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Design and Renovation of Senior Centers

When the NISC forum invited senior center directors to share the “innovative facility design” improvements of their dreams, the responses reflected the tremendous variation within this dynamic industry. While some centers are dreaming of adequate activity space that doesn’t have to do double- or triple-duty, others are envisioning indoor walking tracks, fully equipped fitness centers, or warm water therapy pools.

The discussion that ensued later when forum participants were invited to “Ask the Architect” (me) anything they’d like about an existing or proposed senior center further demonstrated these profound differences. Inquiries ranged from noise abatement in an old gymnasium to spatial requirements for a Starbucks-style cafe. Regardless of the size of the center or focus of their dreams, all of the respondents were very aware of the significant impact of the constructed environment on their ability to pursue their mission and serve their clients effectively. For each of them, the “ideal facility” is defined in a unique way.

Whether you are looking for ways to improve an existing building to better facilitate your current client, program, and administrative needs, or planning for a new facility to accommodate changing demands and your vision for the future, there are a number of fundamental architectural principles and processes that apply to all senior center design and renovation projects.

Pulling from forum questions and answers, this article provides an overview of the kinds of design-related issues that are on the minds of senior center administrators, and offers some insight into the factors that shape your options in various situations. Perhaps the most important underlying message is this: Design and construction are rarely as simple and straightforward as they may appear at the outset. Whatever your goals, or the size of your project, it is important to enlist the help of a qualified professional—the earlier in the planning process, the better.


As a senior center architect, I found it no surprise that one of the first questions posed pertained to a perennially problematic (and controversial) issue—flooring. With falls a major health issue for older adults (and thus a major concern for facility directors), I am frequently asked for advice on this subject. I wish I could offer up the names of a few tried-and-true products, provide installation and maintenance guidelines, and in so doing protect you and your clients from future incident … but it can’t be done. The fact is, this is a serious and sobering issue with no fail-safe solutions.

Technically, the selection of flooring for a given space should be based on its intended use and users. Because most spaces in a senior center are used for a variety of purposes by people from a broad range of ages and abilities, this is virtually impossible. Inevitably, some people wear rubber-soled shoes, and others choose leather or other smooth soles. Either may pose a hazard paired with a floor surface that provides too much or too little grip (trip or slip). The use of assistive devices like walkers, canes, wheelchairs, and scooters adds a whole new dimension to the discussion.

On a positive note, this issue is the subject of a great deal of study by leaders in the carpeting and hard-surface flooring industries, as both seek to develop slip- and trip-resistant hybrid products with the acoustical, aesthetic, warmth/comfort, and non-glare benefits of carpet and the durability, hygienic/maintenance, and navigability benefits of hard flooring. When working with your architect or interior designer to select floor finishes for your new or renovated spaces, it is always a good idea to consult directly with the product representative, making sure that they fully understand the intended use and users of the space. If they are unable to talk knowledgeably about the specialized needs of clients in your target group with various mobility issues (including the normal “shuffle” sometimes associated with advanced age), it’s worth your time to find someone who can. Ask to be put in touch with customers in facilities similar to yours who can comment on the product’s performance in similar applications.

The appropriate design, installation, and maintenance of flooring products are just as important as their selection. If your facility will involve a variety of flooring products, the transitions (and design of the spaces themselves) should be planned to promote awareness and safe passage from one space into another. In new construction, recessing the sub floor to make up differences in the thickness of various products may provide for a level surface without the need for raised transition strips. In areas of particular concern, look for ways to provide additional supports for safe navigation, such as decorative handrails and enhanced lighting.

The interior design of your facility may include custom patterns in the application of various colors of carpet or tile. Some bold, high-contrast patterns can cause perception confusion for people with various visual or cognitive impairments. For example, it’s not uncommon for dark patches on light backgrounds to be perceived as recessed areas—even holes—by individuals with depth-perception problems or even minor dementia. Work closely with a knowledgeable designer to apply contrast strategically to enhance your clients’ ability to navigate comfortably and confidently through your building. If you have flooring that requires waxing, consider using a matte finish wax product to reduce glare-related problems.

Ceilings, Acoustics

Ceiling questions arise for a variety of reasons, ranging from maintenance/sanitation issues in kitchen applications, to sound control. One forum participant inquired about a new ceiling for her commercial kitchen after a health inspector expressed concern about the 20-year-old existing ceiling’s water and grease stains. The acoustical tile or paneled ceilings common in many senior centers are both available in cleanable moisture, sag, and soil-resistant surfaces recommended for use in food prep areas. Panels, which are removable, can easily be moved out of the way to allow access to the plumbing, wiring, etc., that they conceal. The suspension grid should be aluminum faced for further resistance to moisture and humidity.

A sound-absorbent, acoustical lay-in panel ceiling may be a good place to start for another respondent who makes use of a (voluminous, and thus noisy) converted school gym for a variety of activities. In spaces that don’t currently have this type of ceiling system, this would lower the ceiling a bit and possibly require modification to the lighting and ductwork. In some cases, visually interesting effects can be created (while also improving the acoustical environment) by hanging patches of acoustical ceiling in multiple areas (even at different heights) to create “clouds” above the space.

Fabric-covered wall panels, frequently used as a means of sound control in schools, can also be helpful in absorbing sound in large spaces in senior centers. These panels, which can also be used as tackboards for display, are typically constructed of Homasote and wrapped in panel fabric (the fabric used to cover the panels of systems furniture). They can be custom made or purchased in a variety of shapes, sizes, and fabric selections to coordinate with your décor. In addressing these issues with any of these solutions, it is important to make sure you are meeting all applicable code and fire regulations. Contact your local code official to review your options before proceeding.

