What Makes a Healthy, Happy Home Today?

For many, the idea of “home” has changed significantly since COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. More than simply places where we sleep, cook, eat and decompress, our homes have taken on a new life as internet-powered locations for work, social interactions, shopping and entertainment.

As the definition of home continues to evolve in the aftermath of a pandemic, residential design is changing, too. Designers and developers are striving to make residential environments with a taller order of necessities in contrast to previous eras.

Architects and designers from HKS’ education, commercial mixed-use/residential, and senior living practices believe there are three major ideas guiding the design of today’s living environments for all ages: social connection, opportunity and choice, and physical and mental well-being.

Residential design that incorporates these themes can empower individuals to feel comfortable wherever they call home — from their college years to advanced age and the decades in between.

Social Connection

Regardless of age or life stage, social connection is a key component to well-balanced living.

For young adults who may be living independently for the first time as college students, building relationships with new people can be both exciting and challenging.

HKS’ Jeff Larsen, who has spent most of his career working with universities around the country to design residence halls, said that clients are increasingly finding that on-campus living often aids student growth by providing them a socially enriching experience that may not always be found in off-campus housing.

“Learning happens everywhere,” Larsen said. “On campus, you’re bound to have more academic and social experiences via chance meetings, so all of the housing is geared towards facilitating those interactions.”

When designed intentionally, bedrooms, residence halls, and the broader campus can work in harmony to foster socialization. Larsen has found that so-called “transition zones” help students feel comfortable and gain a sense of belonging. UC Davis’ Shasta Hall, for example, has small communal areas near individual bedrooms that serve as transition spaces and allow students to gain confidence engaging with others in the bigger, more public lounges and study rooms.

“If you have a transition, such as going from your shared bedroom to a small common space, you may grow to be more comfortable going outside your comfort zone into a larger community space and engaging with others,” Larsen said.

Living in buildings with shared amenities is especially helpful in preparing students for life after college, as they move away from the built-in social cohorts they had on or near campus.  

“When people are just moving into their first apartments, they want and need affordability at that point in their lives,” said HKS’ Jennie Black. “A sense of community is also important and amenity spaces can really add to that.”

Black was part of the design team for NoMaCNTR, an amenity-rich development in Washington, D.C. Located on the site of a former bus terminal in one of the District’s fastest growing neighborhoods, the mixed-use project includes a residential building, a hotel, and ground-level retail and dining. Connected via a six-story glass bridge, the hotel and residences share amenities such as multi-level courtyards, a gym, and a roof deck with a pool and bar for a dynamic social atmosphere close to the comforts of home, Black said.

The trend toward socially geared amenity spaces in residential environments is here to stay. In addition to fostering social connection among residents, amenity-rich properties such as Astra Tower in Salt Lake City, are highly marketable for clients and can encourage residents to stay in their homes longer, according to HKS designers.

Ideas from university housing and residential buildings can help guide design decisions for older adults as well, which allows for a stronger sense of belonging within the senior living communities that many of them call home.

HKS’ Siobhan Farvardin, who worked in residential and educational design before taking on senior living projects, said her team is always looking to incorporate connection and belonging into their designs.

HKS’ newest senior living projects are designed more like living communities than health facilities, with important medical functions hidden from plain view. For example, a nurse’s station can be disguised within a small kitchen area — one less reminder that residents are under the care of someone else, Farvardin said.

Opportunity and Choice

Choices we make are often shaped by the environments in which we reside, including our homes, neighborhoods, and cities. Where we opt to relax, socialize, or run errands — those decisions are often made based on opportunities provided by thoughtful design.

Small and large gathering areas, open and private study rooms, and spots to take a phone call or chat with a friend all offer a range of choices for where and how young adults spend their time throughout college. At HKS-led higher education projects like The Ohio State University’s North Residential District, opportunities for growth multiply even more when several residence halls are designed to co-exist and share spaces.

“Well-designed student housing increases the number of opportunities that support growth, which includes getting to know a more diverse group of people outside of your comfort zone in a setting where others are in similar situations,” Larsen said.

Conveniently located shared kitchens with large windows at The Ohio State University North Residential District are integrated with community spaces that make socializing, co-learning and cooking easy.

In her experience designing multi-family residences and public places, Black has noticed that “edge spaces” are desirable. She’s observed that adults — who perhaps know more about where and how they like to spend time than they did at younger ages — enjoy living in environments where they have opportunities to see and hear nearby goings on.

“The edges are everyone’s favorite places to be. People enjoy having a choice to participate or not,” she said, noting that NoMaCNTR’s tiered indoor-outdoor design offers ample places for people to observe activity happening from the comfort of their apartments or participate directly in areas like the roof deck.

Within individual residential units, HKS experts have all noticed a major trend sweeping both architecture and interiors since the pandemic began: flexibility.

