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From the Design Quarterly: Forecasting change for baby boomers and millennials

August 15, 2018

By Barry Kowalsky and Darren Burns

Three perspectives on how demographic change will influence design for the multi-family, health, and mixed-use markets

Demographic change is sweeping North America. The baby boomer generation is entering retirement age. It’s a significant portion of the population (22–23% in the US/Canada). By 2060, the senior (65+) share of the US population will rise to 24% from 15%. How and where they want to live as seniors will change the places we design. Our population is graying significantly.

At the younger end of the spectrum, millennials (20% of the population) have now entered the workforce, bringing with them a new set of preferences.

We’ve already seen these demographic shifts changing demand for space within the workplace, but it’s the preferences for how the retiring boom generations want to live—where they want to be, what they need to access, and how technology will enable those preferences—that will shape demands for our built environment, and therefore continue to influence design.

We checked in with experts on design for the health, mixed-use, and residential markets to see how they predict design trends will be reshaped by these demographic shifts.

Streetscape of the Atelier + Flora Lofts in Dallas, Texas, that will feature residential and artist lofts, retail, and gallery space.

Multi-family residential

Sixty-somethings are much healthier today, and they don’t want the traditional 55-plus designs. Contrary to past generations, a large portion of retiring baby boomers want to move into the urban centers. Boomers want places with activity—restaurants, cultural venues, museums. Residences may feature components of outdoor space such as pools and pool decks, however, it’s really the urban connections and amenities they most desire.

Boomer preferences are affecting the availability of amenities and services in new buildings. Now, operators are offering options for private chefs, specialized spa services, and health and wellness programs in their buildings, as well as communal spaces for hosting social events such as wine tastings.

Boomers want the convenience and flexibility to leave their residence for a month to go visit their grandkids. Families aren’t in the same town or city anymore. In terms of size, they may have downsized from a four- or five-bedroom home to a one- or two-bedroom home, but space distribution is changing. We’re seeing a higher demand for larger living spaces from boomers. While millennials want smaller, affordable units that allow them to live that urban lifestyle. As this demographic change occurs relative to traditional market rate residential and multi-family, the units are getting bigger not smaller. That person may only want a one-bedroom, but they want a full dining room, wine cellar, and a reading area in their bedroom.

The units aren’t designed with a technology in mind—technology changes too fast—but rather for residents who bring their preferred technology with them. A significant demographic is embracing the anti-technology world. They don’t want that phone connected to the hip all day long. They don’t want Alexa telling them what’s going with the weather and everything. They want a simpler life that takes away from the constant connectiveness.

We’ve seen a reduction in parking spaces per unit occur in urban centers so it’s not two cars per family anymore—it’s much less. Some people don’t have cars, some people have two cars, and some people have one car, but the average ratio is about 0.7 space per unit today.

It’s easy to understand that today’s seniors don’t want to move into a stepped or continuing care environment until they absolutely need to be. While they’re active and healthy, they want to be with young people. We need to keep this in mind as we develop new multi-family developments in the future.

Public plaza at the ICE District in downtown Edmonton, Alberta.

Barry Kowalsky on health

The floodgates are opening in terms of the application of remote technology enabling new streams for health treatment. There are three ways this new technology is changing the way we treat and receive treatment.

1. The link between provider patient care is changing with remote presence technology. Now, a real-time diagnosis can occur with aid of a remote heart monitor and other sensors. Patients in remote locations can now, from their own community hospital, get a medical diagnosis of a specialist that practices in a large urban center. And, the day isn’t far off when we are going to see surgical procedures done remotely. In fact, the military is already using this approach.

2. Health monitoring with help from AI (artificial intelligence) will be able to detect a heart attack or stroke and notify a hospital to dispatch care—before the user even knows they are in distress. Similarly, monitor system technology can alert family or a social worker to check in if an elder hasn’t used the water closet or opened the refrigerator in, say, 12 hours.

3. Physician-to-physician interaction. A general practitioner will be able to send your data (X-rays, doppler tests, lab work) to a specialist for a diagnosis and to see if urgent action is needed—all tracked in a single electronic health record. This expedites the interaction, and time to diagnosis and treatment plan, between the family physician and the specialist.

It’s the preferences for how the retiring boom generations want to live that will shape demands for our built environment, and therefore continue to influence design.

Designers must think about these types of wireless care and what it means to the built environment. We will see more healthcare delivery in the community setting, like health booths in a mall where you can hook up yourself up to sensors and have a consult with your physician. Design of community clinics will change, and you won’t necessarily have to go to the hospital to see a specialist anymore.

As architects and designers, we need to think more systemically about healthcare. If we’re good at understanding how the technology, lifestyle, and healthcare aspects can work together, there might be less demand to build hospitals, because we will build healthy lifestyles and remote access to care into our community fabric. We need to go back to a much broader way of thinking about design from a total human needs perspective. It’s challenging, but to me, that’s exciting.

Darren Burns on mixed-use

Not so long ago, a developer with a medical office building portfolio looking toward mixed-use might have included a pharmacy or a retail shop that sells seniors medical supplies to its tenant mix. But today’s seniors are living and thriving differently than previous generations. They take yoga classes, they eat healthy diets, and hang out at local food hotspots to see and be seen. And, they have more expendable income than previous generations.

Today, that medical office building might consider incorporating residential, retail, fitness centers, dining, and public spaces in the mixed-use approach. As this trend continues, things are going to look different. Today’s seniors are looking for a community in which they can age gracefully in place and developers know that catering to this very large demographic group makes good business sense.

Mixed-use has a bright future as the lines between live, work, and play continue to blur. Workplaces must support innovation with collaboration spaces and provision of options for where and how we work. Residential options must be part of a community—walkable, bike-friendly, and accessible—to create an enhanced human experience.

Our 24/7 activity clock shows us the program mix that can coexist on a site over 24 hours. Mixed-use allows for 24/7 activity on a site that permits people to embrace a lifestyle where they can live, work, play, sleep, and entertain themselves within a walkable neighborhood. This 24/7 approach to mixed-use also buffers the highs and lows in the real estate leasing market for the developer who wants the project to be financially viable. Commercial leases tend to have much longer lease terms that can bring stability to mixed-use developments, while a residential component can bolster the entire development.

While millennials have grown up with technology, the retiring baby boomers have a strong incentive to embrace it to maintain that independent lifestyle they strongly desire. “Accessible” also means easy access to the latest technologies.

Gerontechnology—technology that’s designed for seniors—has a big role to play in this. Today’s seniors value independence, so we will see technology expanding regarding safety, convenience, and caregiving applications to make this possible. Wearable technology will empower seniors, allowing them to stay independent longer. In mixed-use, I think there’s an opportunity for residents’ interest in quality of life to align with the goals of developers.

Perhaps the strongest driver of mixed-use developments, is the emotional and social element. People want to live in a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood for the sense of community. A mixed-use development brings social value.

  • Barry Kowalsky

    Barry has 25 years of experience in planning, managing, and developing major capital projects.

    Contact Barry
  • Darren Burns

    Darren is an architect, designer, and leader with over 20 years of experience specializing in the commercial sector, particularly in retail, mixed-use, and complex project delivery.

    Contact Darren
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