The Graying of America

How Developers Are Cashing in On a (Baby) Booming Industry

Cafeteria food and bingo halls? Not anymore. Think sushi chefs and wine bars.

Today’s baby boomers are demanding what can only be described as a menu of offerings and amenities that are as diverse as they are.

Gone are the clinical institutions that housed their grandparents, and in their place are vibrant communities for those 55-plus residents who want to remain active, engaged and independent.

Senior housing—be it assisted or independent living—is no longer a one-size-fits-all facility. Many communities are now sporting more contemporary designs and featuring modern furnishings that incorporate technology.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 75.4 million baby boomers as of 2015 (the last year data was available), and that number is expected to grow to nearly 100 million by the end of the decade.

This is good news for developers and general contractors that can tap into an upcoming goldmine of opportunity.

“Baby boomers are used to having the services they want, when they want them. The voice of the customer has never been more powerful than it is today, and it will only grow,” Tom Grape, chairman and chief executive officer of Benchmark Senior Living, told Senior Housing News in an interview.

While many of these complexes are focusing on the boomers’ physical health, offering things such as yoga decks, movie theaters and indoor saltwater pools, other  communities are focusing on emotional and social well-being by building near big universities
so residents can continue to learn by taking classes or going to the cultural and academic events that revolve around college campuses. Others are concentrating on eco-friendly living spaces or specialty communities, with facilities that look more like boutique hotels.

“The population is aging, and more consumers can demand more choices,” says Andrew Carle, founding director of the senior housing administration program at George Mason University. 

In short, baby boomers are taking control of not only when they retire, but where, and for many it’s no longer “aging in place,” but rather, “aging in community.”

Trending Toward the Luxurious 
While it would seem that the entire senior living construction industry is under renovation—from assisted and independent living facilities to continuing care retirement centers (CCRCs) and senior nursing facilities—one thing remains the same. Future residents want more space, more amenities, more social gathering places and more contemporary aesthetics. This includes sweeping terraces and outdoor porches for entertaining, numerous windows that let in natural light and living space that is beyond 1,500 square feet.

Sam Doggart, vice president of Kaufman Lynn Construction, says the senior living construction market is more than promising and will continue on a positive trend for five to 10 years. 

Doggart points to his company’s recent new construction of 96 high-end independent living units in Moorings Park at Grey Oaks, a new CCRC community in Naples, Fla., as proof that this niche market is seeing growth, and that boomers are asking for and expecting high-end amenities.

“Boomers need coffee shops and hair salons in their buildings, and want that focused neighborhood approach,” he says. “Everything is designed for a softer, more solid, residential flavor.”

With 1,300 to 1,500 people migrating to Florida every day, Doggart doesn’t see this part of the industry slowing down any time soon.

“While not all of these people are senior citizens, they eventually will need to retire, so they’ll be looking for a place where they can live in total customization.”

To that end, he believes the Moorings Park at Grey Oaks project has succeeded in giving its residents what they crave.

Kaufman Lynn was responsible for the construction of 12 four-story buildings totaling 480,000 square feet. Each floor has only two units, creating privacy for residents. The community includes aqua gardens and a lushly landscaped resort-style pool, while the units themselves feature granite countertops, open floor plans and large, open-air lanais. Elsewhere on the property are an assisted living facility and amenity buildings built by other contractors.

Doggart says his company keeps the convenience of the customer in mind when creating a living space, as well as the community at large.

“With the design team, we think about how far residents would have to go from their unit to get to another location—a garden, the dining room or a parking lot. Then we build facilities so that it isn’t a long way to anywhere.

“The goal,” he says, “is to customize the units for the client so the end result is that no two units are the same. The customization has everything the residents need without having to leave their community.” 

The Future of Continuing Care Retirement Communities
On the other end of the spectrum are communities that provide assistance so residents can continue to live in the same place when they are younger and healthier, as well as when their motor skills deteriorate and they need more assistance. In this way, CCRCs can be a happy medium.

S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM) and S/L/A/M Construction Services (SLAM CS) recently partnered with Chapel Haven, a 45-year-old award-winning, nationally accredited school and transition program serving 250-plus adults with a variety of abilities and needs. 
Chapel Haven is unique in that its programs serve adults 18 and older with cognitive and social disabilities. The goal of the school is to give its students an intensive, residential experience, graduate and move into ongoing adult life in the New Haven, Conn., community.

