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Biophilic Design and Nature-Based Architecture in Senior Living

Dec 28, 2023
Design plays a pivotal role in the overall well-being of individuals, especially in senior living communities. The environment in which seniors live can have a profound impact on their physical and mental health.

Design plays a pivotal role in the overall well-being of individuals, especially in senior living communities. The environment in which seniors live can have a profound impact on their physical and mental health. The poet and artist Goethe published the earliest works on the psychology of color and how certain colors can affect mood. Today, modern color psychology research indicates that not only color but textures, patterns, natural light, and so much more can influence our outlook. 

It's no secret that natural elements have a soothing effect on people of all ages. In this blog post, we will dive into the world of biophilic design and explore how it is revolutionizing senior living management, redevelopmentand master planning. We'll look at how integrating nature-based architecture into senior living communities can enhance the well-being of seniors, making their living spaces not just functional but therapeutic.

What is Biophilic Design?

Biophilic design is more than a trend in architecture and interior design. It's a holistic approach that seeks to reconnect people with nature through their surroundings. In the context of senior living, biophilic design is about creating living spaces that are in tune with the needs and preferences of the older adult.

At its core, biophilic design is a concept that seeks to incorporate elements of nature into the built environment. It recognizes that humans have an innate connection to the natural world, and this connection can have profound effects on our well-being. Whether it's the presence of natural light, the use of natural materials and soothing colors, or the incorporation of greenery, biophilic design aims to create spaces that uplift and promote physical and mental health.

Now, let's explore each of the principles of biophilic design in more detail to better understand how they can be applied to senior living communities and improve the lives of residents. 

Biophilic Design Principle #1 - Environmental Features

Landscape design is an important feature of any senior community expansion and renovation. Humans are drawn to nature in many forms such as protective shade trees, water features such as fountains, fishponds, reflecting pools, water gardens, and walking paths. Courtyards are a common landscape feature in senior living communities and attention should be paid to creating a variety of opportunities from private contemplation to large social events. These spaces are unique opportunities for people to gather in a natural environment and can be done at large scale or small scale.

Broadview Senior Living at Purchase College is a great example of this opportunity where activity programming, architecture, and landscape design intersect to create an outdoor amphitheater as part of the overall design of the Learning Commons. The Learning Commons is a suite of amenities designed to create opportunities for inter-generational social interactions with residents and students of the fine arts college.  The main performance space stage within the Learning Commons has an interior and exterior proscenium. Instead of a blank wall at the back of the stage, it is a moveable glass partition. This allows for theater in the round. The land outside of the performance space is sculpted to create crescent-shaped seating, with the exterior porch covering the glass partition opening of the Learning Commons acting as an outdoor stage. As the landscape and trees mature, this will be at once a lush green courtyard and a purposeful event space.

Another example of a biophilic design feature can be seen in memory care courtyards. Memory care courtyards are particularly important to create a calming environment that also energizes and engages the senses of residents. Fountains, raised planting beds, walking paths, and benches tucked into lush green nooks allow residents to enjoy and engage the senses in a safe, comfortable and natural environment. Careful attention is paid to creating pathways that are uniform but not monotonous and encourage wayfinding. Outdoor paths should offer visual, tactile, and auditory stimuli but not be overwhelming. We'll talk more about wayfinding as it relates to biophilic design later. 

Biophilic Design Principle #2 - Natural Shapes and Forms

Mimicking natural shapes and forms, whether they are abstract or more literal in textiles and materials, helps to provide another connection to nature and bring nature indoors. This could take the form of wallpaper with botanical patterns, which may provide a more literal reference to nature. Or use soft, curved furniture that mimics the lines we see in nature. 
An additional approach to bringing nature inside is to create an interior design palette that touches on the predominant environmental conditions of the surrounding area. When building in the southwest, for example, or in a forested area, the design should incorporate patterns and colors that tend to be most dominant. Browns and muted shades for desserts, greens, grays for forests, and so on. This color theory can ground the design in the surrounding environment but also subconsciously tie a person back to the natural environment. 

Biophilic Design Principle #3 - Natural Patterns and Processes


Natural patterns or processes are important to reflect the complex and dynamic natural environment. People intuitively connect with the fractal patterns found in trees, rivers, and crystals and take pleasure in the complexity. Reclaimed wood, live plant walls, and stone counters all remind us of nature. Bringing them into the built environment can aid in reducing stress and creating a welcoming environment. The movement of water, the growth of a green wall and plants, and the burnishing of stone or metal patina over time connect and remind us of the natural processes that go on around us in nature. 

Sensory variability is the natural variation in the way that our senses perceive the world around us and is essential for well-being. It is caused by a number of factors, including the inherent noise in our sensory systems, the variability of the stimuli that we encounter, and the state of our brains. Sensory variability can be challenging for seniors. Sensory systems such as vision and hearing in older adults become less efficient and more susceptible to noise, which can result in greater stress, depression, and a list of other issues.  It is important to understand the changing nature of seniors' sensory perception. Biophilic design can support the design of environments that are calming in terms of auditory perception, tactile perception and visual perception.

