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Solution of the Month:

Young at Heart: A senior living facility takes retirement out of isolation.

Stantec and Perkins Eastman
Dedham, Massachusetts

By David Sokol
April 2012
Courtesy Stantec

Whether a building is mixing uses or plugging into a diverse urban fabric, it is becoming accepted that the more purposes and populations a project serves, the more resource-responsible and socially enduring it will be. That combinative approach to sustainability includes age groups.

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The 162-acre retirement community NewBridge on the Charles is demonstrating the positive effects of designing for multiple generations. The Dedham, Massachusetts, campus is part of Hebrew SeniorLife’s (HSL’s) network of Massachusetts properties. Its 1 million square feet of buildings is home to more than 800 residents in apartments, cottages, and villas, as well as assisted living and memory support housing, with accompanying healthcare facilities that can accommodate 268 residents. It opened in fall 2009, and the following year the K–8 Rashi School began serving 450 students on the same campus.

Although the health benefits of intergenerational contact are only coming to light in stray examples, the senior facility operator, which conducts geriatric research with Harvard Medical School, conceived NewBridge on the Charles to demonstrate exactly the soundness of the nascent trend. “HSL felt it’s not best for seniors to live in isolation,” says Martin Siefering, principal of Perkins Eastman, which won the NewBridge commission with Stantec.

Not everybody shared HSL’s hunch. The Rashi community expressed concern about school security—a not-uncommon thread in many education design dialogues—and, Siefering adds, focus groups showed that some elders hesitated to share close quarters with very young people. Zoning and financing models were not conducive to mixing seemingly disparate building types.

To make good on the client’s vision while accommodating competing voices, the team began with site design. In addition to creating proximity between the senior community center and the school, Joe Geller, Stantec’s principal in charge of NewBridge, explains, “Playground space is located between the school and the residential buildings, and the athletic fields in particular are situated close to the long-term and assisted living residences so those folks who can’t get outside can watch the kids play from their rooms or common areas.” In addition, interconnected walking paths and open spaces permit arms-length interaction, and interpretive signage within the naturalized landscape encourages the generations to learn and garden side by side.

These features do not push intergenerational contact aggressively, so that everybody pursues interaction as a choice. In that vein, the age groups are deliberately kept apart in places. For example, Geller says the most independent residential units are treated as a separate neighborhood, buffered by vegetation and located farthest from the school and playfields. Commingling is highly selective.

This principle manifests architecturally, too. The design team determined that multiple generations would converge only on the 80,000-square-foot community center. Siefering says the first challenge was approachability: “In the last 20 years retirement community centers looked like a mansion, which is not very inviting to the public, because houses by their very nature walk this line between public and private. So we decided right away to strongly differentiate between residential and public space, and to make the public space feel more like retail.” Residences’ familiar bays and peaked roofs clad in cedar shingles, copper, and bluestone, while the community center sports expanses of glass looking onto former polo-club grounds. To assuage Rashi’s security concerns, teachers bring their students to the community center through a discrete set of electronically controlled doors.

Inside, the community center’s indoor winter garden, ice cream bar, and a fitness center are open and permissive to the louder conversation of healthcare employees or childlike noise. Yet the interior also includes a bridge, due to a grade change on the building footprint, and it demarcates intergenerational and seniors-only sides of the building. Not coincidentally, the latter also happens to include the formal dining room.

Indeed, programming ensures that these strategically conceived intersections fill with people representing all stages of life. NewBridge residents serve as jurors in the school-wide science fair, and Rashi has created an intergenerational gardening curriculum; the campus weather station, which controls rainwater-fed irrigation, also is operated as community-wide education tool. Classes and programs also examine social-justice issues surrounding dementia.

To be sure, NewBridge on the Charles incorporates multiple sustainability strategies, from biophilic design to rainwater collection, and the campus boasts the largest geothermal system in New England. “Although the design community has come to associate the term sustainability with green building and site design, it really is much more comprehensive than that,” Geller points out. “Sustainability involves our ability to preserve our own well being, which means all facets of a community come into play. The philosophy of the campus is to encourage regular interaction among all generations for just that reason—it makes everyone’s experience that much richer.” Currently HSL is determining methods to quantify these high-quality outcomes.

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