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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Designing Senior Housing for Safe Interactions in the Age Of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, operators of senior housing developments have faced the challenge of reducing the risk of infection for residents, a large part of which depends on social distancing, while also preserving the community life that itself is critical to the health of residents. Thoughtful design interventions that address this tension are the subject of Designing Senior Housing for Safe Interaction, a new guide produced by MASS Design Group, a non-profit with a mission to “research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.”

The issues addressed in the guide, which will be discussed in a webinar we are co-hosting with MASS Design next Tuesday, August 11, are critical because shelter-at-home guidelines have made housing a central part of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As my colleagues and I have noted in previous blogs, sheltering at home may not adequately protect the many older adults who live in multigenerational households, crowded households, and/or in multifamily buildings with shared common spaces. Senior housing (defined here as age-restricted independent apartments that may offer supportive services and amenities) presents its own challenges. Efforts to create community, such as shared meals, planned social activities, and spontaneous interactions in common areas are a central aspect of life in these buildings. However, these activities have been curtailed or at least made more difficult by social distancing guidelines needed to reduce the spread of the virus.

MASS Design’s guide offers strategies that can be used to adapt current housing to address infection risk while still preserving community life. The guide recognizes the different risks for infection in four types of spaces within senior housing, as well as the different roles these spaces play in social life, including:

  • Public areas such as the sidewalk in front of a building;
  • Semi-public places such as building lobbies;
  • Semi-private areas such as corridors leading to living units; and
  • Private spaces inside apartments.

To minimize infection risk and promote social life in each of these spaces, the guide sets out a series of overall principles to direct intervention. These include improving air circulation, sequencing the flow of people through space, reducing crowding in high-traffic areas (such as near mailboxes), encouraging use of outdoor space, grouping residents into smaller groups or “villages,” increasing cleaning of high-touch surfaces, embedding technology in apartments to facilitate social interaction, and expanding the threshold at the entrance to apartments to create space for the safe, no-touch delivery of food, medication, and laundry.

The guide offers strategies that apply the principles in different areas. For example, building operators might use outdoor spaces and common areas in the semi-private realms found on each floor to create places where a few neighbors can socialize without exposing themselves to the greater risks they would face if they gathered in a larger, semi-public building lobby.

The guide’s recommendations have implications beyond the current pandemic for future rehabilitation or development of senior housing. As the guide notes, “Previously, balconies, equal access to outdoor space, generous entryways, open stairways, and telecommunication devices built into the base unit were seen as luxury items. [However] these same elements during the pandemic are proving to be essential in maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health.” Ensuring that these features are included in future development, particularly housing available to those with low incomes, will require “a cultural shift in the way we fund and finance affordable housing,” where access to fresh air and shared spaces that promote social interaction are not viewed as luxuries. “[A]s COVID-19 continues to show the devastating connection between the design of housing and its negative impacts on health, we have the opportunity to prove that good design matters and that everyone deserves a safe, dignified, and healthy home.”

The new guide from MASS Design will be the focus of a webinar next Tuesday, August 11 at Noon (EST), where I will moderate a roundtable conversation with Patricia Gruits (Senior Principal at MASS Design), Sandra Brooks Henriquez (Executive Director of the Detroit Housing Commission), and Emi Kiyota (Founder of Ibasho). The event is free but pre-registration is required.