Biophilic Design Principle #4 - Light and Space


Natural light in senior communities is essential for health and well-being. Light helps to regulate the circadian rhythms and improves mood and cognitive functioning. To incorporate these into a space, the design should maximize the amount of exterior skin a building has and place resident living spaces along this exterior edge, especially at the outside corners, inside corners and ends of buildings. Many designs miss these opportunities to create unique resident living spaces. Instead, they are used as stair towers, storage rooms or a variety of back of houses spaces.

Apartments make up the bulk of the built environment of a community and taking advantage of end units, outside corner units and inside corner units will maximize the amount of light and view for residents. It is useful to have entryways at diagonals to create a sight line from the front door through the entire unit to a panoramic view of the exterior. This transition from the enclosed corridor to an expansive light-filled space can be dramatic. The sequence of entry to apartments leverages the immediate views to the exterior to give the interior space a more expansive look and feel. 

Staff offices and breakrooms should be located along the exterior to provide natural light and views and staff should have access to exterior spaces. These spaces, historically, can feel like an afterthought. Creating purposeful work environments with natural light engenders a feeling they are a valued part of the community in addition to improving cognitive function and mood.

Biophilic Design Principle #5 - Place-Based Relationships


A hallmark of biophilic design is the connection between humans and their natural surroundings. LCS Development does this by embracing the design vernacular of the community at large and incorporating it into the exterior and interior design features of the buildings.

A great example is The Wright Place cocktail lounge at Wyndemere. Designed to reference one of the most iconic American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, it fully embraced the design aesthetic of the Prairie School founded in Chicago. The remodel and expansion reference the design principles of the prairies school, which fully embraced the natural environment and biophilic design. 

The clubhouse lobby at Sagewood in Scottsdale, AZ, is grounded in its environment and references Frank Lloyd Wright in his later years, who called Phoenix home and founded Taliesin West. The lobby made of rough-hewn timber columns and curved to enclose a 100-year-old ironwood tree is an excellent example of blurring the lines between nature and structure while paying homage to the history of design in the southwest. 

Biophilic Design Principle #6 - Evolved Human-Nature Relationships


How do we evoke similar emotional responses that one would find when interacting with the natural world? This can be done by creating environments that are comfortable and inviting as well as engaging the senses. A great example is the method of drawing a person into a space through an intuitive way of finding. Good wayfinding allows a person to find their way, which inspires a sense of discovery and confidence. As they move from the exterior into the lobby interior, they get a sense of enclosure and protection. In the next moment, they enter a large and dramatically lit lobby. Their eyes are drawn to the details and patterns of the chandeliers, the wood-paneled ceiling, the soft fabrics of the comfortable chairs arrayed around a stone fireplace, and the natural light flowing in from a dramatic view outside into a beautifully landscaped courtyard. 

As residents get their bearings, they hear the murmur of people in the distance engaged in a rousing game of cards in the game room. They see a resident through ornamental screening that separates the lobby from the café having their breakfast with a companion. The sights and sounds of activity are all around as they turn into the lobby to be greeted by the receptionist. Creating a sense of protection and wonder as they make their first visit to their future home is one way we create this evolved human-nature relationship. 

Evolution of Senior Living Design


The field of senior living design has come a long way over the years, evolving from hospital-like look and feel to modern, innovative designs that prioritize the well-being of senior residents. In this section, we will continue to explore senior living design, highlighting the significant milestones and trends that have shaped it. Biophilic Design is an emerging theme that will continue to grow in popularity and as designers and communities embrace the value it brings; it will enhance the wellbeing of all those who embrace it.

Benefits of Incorporating Biophilic Design into Senior Living Spaces


Incorporating elements of nature into senior living spaces has proven to be a crucial moment in senior living design, positively impacting the physical and mental well-being of residents. There are key benefits to these elements. 

Enhanced Mood - Access to natural elements like plants and outdoor views has been linked to improved mood and reduced feelings of isolation among seniors.
Stress Reduction - Natural, biophilic elements in design help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation.
Cognitive Benefits - Exposure to nature and natural elements has been shown to enhance cognitive function and memory retention in seniors, improving their overall quality of life

Designing for Accessibility and Mobility

Senior living design must address the unique needs of residents with mobility issues. All spaces must be wheelchair-accessible and easy to navigate while using any mobility device, including walkers and canes. Signs, visual cues, landmarks or color coding can be used to aid in wayfinding. Design features for those with sensory or cognitive issues should also be added. Adaptive and universal design ensures that senior living spaces are accessible to all residents, regardless of their physical abilities. This approach promotes inclusivity and enhances the overall living experience.

Role of Sustainability in Senior Living Biophilic Design

Sustainability is crucial in biophilic design and modern senior living design. Incorporating sustainable materials and practices, such as recycled materials and energy-efficient appliances, lighting, heating, and cooling. Adding solar panels or other renewable energy sources and implementing energy-saving measures such as weatherization and insulation are the main areas to focus on.  

Engaging Residents in Senior Living Design 

As we look to the future, LCS Development will continue to evolve to meet the needs and preferences of the growing boomer audience and the generations to follow. The future promises more personalized and adaptable living environments where aesthetics, nature, accessibility, and sustainability converge to provide seniors with a high quality of life. Let's look forward to a future where senior living is not just a place to reside but a vibrant, engaging community that celebrates the golden years. Contact us for more information on how we can elevate your community.

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