HKS’ Grant Warner Listens, Learns to Design Better Living Environments for Older Americans
As a child, HKS Principal and Senior Designer Grant Warner soaked up every story his elders shared about fighting on the front lines of World War II and aiding war efforts at home.
“They seemed to gravitate to me because I listened,” Warner said. “Other kids would lose interest, but I became fascinated by their stories.”
Reflecting on those storytelling sessions now, Warner says they yielded “a tremendous respect and admiration for the Greatest Generation” — an appreciation for elders that eventually steered him to become an architect of senior living communities across the United States.
Warner’s favorite part of senior living design work is getting the chance to meet and talk with residents. Through the senior living practice’s Sleepover Project, an initiative where architects spend the night at residential communities capturing qualitative data about the user experience to inform design solutions, he’s met hundreds of elders and their caretakers.
During one memorable overnight stay at a Watercrest Senior Living community in Florida, Warner recalls meeting a man named Nick, a World War II veteran who served in General George S. Patton’s Third Army. They stayed up late together watching Nick’s beloved New York Giants play football and joking about sneaking out to the bar across the street. All the while, Nick opened up to Warner about his experiences in the war, something the staff told Warner that Nick had never done before. Listening to seniors share such personal pieces of their lives is a meaningful experience for Warner.
“To hear them talk, to hear the emotion behind some of the memories — I just love listening even if it’s the same story 10 times,” he said.
To this day, Warner keeps a digital photo of himself sitting across a table from Nick close at hand. “I cherish the photo,” he said, “Because when I went back a few months later and asked about him, they let me know he had passed away.”
Building a Different Type of Service Career
Warner’s admiration for World War II veterans like Nick and his relatives mirror his lifelong interest in history and the military — two passions he’s always shared with his mother, Martha, who worked at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio and, after Warner was born, earned a history degree and became a teacher.
When he was a teenager, Warner wanted to follow in the footsteps of his family members who dedicated their lives to service as well as his father, Warren, who flew planes recreationally. He dreamt of an illustrious career as a Naval or Air Force pilot and pursued private flying lessons. With poor eyesight and no stomach for flying, however, he quickly gave up on that dream, though not without some disappointment. A military recruiter encouraged him to pursue a service career as an aerospace engineer instead, but Warner decided that wasn’t quite right either — the minutia and math did not appeal to him.
As a college decision deadline loomed, Warner and his family visited Texas Tech University. When an exhaustive exploration of the college’s programs yielded no clear front-runner for a potential academic major, they made one last stop at the school of architecture. The intricate models on display in the building’s lobby immediately captivated him — at last, he had found something that “clicked.”
“I spent an hour in that lobby. There were probably only 12 models, but I studied every single one in detail,” said Warner, who enrolled in the school’s B.Arch program in 1989.
Though he says his decision to pursue architecture seemed “random” at the time, Warner now realizes his career path may not have been all that incidental. His mother often reminds him that she believed he would be an architect because he loved LEGO as a kid, but Warner also developed an early appreciation for construction when he visited the Houston Ship Channel where his father designed and built offshore oil platforms as an industrial engineer.
“It wasn’t architecture per se, but they were amazing structures. They housed recreation areas, kitchens, helicopter pads, and all this crazy stuff,” Warner said. “I think that’s what got me interested in design to begin with.”
After graduating architecture school, Warner moved to Dallas to jumpstart his career. At one of his first jobs with a hospitality-focused firm, he met David Dillard, now an HKS Principal. Working in the uncertain economy of the early 90s, Dillard seized an opportunity to expand into the senior living market, a choice that would turn out to be life-altering for both he and Warner.
Warner knew he had found his calling when he visited a memory support community to meet with a client who wanted to create a better living environment for people suffering from dementia. Spending time among the residents, many of them World War II veterans, brought back memories of elders from his childhood like family friend Wayne, who was imprisoned for a year after his plane was shot down over Germany in 1944. Warner realized he could use his design skills to help this distinguished, aging population live dignified final chapters.
“Seeing so many amazing elders — members of the Greatest Generation who fought, bled and sacrificed so much for us being ravaged by cruel diseases — I realized this wouldn’t be a job, it would be war,” Warner said, indicating that he views his contribution as an architect as helping older adults fight the effects of illness and isolation and as they age.
A Dedication to Older Americans
Warner’s passion for creating spaces to support seniors of all abilities including those with memory illness has lasted more than twenty five years. He and Dillard designed their first residential community for older adults in 1995 and have stuck with the sector – and each other – ever since. Together, the pair has collaborated on beautiful, safe and supportive residences for older adults at four firms, including most recently, D2 Architecture, which joined HKS in 2020.
