Ideas and Inspiration: Exploring the Recession’s Silver Linings (PCBC 2012)

by Helen Foster

This summer’s PCBC conference brought many of the nation’s 50+ housing thought leaders to San Francisco’s Moscone Center for the 50+ Housing Symposium. While the impacts of the recession couldn’t be ignored, the theme for the event celebrated recent bright spots and success stories, illuminating a path leading forward.

In the general session’s kick-off address PCBC Chairman Adrian Foley (right), president of Brookfield Homes Southland, echoed that optimism by reminding the audience that the greatest achievements are born in times of great challenge. This is certainly so for the 50+ housing industry. As we emerge from the recession, it is unquestionably our industry’s most exciting and innovative time.

Consumers are still tentative, and development activity remains light, but the worst is behind us and the silver linings are many. Shifting gears gave us time to pause and look inward — hunkering down to improve operational efficiencies, and to enhance products and services while spending less. We invested time in getting to know our consumers better — in large part so we could deliver services and amenities with more precision and relevance.

The net effect has been that across all the sectors of the 50+ housing industry, our efforts to survive actually improved both our products and their residents’ quality of life. Sure, we’re a smaller industry, but we’re a smaller, stronger industry with fabulous potential.

Economic stabilization and the aging of the baby boomers should ensure sustainable demand — increasing occupancy in exiting communities while improving the outlook for new development. A recent NAHB study projected a 30% increase in 55+ housing starts between 2010 and 2011, and a further 46% increase between 2011 and 2012. But consumers are recession-weary. To pull them from traditional housing, a community’s value proposition must be stronger than ever.

Our work in this sector facilitates human connections that bring purpose and meaning to life. At our best, we do it by creating vibrant communities — places that are not just appealing, but experiential and authentic.

So, where do we go from here?  PCBC’s speakers — representing all sectors of the 50+ housing industry – offered these insights.

A New View of the Consumer

Today’s 50+ consumers are living longer, more active lives. They are more transient and more urban, and many are realizing that “retirement” is a moving target. Diminishing home values and investment portfolios may have tempered their interest in age-qualified housing, and they have been aging in place in traditional houses while waiting for economic conditions to improve.

“In 50+ housing, economics are just part of the equation,” said PCBC 50+ presenter Margaret Wylde, president/CEO of the research firm ProMatura. Lifestyle preferences and life stage are still major factors in decision-making, she added.

In a 2012 ProMatura survey (left), only 30% of respondents ages 55 to 62 report being “very satisfied” with their current homes, while “49% of the same group said they were ‘very satisfied’ in 2006,” Wylde said.  “In my career, I have never seen such a significant jump,” she added, noting that this presents a window of opportunity for age-qualified developers and operators.

In a subsequent presentation, Nader Shabahangi, Ph.D., founder and CEO of AgeSong Communities, challenged attendees to look beyond the superficial, surface layers of how we perceive “older consumers.”

“There is a strong societal belief that aging equals decline,” Shabahangi said.  “Aging…is an active process of becoming, learning and growing. We do not get old but grow old.”  A new, more open-minded approach to aging — anchored in listening to those we serve — can guide developers and providers toward new, better approaches.
Wellness, Placemaking and Design

According to Colin Millner, founder and CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, a comprehensive approach to wellness is now an imperative for progressive, age-qualified communities.

“If we continue to track on existing paradigms, more years and more people will translate to more disease, more costs and more challenges. It’s an unsustainable model,” Milner said, adding that age-qualified communities are well positioned to be leaders in the active aging movement.

The Infinity edge pool at Querencia at Barton Creek, Austin, Texas — part of the community’s Cool Springs Spa wellness center. Photo Courtesy D2 Architecture (Click for larger image)

In a recent ICAA study, 73% of age-qualified communities reported having “formal” wellness programs. Milner noted that the most effective models are multi-dimensional, addressing all dimensions of wellness — including social, recreational, mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. “83% of boomers fear losing the ability to care for themselves,” Milner said. “This has big implications for developers. Think of all you can do to position your community as a solution.”

