the future five years, and our residents’ health, wellness and the longevity of their life is top of mind for us in every decision we make.”
Location is wellness

Basic market fundamentals like supply-and-demand and local socioeconomics drive the location of a development project, but wellness matters, too.

According to Derrick, Confluent looks for areas of high visibility, high traffic, close proximity to retail and affluence not only for the economic benefits but to “make it as easy as possible to visit mom and dad,” he said at DISHED/WELLNESS. “To me, that is a form of wellness — making sure that [residents] are excited to get those visitors.”

Anderson agrees that location is closely connected with how effectively a community can drive wellness — a point he would make in “all caps,” he said.

Beyond proximal location, community integration impacts both wellness and the balance sheet.

During the repositioning of a senior living community on a 13-acre land parcel, Joel Anderson realized that residents didn’t need him to recreate the aspects of the Floridian lifestyle so much as they needed him to make their Florida community accessible.

“Instead of trying to be everything, [we] just tried to be a walkable community wherein people can integrate with the things they’ve always loved and appreciated,” Anderson said. “Don’t try to build everything on your campus, because if you can find a way to integrate into the local community, you can maximize rentable space.”

The trend toward developing in more urban areas affords developers more creative leeway to integrate into the community. LifeStar is currently in the latter stages of building its flagship community in St. Petersburg, Florida. Once finished, the community dubbed The Manhattan will rise nine stories and hold 80 condo-style homes in downtown St. Petersburg.

The nine-story design represents another trend in senior living — building up instead of out.

“I know that [many of us] have been in communities before where you can walk from the main clubhouse to the resident’s apartment unit and it takes you the next day to get there,” Anderson said.

Like The Manhattan, Confluent is looking at how urban-based communities can be better integrated with their surrounding neighborhoods. But while building in urban areas comes with some advantages, doing so also poses certain challenges to wellness.

“We’re definitely seeing a trend to more urban infill, which makes it challenging to find those outdoor spaces,” said Derrick.

But for the Confluent communities that have outdoor spaces, the key has been to maximize what’s there. At one of its 24 communities, the rooftop terrace is the most heavily occupied space in the community and has “the best views in the city,” Derrick said.

At its South Portland, Maine-based HarborChase community, Confluent’s design team found a way to turn a challenge into a centerpiece by turning an enormous slab of granite into a focal point of its outdoor space.
Program spaces for wellness

LifeStar’s buildings will also have outdoor terraces allowing residents access to the Florida sunshine while playing bocce ball or pickleball. But, simply having that space — and other wellness-oriented spaces — is pointless without the relevant programming.

Oftentimes communities have spaces that never ultimately realize their potential. Anderson’s term for these is “over-glamorized and under-utilized,” he said.

For Anderson, there needs to be a point in the design process where programming and layout come together; similar to the close-out process on the construction side of the project, there needs to be a programming and utilization close-out.

And ideas about creative programming early in the process can have a major influence on key design elements.

For example, LifeStar is looking at an auto club program at The Manhattan where residents would have access to a micro fleet of about five or six cars to rent for whatever purpose they desire, “kind of like checking a book out from the library,” said Anderson.

The auto club would serve as a small part of a larger strategy to maximize green space by reducing the need for parking.

And Anderson also emphasized that to get programming right, developers and operators must be more attuned than ever to shifting consumer expectations and desires. He believes that about 85% of all activities and programming being done in LifeStar’s communities are resident-led.

“So, the more information and understanding we know about our customer, the better experience that we can be able to deliver for them,” he said.
The long shadow of Covid, and rising technology

Even as the Covid-19 pandemic frays into what may become a seasonal virus cycle, it’s clear that the coronavirus left senior living designers with lasting impressions of disease control protocols that may be moving the industry backward.

The industry spent two decades grinding away at the institutionalized feeling of senior living communities, only to re-implement that feeling due to safety necessity during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Derrick.

“I think, maybe, there has been some overcorrection due to Covid, and I fear that some groups are heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “Let’s not design for the 100-year storm.”

Still, safety protocols paired with new technology like virtual medical visits and virus-killing robots can be applied to communities moving forward.

“There are a lot of lessons that we can learn and apply because we’re going to have flu outbreaks and other viruses that go through our communities, but to go so far as to change [back to the institutionalized feel] is what we’re trying to avoid,” Derrick said.

Confluent is executing on this intention through its creation of its “Whole Health Standards,” which inform all the group’s decision-making.

“It’s increasing safety, wellness, health, but also not sacrificing comfort and hospitality,” Derrick said.

Adding further stress, technology that seems groundbreaking today, could be obsolete by the time a community opens.

“I’m trying to implement tech today for a building that will open in four years,” Derrick said.

And while it’s impossible to know exactly which new innovations will be coveted five years down the road, building the infrastructure to support those innovations is very possible.

Anderson agrees that investment in technology has to be judicious, and advocated for senior living to look at hospitality and other sectors to get a better idea of what’s coming. He sees the future in greater technology integration and open-source software, with senior living providers needing to have “plug-and-play” capabilities.

Looking ahead, Derrick only sees technology being an even more important consideration in wellness and design, and he’s hopeful about the potential for tech in senior living.

“Some of the stuff that is coming to the forefront is really going to change the game for us,” he said.