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Inviting and inclusive: Citation of Merit winner Cosby Spears High Rise, Atlanta

February 27, 2013
by Gina LaVecchia Ragone
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A $1.5 million budget to renovate the shared spaces of a public housing complex doesn’t come along every day. But with federal stimulus funds, that’s just what the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) had, and with it, the agency set out to update its aging Cosby Spears apartment tower for seniors and the disabled.

With the big budget came big inspiration, specifically, luxurious, high-end hospitality environments the architectural firm THW, which the AHA hired to design the project, had in its portfolio. AHA and its management firm, the Lane Company, hoped the redesign would allow Cosby Spears to compete with private housing. “I think it’s because of our hospitality experience that we were chosen. This was a 40-year-old building and we had a one-time shot to reposition it to have maximum impact,” says Ken Kite, THW managing architect and overseer of the project. “A lot of the principles we learned creating hotels and country clubs were brought to this senior living project.”

Environments for Aging 2013

Citation of Merit Winners

With creative solutions to design and healthcare challenges, four projects inspired Environments for Aging’s annual design competition this year. A panel of 27 esteemed jurors—architects, interior designers, care providers and educators—evaluated the nominees for this year’s top honors.

We’ll be featuring a winner a day this week. We hope you’ll be inspired by these exemplary examples of environments for aging.

Kite’s directive, in addition to creating design to reposition the property, was that the finished product must benefit and “touch” all residents. The resultant design therefore aimed to provide open spaces that would promote social interaction and participation in programs offered at Cosby Spears. A dynamic, contemporary aesthetic was adopted to emphasize “newness” and help in repositioning.

“By providing open spaces, residents are constantly exposed to the activities taking place,”explained Kite in THW’s Environments for Aging competition submission. “Whereas the original design put everything behind closed doors, the new design invites residents to join in.” An inviting style was achieved through the use of warm lighting, materials and color.

The scope of the project incorporated almost all of the indoor public spaces as well as parts of the outdoors, where new patios, furniture and sun canopies were installed. The endeavor also included improved spaces for meeting, entertainment, arts and crafts, wellness, dining, education and recreation.

According to Kite, the most impactful feature of the new design is the new community room. The flexible space can be divided with moving partitions for large or small get-togethers and has hosted everything from building meetings to piano concerts, birthday parties and game nights.

The new, welcoming lobby features hardwood floors and a concierge (security) desk that could belong in a modern hotel. A café area replaced a dated kitchenette and provides a place to have a healthy snack or coffee with friends. The community room features a fireplace with built-in flat screen above, and a variety of seating arrangements. Even the space near the elevators was transformed into a lounge where guests can choose a book from the handsome built-ins or simply greet their neighbors as they come and go. THW even incorporated a technology and instruction room where residents can take a computer class or access the Internet. “We’ve made it into a place where people want to live,” says Kite, “not just housing of last resort.”

The project was not without challenges. One obstacle was the presence of concrete shear walls that divided the main floor of the building into many small rooms. Selectively, these walls were fitted with reinforced punched openings to “give the feel of openness and transition from one space to another,” Kite says.

Another challenge was to execute the renovation in an occupied building. Careful phasing and communication with the general contractor were key to maintaining a functional home for the building’s residents and retaining access to essential areas of the building, including elevators and stairs.

Design Showcase jurors were impressed with THW’s achievements in relation to its budget. (They spent just $90 dollars per square foot.) One panelist commented, “Design skill is wielded with restraint and surgical precision to ensure that every dollar spent delivers tangible results, from reusing a monumental vase in the lobby to artfully floating ceiling planes below the exposed ‘innards’ of the building.” Another added, “Talk about getting ‘bang for your buck.’ This little project has clearly transformed the quality of life for these residents in a huge way.” 

Gina LaVecchia Ragone is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

To learn more about design in the senior housing and long-term care, follow Long-Term Living’s coverage of the Environments for Aging Conference, to be held April 6-9 in New Orleans.

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