Insights into Shifting Village Design Trends

Retirement village design is changing through sustainability, trends, and the incoming baby boomer generation. Warren and Mahoney architect Mat Brown discusses the shifts in village design. 

Urbanisation is seeing an increased appetite for opening villages and having them more accessible to the community around them. Developers are taking positive steps towards providing spaces within the village the community can use. 

For example, Queenstown Country Club has a commercial centre built as an amenity space for the village. It has a café, childcare centre, retail, and is the hub for the rest of the community. 

"There's potential for retirement villages to be a catalyst for the communities around them," said Brown. 

"Retirees can meet with friends and family, neighbours or even strangers. And it's about wellness – ensuring people in these villages remain active and engaged, not locked away in apartments.

"The idea of wellness has real traction in a village like that where there's a café or restaurant on-site," he continued. 

Covid-19's effects have not rippled into village design as such, Brown has observed. 

"Villages performed well during Covid because of the community and staff. 

"In residential developments, there has been an increased rejection of shared space, like laundromats. There has been a shift from central cores to dispersed cores, as we say.

"But in villages, Covid hasn't changed the home or the layout. That has stayed pretty static despite predictions."

What is changing village design, however, are the baby boomers.  

"Change is happening," said Brown. 

"It is the changing attitudes towards apartments. The baby boomers are more comfortable living in apartments, which is creating a greater demand for urban projects," he said. 

Traditionally retirement villages are built on the outskirts of town, with a fence around them. Brown has noted a shift towards the city centre, connecting retirees with the community and its amenities. 

"We're doing a project in Parnell, for example. So, when the city rail link comes on-line, those residents will be better connected to Albert St, than Parnell Rd, and will be in the heart of the city."

There is an expectation of what a retirement village looks like in the traditional, classical sense. But that is changing slowly. There is less demand from occupants and more change in the construction typology. 

"Clients do talk about the baby boomer generation," said Brown.

"They know it's coming. They know their attitudes will be different and that villages will need to take on a more contemporary feel, but they will also be timeless.

"There will be a time when people don't want to live in a Palladian villa," he remarked.

With the shifting attitudes of the baby boomers, villages are evolving for connectivity and activity. 

"Using the Parnell example again. One of the greatest things about a retirement village in the city is the connection to public transport and amenities for the residents, and the developer's ability to leverage the amenities of the city around them, so they don't have to build all the stuff that goes with it."

However, each village continues to deliver its own level of amenity, so there's a mix.  

"It's great to have a place for a GP or physio to visit on-site without the patient having to leave," said Brown.

"Most villages will have a pool – though it's probably mostly used by the grandkids – so there is increasing discussion about using them for physiotherapy." 

Another aspect of this progression towards connectivity is making the village more open to the community and neighbourhood. 

"If I had the opportunity to design a neighbourhood," said Brown, "I'd put the village in the centre." 

Developers can leverage the sense of community that villages create. If you make that a place people want to be, you can change people's experiences. 

"The key things retirement villages sell themselves on are security and lack of maintenance," said Brown. But security, in particular, continues to stand in the way of opening villages up. 

"We see that change – the gates come down – and a more open approach with security provided in other ways like good lighting, good surveillance and staff on duty."

Villages take a long time to build, so change also takes a long time. 

Part of this change is sustainability. 

"The scale of work we do is commercial in nature, so the performance of buildings is high and targets like Homestar are easier to achieve because we use better materials," said Brown. 

"Kāinga Ora has set the benchmark with Homestar 6 for all residential apartments. So, if you're not getting Homestar 6, you're not building better than social housing." 

Brown says the great thing about Homestar is that it communicates the performance of the building. And village operators can leverage Homestar to retirees who are more attuned to their energy use and global warming. 

Water reticulation is another part of sustainability, but despite water shortages, few villages reuse water. 

"The drawback of water reticulation or energy use in retirement villages is that those costs are passed onto the resident. So there is little incentive for the developer to reuse water or reduce the cost of energy because it is not a cost for them," said Brown. 

"Including utility rates in the cost of running a village would mean that the decision-makers would make different decisions.”

In all of Brown's village designs, accessibility is fundamental to every step. 

"We ask how will residents get around this village? How do you accommodate mobility scooters? How do you get to your kitchen sink with a walker, where do you put the microwave so someone frail can lift the plate without dropping it and burning themselves?" said Brown. 

Accessibility is integral to the design, Brown says. From circulation to surface finishes to colour. 

"Colour helps define spaces so those with vision impairments can navigate the room safely", Brown added.

Brown identifies a continued shift in the future towards more urban retirement villages that will likely lead to smaller, more bespoke and boutique villages as the sites are tighter. 

Villages are likely to open up to the outside community as well, he believes. To leverage that existing community to make retirement villages more attractive and part of the community rather than separate. 

"For the care part of villages, I think we'll see some innovation," Brown added. 

"Residents live in independent living until they can't, and then they are moved from their husband, wife, or neighbour and put in a different place.

"So, I'd like to see more of bringing the care to the resident, not the resident to the care, to allow people to live in their homes for longer."

Brown would also like to see a reduction in carparks. 

Carparks are a significant cost to villages, as retirees believe they need a carpark when buying a house but quickly realise they don't use their car as much. 

"We encourage our clients to stop building carparks and offer an e-vehicle fleet. Retirees retain their independence with a car that someone looks after and takes care of the maintenance, whilst reducing their carbon footprint." 

As connecting to the community becomes a more significant focus for retirement villages, the design of villages will continue to evolve.