Following Milner’s presentation, a panel discussed trends in wellness design and programming. Manny Gonzales, AIA, principal of KTGY Group, moderated, and participants included Dr. Roger Landry, M.D., MPH, president of Masterpiece Living; Andrew Wong, vice president for Strategic Marketing, Pulte Home Corporation; David Dillard, FAIA, president, D2 Architecture; and Sandy Saul, president of Design Lines.

Dr. Landry discussed the “high road to aging” which, he said, is achieved by those who feel they live with a sense of purpose. “It goes well beyond recreation,” he said, adding that “purpose involves living things — social connections, nature, animals, and more — it’s essential that we involve and engage people.” He suggested that “too many 50+ housing developers design for aging, care and minimizing risks — and they do so at great peril.”

Pulte’s Andrew Wong addressed design concepts that help to facilitate community involvement, including “ring roads” around the clubhouse/amenity core that promote traffic and visibility, noting that it’s “not about infrastructure as much as it is the people who bring it to life.”  Clubhouses, he said, “need to be attractive and inviting, but even more, they must promote purpose, engagement, and a fulfilling, active lifestyle.”  Wong advocates flexible spaces to accommodate changing lifestyle preferences. Outdoor amenities such as walking paths and outdoor fitness features, he said, should be mindfully and seamlessly integrated within the community.

Responding to changes in retirement migration patterns, Wong said that Pulte’s Del Webb division is developing new concepts for “micro-communities” in more dense, urban settings — leveraging the developer’s assets, but on smaller footprints.

On the subject of space design, David Dillard of D2 Architecture advised, “Don’t be afraid to be contemporary.”  A specialist in service-enriched development, Dillard said that physical design is easy — the real complexity comes with “building to promote cerebral challenge.”

Dillard said he’s seeing a trend toward less separation in levels of care in service-enriched settings and more fluid, integrated spaces. Other trends include more creative dining venues, and destination wellness centers with indoor and outdoor amenities to pull people together and promote intergenerational interaction.

The salt therapy room, with warmly illuminated panels of Himalayan sea salt, was part of the spa renovation at Willow Valley CCRC

Interior designer Sandy Saul encouraged developers to get to know the consumer, and to use design to connect in unique and compelling ways.  For a Trilogy community adjacent to a butterfly preserve, Saul’s firm designed a custom rug for the clubhouse featuring a dramatic and elegant butterfly motif.

Saul asserted that design is essential to marketing, as it can dispel old stereotypes and “surprise and delight” potential residents.

Saul shared images of a stunning spa renovation at Willow Valley — a Best of 50+ Housing award-winning Lancaster, Pa., continuing care retirement community that features soothing, contemporary spaces for spa therapies, including a “salt therapy” lounge.

Opportunities on the Horizon

The 50+ Housing Symposium wrapped-up with a forward-looking panel featuring Mitch Brown, chief development officer for Kisco Senior Living, Deborah Blake, president of The Ipsum Group, and Robert Upton, principal of Campus Property Group.

Brown and Upton spoke of the trend toward more urban development, on sites that are, in Upton’s words, “pre-amenitized.” Upton is developing an active-adult neighborhood and adjacent continuing care retirement community on a large infill parcel in Foster City, Calif., just south of San Francisco.

Site premiums cost more up front, Upton noted, but these costs have to be considered in balance with what it takes to create and sustain in-house amenities. Both Upton and Brown promoted partnerships as a means to expand the quality and diversity of resident amenities.

Panelists echoed the trend toward purpose-driven programming, as well as the importance of consumer-centric space design. “Selling homes in active adult communities is especially challenging today,” said Blake. “It’s difficult to pull consumers in,” she said, adding, “You have to be totally innovative in home design to set yourself apart from the sea of sameness.”

It’s a new day in our industry, and the future holds great promise for developers and consumers alike.