A kitchen island, for example, can serve as a work-from-home desk, a dining table, and a child’s homework station. When possible, HKS designers said they avoid placing appliances such as sinks or stovetops on islands so they can best accommodate different uses. Designing floor plans for a variety of furniture layouts also allows people to make changes as their family needs evolve, Black said.

And as people grow older, flexibility in senior residences helps ensure they feel comfortable, safe and cared for, according to Farvardin.

These places are often described as “facilities,” but Farvardin believes that must change, acknowledging that they are homes that support individual choice where people can lead fulfilling lives. The HKS Senior Living team instead refers to them to as “communities” where residents can socialize with each other, catch up with loved ones, spend time in nature, enjoy a good meal, and more, Farvardin said.

“This is a home for people so yes, it may be classified as institutional in case of emergency, but at the end of the day it’s a community — and nomenclature is important,” she said.

Farvardin added that designers and clients are becoming increasingly creative with amenities to ensure properties are desirable to prospective residents, especially Baby Boomers looking for an independent lifestyle filled with choices and fresh experiences. The Stayton in Fort Worth, for example, encourages residents to engage with their surroundings by offering access to the city’s well-known Museum District and a rooftop bistro with views of downtown.

Physical and Mental Well-being

One of the most important lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the air we breathe and our ability to go outside are crucial to our health and well-being. Vitamin D provided by the sun and lower levels of interior CO2 from outdoor air are proven to enhance happiness, productivity and physical health. Throughout our lives, our residences should offer as much access to nature, natural light, and ventilation as possible.

Supporting student well-being is a primary goal of HKS education designers, as evidenced by AIA COTE Top Ten® award-winning North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood (NTPLLN) at UC San Diego. The eight-building “campus within a campus” features operable windows in every student room and trickle vents in the window system that provide a consistent flow of fresh air when the window is closed and help prevent condensation that can lead to mold. Students residing at NTPLLN receive consistent fresh air, access to daylight and cool coastal temperatures and in turn, the buildings are highly energy efficient. Longitudinal research at NTPLLN has also revealed positive outcomes for environmental satisfaction and student mental health.

Larsen has noticed that in addition to embracing sustainability, some colleges are also embedding mental and emotional support services for students into housing, as opposed to buildings elsewhere on campus. When located close to where students live, such spaces can positively impact overall well-being by removing any stigma of seeking help and are transforming the vision of what a residence hall can be, he said.

“Those more intentional programs are really trying to meet specific anxiety or depression issues so prevalent among today’s students. They go well beyond the traditional TV room, study room and game room programs,” Larsen said.

Later in life, when the day-to-day grind of work and adult responsibilities bears down, our homes are ideally a place of respite. Even as remote work becomes a mainstay, there are still plenty of ways the buildings we reside in can promote health and well-being.

Salt Lake City’s Astra Tower includes a community living space and terraces that bridge indoors and outdoors.

To those ends, HKS-designed Astra Tower is “a vertical garden” with indoor-outdoor living rooms, landscaped terraces and lawns, and long views of the Rocky Mountains and Great Salt Lake. It also features a roof pool and luxury spa which contribute to residents’ ability to relax and recharge in the same place they call home.

In senior living communities, research-based and outcome-driven design can allow residents to find moments of joy and support supporting their overall wellness.

A farm-to-table garden at Legacy Midtown Park in Dallas, for instance, offers a therapeutic and visually appealing environment where senior residents can practice their mobility skills and get fresh air. Local art inspired by Miami’s vibrant Wynwood neighborhood, facilitates residents’ enjoyment and restoration.

“Being isolated is not in the best interest of their mental and physical well-being,” Farvardin said. “So, getting to an active adult community brings more vibrancy, more social connection, more purpose rather than being alone in a home that they may have been in for 50 years or so.”

What’s ahead?

Designers are increasingly finding that multi-family, intergenerational and mixed-use living environments can meet most of the needs people have across the full spectrum of adulthood.

Black has observed a trend of middle-age and older adults leaving their single-family homes to seek the ease and convenience of more communal living situations they experienced earlier in life.

“As they get older, people actually want the same things. That is a shift that has been happening,” she said.

Changing demographics are also driving people of all ages to multifamily housing, triggering multigenerational approaches to design and community development.

HKS designers across many of the firm’s practice areas are now having discussions about how they can realistically create enriching intergenerational residential environments for individuals at various stages of life. Younger adults learning from older adults’ past experiences and older adults learning new skills from those who are younger than them could allow for a vibrant and vital exchange of knowledge across generations, Larsen and Farvardin said.

Regardless of residents’ age, holistic wellness will continue to be a guiding light for residential design after the collective COVID experience. When designed for social connection across generations, freedom of choice and access to nature, our homes will be able to give us our best chance at a happy, healthy life.