Warner says he is constantly impressed and inspired by Dillard’s empathy, design and business expertise. Dillard, who sees himself and Warner as balancing forces, believes Warner has a unique ability to look to the future of senior care while understanding and adhering to current regulations and standards.
“Grant is able to look through the telescope with one eye and look through the microscope with the other. On some days, I am macro to his micro. Other days, I am into the details while he focuses on the big picture,” Dillard said, adding, “My best work is better for his contribution.”
Throughout his career, Warner has become intimately aware of the challenges U.S. seniors face, including negative stereotypes associated with aging. He believes that a lack of consideration for older adults often leads building owners and designers to build undignified living environments for them, a situation he finds unacceptable.
“We can contribute to combatting ageism and encouraging more respect by building and designing the types of places they deserve,” he said.
Reflecting on more childhood memories, Warner recalled that when his father transitioned from working as an engineer into a career as an international trade consultant (a job title Warner says his younger brother, Eric, believes was code for ‘spy’), he often recounted his global travels for the boys. He’d also give them foreign language lessons and mementos he picked up on his journeys. Warner says he relies on the sense of cultural awareness his mother and father instilled in him to design for seniors and care partners from different backgrounds and places.
Leveraging that awareness and the listening skills he developed in his youth, Warner seeks to understand and include perspectives from all people who live and work in senior living communities. Residents, care partners, family members, cooks, nurses, maintenance workers, and first responders — each of their voices matter to Warner. By listening to their aspirations and remembering their needs throughout the design and delivery process, he takes an empathetic, inclusive approach.
“It is so rewarding getting to know and work with our amazing elders and their dedicated care partners — collaborating with them on their future homes, brainstorming about what interests them and discussing their needs and their dreams,” he said.
Working to Solve the Housing and Care Affordability Crises
Guided by a desire to make lives better for older Americans, Warner attempts to tackle complex issues facing the senior living industry today. Rising health care and housing costs have compounded to form a crisis that will soon affect a majority of elders in our country, he says.
According to AARP, 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day, meaning the Baby Boomer ‘silver tsunami’ continues to grow. With life expectancy of seniors increasing thanks to modern medical advances, Warner believes a big problem is that many Baby Boomers have not been able to adequately save funds for longer term housing they will need as they age.
“Baby Boomers expect choices, not just generationally, but financially. The more options we can give them, I think, the better,” he said.
To create more affordable housing options for seniors, Warner and his team are collaborating with organizations to provide innovative solutions varying from individual studio apartments and small custom prefabricated tiny homes to mixed-use strategies for larger communities. With every one of these types of projects, Warner says, designers have the responsibility to maximize the budget while making the space as nice and livable as possible.
But a mix of housing options, while a huge step forward, won’t be enough to meet the complex needs of the country’s millions of seniors, according to Warner. Affordable acute medical care and impacts of climate change, he says, will be an equally difficult challenges the industry must begin to navigate. He says a main goal of his is to partner with HKS’ health practice to serve health care clients who have recognized these crises and the opportunities they have to mitigate them.
Warner notes that creating resilient buildings that can maintain operations to provide critical care in the event of natural disasters will be crucial for senior living communities to retain cohesive health and social services in the future. “It is a very difficult puzzle to solve because of the amount of care that’s necessary, the liability involved, the amount of higher-grade construction necessary to protect these people,” he said.
Rooted in Family, Building a Legacy
Warner says that he and his wife of more than 20 years, Valerie, have tried to instill their values of caring for others into their young daughters, Hannah and Zoe. He’s noticed the fruits of those efforts during the past year when the family — including “Buster,” their ‘big, ferocious, intimidating’ Chihuahua — spent most of their time at home during the pandemic.
“They’ve been taking COVID-19 in stride and have been so mature about it,” Warner said of his daughters, who he’s also introducing to architecture with their first joint building project, a backyard playhouse. “They understand that it’s about not only keeping themselves safe, but also keeping our in-laws, friends and parents safe.”
Warner credits his own parents’ support of his interests with helping him develop an appreciation for diverse perspectives that he carries into his personal life and professional work. His mother’s love for history and education gave him a lasting interest in World War II and admiration for the elderly, while his father’s engineering career and world travel taught him enthusiasm for design and a deeper understanding of the lives of others. All of this led to Warner’s unwavering commitment to listening, learning and taking care of others.
Warner believes his father, who passed away suddenly five years ago, likely suffered from a form of early dementia in his final years. And while designing senior communities is exceptionally gratifying for him, it also carries some emotional weight of loss. He knows from personal experience that developing relationships with elders, particularly those with dementia is a heartbreaking, yet deeply fulfilling on-the-job experience for their caretakers.
“Eventually we lose some and I miss them,” Warner said, “But it is especially rewarding seeing residents at our communities, knowing that some are enjoying their last home and knowing it is the only home some descendants will ever remember them living in.”