Bear in mind that acoustical issues are not only influenced by finishes, but by the design itself. It is important to make your architect aware of the specific sound issues associated with various activity spaces, and sound-related needs of various clients, in planning the design of your building. One forum respondent reported that her first floor spaces are forced to live with unnerving thumping of basketballs in their second-floor gym, because the structural design didn’t take necessary measures to avoid the transference of vibrations between floors. A more common problem involves transference of sound from a “noisy” program to a “quiet” program in an adjacent same-floor space. Thoughtful grouping of dedicated spaces during the preliminary design process can help to minimize this issue and lessen the need to seek remedies later on.

Custom vs. Flexible-Use Spaces

Several of the forum questions reflected a core issue in senior center space planning: custom/fixed vs. flexible or mixed-use space. Given the ever-changing makeup of senior center target groups and program/service mix, it always makes sense to strive to create spaces that are universally accessible and user-friendly, flexible to accommodate a variety of activities, and adaptable to facilitate future needs. For example, a single room may house a discussion group of retired veterans in the morning, a ladies’ quilting group at 1 p.m., bridge at 4 p.m., and a 55-Alive safe driving class in the evening. The specialized needs of some disabled veterans; storage needs associated with quilting supplies and equipment; card tables, chairs, and a coffee urn for bridge; and appropriate connections, lighting, and a screen for educational video projection can all be factored into the design, producing a space that may lend itself well to any number of additional future uses.

Not all spaces within a senior center are appropriate for all uses. Many senior centers today are interested in incorporating highly specialized amenities into their facilities: computer centers, Starbucks-style cafés, and fitness/wellness centers all have special technical, legal, and other requirements that must be met in a new or existing facility. Not surprisingly, many of the requests we receive for architectural services for senior centers stem from the desire to add on or reassign space for these purposes, or build new centers revolving around state-of-the-art amenities.

One forum respondent asked for advice as he set out to create a café within a 400 square foot area in his center. The first critical issues to be addressed in this kind of undertaking are applicable zoning regulations, building codes, and jurisdictional requirements. Often there are stringent rules governing the delivery, handling, displaying, and storage of food; specialized guidelines regarding the finishes applied to floors, walls, ceilings, and countertops; equipment-related requirements for drains, ventilation, and exhaust; safety issues including fire containment and sprinklering; and structural or systemic demands involving plumbing, electrical, temperature regulation, and other issues. Always include a qualified professional (or team of professionals from all applicable disciplines) in the earliest possible stages of planning this type of addition to your facility.

At the opposite extreme, senior centers sometimes find themselves struggling to create an appealing atmosphere within overly generic flexible-use spaces: large, dividable rooms with folding walls and plain, durable finishes accommodate a variety of functions, but aren’t tremendously inviting. The director of a 14-year-old senior center soon to undergo renovation asked for tips for making her large but dividable dining/multi-purpose room feel less institutional. Whenever possible, I like to include plenty of windows (with views that can be enjoyed from a seated position) in these staple senior center spaces. If the room is in an interior space, explore the possibility of introducing or simulating natural light via clerestories, skylights, or special fixtures.

Ceiling height can be a significant factor: too high and the space may feel alienating; too low creates a sense of crowding. The thoughtful application of window treatments to control and direct natural light, and the use of pendant fixtures and wall sconces to enhance ambient lighting can help to create a very different ambiance than that projected by window shades and fluorescent fixtures alone. The finishes (colors, wall and floor treatments, etc.) furnishings, and accessories, including artwork used in these spaces, all contribute to their warmth (or lack of it).

An interior designer can help you make selections that are attractive, practical, and well coordinated. Be sure to seek assistance from a professional with an appropriate understanding of universal design and aging-related considerations, who understands the focus and mission of your center. You might be surprised to discover that many design professionals have no understanding of the differences between senior centers, retirement communities, and nursing homes.

The Senior Center of the Future

One of the last inquiries posed on the Ask the Architect forum was “What do you envision as a ‘Senior Center’ for the newer generations coming along?” My response was framed by the very different senior center planning, design, and renovation projects in which I’m involved at this time. Some communities are expanding or improving their current facilities to continue to provide the kinds of services and programs they offer today, while remaining vigilant and responsive to shifts in demand. Others are actively engaged in dropping programs they regard as obsolete and repositioning their philosophy, approach, and facilities in dramatic ways.

Beneath it all, the core values that make senior centers “senior centers” remain constant: the desire to support independence and social engagement (and thus the quality of life) of older adults, through a broad mix of programs, services, and amenities. To this end, I believe that the senior center of the future will be a more deliberately and insightfully designed place.

As the financial resources that will accompany the aging of the Baby Boomer generation become available, senior centers will become better able to renovate existing buildings or build new ones to “universal” design standards to ensure their user-friendliness. In time, senior centers may be looked to as innovators and leaders in the design of spaces custom-tailored to the needs and preferences of active older adults.

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About Douglas J. Gallow Jr., AIA, NCARB

A graduate of Miami University in Oxford, OH, Gallow was a partner in a Baltimore, MD firm for two decades before returning to Ohio to launch Lifespan Design Studio in 2006. His professional resume includes a diverse mix of institutional, higher education, commercial, and residential design projects, and extensive experience in senior center design.