Jacqueline “Jacquie” Horvath used to tend the plants in the greenhouse at her senior living community in Bethesda, Maryland. A long-time gardener, it always made her happy to have her fingers in the dirt. “Plants are the most healing thing you can have around,” Horvath observes with a Carolina lilt. “They make you feel good,” she says.
But the job of moving heavy plants became difficult for Horvath, who is 91. Luckily, she has a new way to stay close to nature. Now she enjoys lunching with friends, nestled in live greenery at the Wintergarden atrium at Fox Hill.
The Wintergarden, decorated with ficus trees and a “living wall” of green plants, is an example of a new trend in senior living design to fulfill biophilia, our innate attraction to nature, by bringing the outdoors in. The practice is already popular in office buildings, as well as hospitals and schools seeking to enhance productivity and a sense of wellness while showcasing environmental responsibility.
David M.W. Denton, general manager at Fox Hill, says the project fulfills a vision of bringing the outdoors in and “enjoying the benefits of nature year-round.”
Biophilia — Love the living
Biophilia is an approach to architecture that literally means “love the living.” It has roots in 6000-year old Chinese Feng Shui.
Exposure to natural light, plants and the natural world can improve concentration and decrease stress and irritability, research shows. But many seniors spend less time outdoors, whether they live at home or in long-term care communities.
“Just because we age, we should not lose contact with nature,” says Jack Carman, a landscape architect based in Medford, NJ who creates therapeutic gardens and outdoor environments for senior living communities.
Building professionals report they expect to include more biophilic design principles over the next five years in a range of projects, along with other healthy features such as improving air quality and natural sunlight exposure, according to Stephanie Timm, senior director of Delos Insights, which provides research to real estate developers, builders and architects.
Timm runs a “Wellbeing and Design” committee that meets monthly at the District Architecture Center in Washington DC, where architects and others share how they are using natural elements, such as skylights, ornamental grasses, or sounds like waterfalls or birds chirping, to promote feelings of wellness indoors.
It’s a trend that more families and seniors are looking for when shopping for senior living, says architect Andrew Coelho, senior vice president of construction, facilities and design at Sunrise Senior Living, which operates more than 325 communities.
“We’re getting more and more questions about, ‘how sustainable and healthy is it?’” he says.
In choosing a senior residence, people think about care, training, cost, how pretty and comfortable the residence is and its reputation, Coelho says. Sunrise is spending more energy in investigating and providing well environments for their residents.
“Good senior living design is about putting the resident’s wellness first…We are always thinking about how to keep people active for as long as possible mentally and physically.”
While only a fraction of senior facilities gets involved with such elaborate planting, even trends in paint colors show a greater propensity to include natural elements.
Green shades are becoming more popular, says Dee Schlotter, senior color marketing manager of PPG paint brand. “Whether it be in plant or paint form, greens are essential, as they have the ability to reduce activity within the central nervous system and evoke a calm feeling,” she says.
A new “building WELL” certification focuses on how design, policy and operations contribute to occupants’ comfort and health. It stems from LEED certification – which focuses on energy efficiency. The certification is being billed by Xue Ya, president of the International Well Building Institute Asia as the only global certification proven to address the relationship between buildings and health. The Institute’s research describes how WELL strategies can promote the health of the human body, including its cardiovascular, immune, and respiratory systems.
Right now a handful of luxury senior residences in the United States are seeking to achieve “WELL” status.
A good business incentive?
Industry data show these investments in natural colors and green elements can offer senior residences a competitive edge.
Only 11 out of every 100 seniors (80+) live in senior housing, according to industry analyst Larry Rouvelas. Senior living communities are working hard to compete as more seniors choose to age in place.
On a sunny day the windows of resort-like Fox Hill reflect the trees inside and out. There was no certification ten years ago when Fox Hill was built. “We were just trying to do things that were good – offering plenty of daylight, easy access in and out, big windows and outdoor sensory gardens,” Coelho says.
Fox Hill’s choice to plant tall ficus trees on moveable casters indoors where there’s ample light alters the aesthetic environment and also adds oxygen to the air with the plants.
On a recent afternoon, Horvath made herself at home in the leafy restaurant. “Moving these trees inside is the best thing you ever did,“ she told Denton.