“This is a school that caters to a wide range of adults with disabilities, from developmental disabilities and Down syndrome to the highest functioning form of autism,” says Gene Torone, president of SLAM CS. “Now that their population is aging, Chapel Haven is in need of a facility that can allow their population to age in place.”

Originally housed primarily in 11 buildings on approximately 2 acres, the campus today encompasses a constellation of buildings that have been acquired during the course of the last two years.

“I am so proud of Chapel Haven’s founding in 1972,” says President Michael Storz. “We were the first agency of our kind to champion the idea that adults with disabilities can gain independence and live happy, productive lives.”

Now, Chapel Haven is planning to add aging services and completely transform its campus with the help of SLAM.

Phase one of the project consists of three buildings. The first to be built will be a 32,500-square-foot home for the Residential Education at Chapel Haven (REACH) and REACH Bridge programs, providing housing and educational services for adults 18 years and older with mild developmental disabilities and autism. In this intensive 24-month program, REACH adults learn to negotiate all aspects of independent living. Upon graduation, students may choose to continue living in the area and receiving support from the school.

“During the design-build process, the master plan needed to incorporate an assisted living and independent living facility, which were initially treated as separate components,” Torone says. “We knew that this population would be better served if the living spaces were more flexible.”

Within the master plan, the school wanted to keep its options open by allowing for add-ons such as meal services and health care services so it could accommodate its residents and this population for a longer period of time. In this way, the new facilities will be designed to foster a greater sense of community within the fabric of the Westville neighborhood of New Haven.

“The general feeling is that there always seems to be support for these types of facilities, so I think when it comes to allowing people to stay in their community, that’s important,” Torone says. 

The Evolution of Nursing Facility Construction
Another facet of the industry worth exploring is skilled nursing facilities, which to date have been a challenge for the industry due in large part to the recent recession. A lack of construction financing (which seems to have now turned the corner), coupled with increased costs of operations and construction, a new president and government funding cuts, all continue to present challenges.

Separate from these obstacles, it is clear that the traditional model of skilled nursing is in the midst of some fundamental changes. These nursing homes are not meant to be a final resting place for seniors, but rather a resident-centered care facility focused on getting residents back to their homes. In short, they are now a pit stop, not the final stop, in the aging process.

“I see a transition from the traditional nursing home facility that no one has been attracted to,” Torone says. “It became a place to solve your problem, but now this population will demand something different.” 

The new model embraces wellness: getting patients better and back to their own home.  

Other trends in this industry include:
  • replacement of multiple-occupancy rooms with private rooms;
  • delivering facilities that are staff friendly;
  • increasing access to natural light; and
  • reducing noise.
In essence, these facilities are now supporting patients’ and residents’ health, wellness and rehabilitation, with more of a home like atmosphere than the institutions of old. 

For NEI General Contracting, which recently wrapped up on Tampa Lakes Health & Rehabilitation Center in Lutz, Fla., this type of senior living construction, while challenging, has also been hugely fulfilling.

The 96,000 square-foot, 179-bed skilled nursing facility, located on an 18-acre site in the rural Tampa suburb, includes a combination of memory care and short-term living, and responds to a customer base that wants to experience more of a home-like environment during their stay. 
NEI was tasked with one of the most complex single-​story structures that it had seen. Despite a complex layout, having to take over the project from another general contractor that was $700,000 over budget, and working during heavy rainfall, Josef Rettman, managing principle at NEI, says it remains one of the most rewarding projects the company has worked on.

The top reward: “Working with owner Omega Healthcare Investors on this demanding project and being able to deliver the much-needed $17.3 million facility to the community,” Rettman says.

This facility is especially welcome since another health care facility shut its doors in 2013. “Everyone loves it,” Rettman says. “The feedback has been phenomenal.”

The health and rehabilitation center embodies a design toward its own dining and activity areas, spa room, tranquility/therapy room, outdoor areas and a mobility garden. It also includes movie rooms, outdoor walking paths, nature trails, lounges and bars in some of the facilities.

Clearly the senior housing industry is reinventing itself to meet the needs of consumers. For companies that have a foothold in this market, there appear to be nothing but bright skies ahead.

“It’s a positive trend, and I’m happy to be a part of that,” Doggart says. “I personally look forward to building these types of projects. They’re fun facilities to build, and you can see the gleam in the eyes of the residents when they move in. It’s as rewarding as it gets.” 

Cindy L. O’Hara is a contributing writer to Construction Executive. For more information, email