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Partnerships@Work: A room with a view

March 20, 2014
by Gina LaVecchia Ragone
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Anyone who has managed an older facility knows that physical updates and innovations can pose a challenge yet are important in a competitive marketplace in which seniors have many living choices.

Michael Palmieri, president and CEO of Havenwood-Heritage Heights, two campuses in Concord, NH, knows this challenge well and constantly looks for improvements to set his company’s continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) apart. Speaking particularly about the company’s older Heritage Heights facility, he says, “We’re trying to make a 50-year-old campus much more modern in today’s competitive environment, and we’re always looking for something that might be great for our residents, that’s different from what other organizations are doing.”

To this end, Palmieri took note of the “Luminous SkyCeiling,” a virtual skylight product, when The Sky Factory’s mobile showroom—aptly named the SkyMobile—visited Havenwood-Heritage Heights three years ago. Although neither campus had immediate building or redesign plans, Palmieri decided that when the time came, the SkyCeiling—which uses the latest light and photographic technology to create ultra-realistic virtual skylights—would make a distinctive addition to distinguish these communities in the marketplace.

During a remodeling of the Heritage Heights community in 2013, Palmieri and his team decided the entry area to the facility’s great room would be a fitting place for a SkyCeiling, and he reached out to the Fairfield, Iowa-based company. He had two goals. One was to add natural ambience to a dark and windowless area. “People tended to congregate in the area, so it was a good place to add a SkyCeiling,” recalls The Sky Factory designer Aaron Birlson.

The second goal was to help in wayfinding. “You can see it down the hall, and it draws you [toward the great room],” Birlson explains. He worked with Palmieri and his team to create a bright, sunlit blue sky dotted with ethereal clouds. “It provides that sense of arrival in a special place,” says Palmieri. “You see this beautiful, sky-lit scene of a crystal-blue New England sky with some clouds and a little bit of pine tree overhang. It did what we wanted it to do and makes a very nice statement.” He adds, “It took a couple of years to figure out where to do this…but we found a fit. Considering where we started and what we ended up with, it’s a stunning, gorgeous space.”

Pleased with the outcome at the Heritage Heights campus, Palmieri and his team decided that a SkyCeiling would be a welcome addition to the Havenwood facility. Havenwood features a nationally recognized “Main Street”—an indoor plaza that connects diverse activity venues, including a theater, library, billiards room, specialty boutiques and spaces for socializing and crafts.

“Despite all of the [Main Street] attractions, it was still a 500-foot hallway” and thus lacked windows and a connection to nature, Palmieri recalls. He worked again with Birlson to design and install four Luminous SkyCeilings, placed every 100 feet or so along the corridor. Each measures 2’ × 4’ and provides the benefits of natural light as well as the illusion of a bright New England sky and open space overhead. “The hallway tends to be dark, so the installation was a great solution. If you’re feeling down or it’s an overcast day, the sky composition makes the space feel vibrant,” Palmieri says.

Following the Main Street installation, a 4’ × 4’ SkyCeiling was designed for Melody Lane, a memory-impairment unit. The Havenwood-Heritage Heights staff was eager to provide the virtual skylight in this setting because research has shown the benefits—particularly the psycho-physiological “relaxation response” of daylight exposure for residents with dementia and other memory problems. Such exposure has been proven to have a calming effect for these seniors. “We’ve been very pleased with the response there from residents and staff as well as visitors,” Palmieri says. “It really has brought something special to the unit.”


Palmieri says that what sold him on the SkyCeilings was their realism and the difficulty in differentiating a SkyCeiling from the actual sky. It is this realism that is essential to the “biophilic response” (see sidebar, below) and health benefits associated with exposure to nature. The Sky Factory worked to achieve this effect in several ways.

First, the images are customizable, down to the types of trees, clouds, even window panes, if chosen. The Heritage Heights and Havenwood ceilings feature sunlit blue skies, fluffy white clouds and native New England pines for residents to enjoy as they chat with friends or visitors, move between destinations along the main street complex or simply sit and relax. This customization not only contributes to the realism of the installations; it also lends a personal element to each project.

It is at this stage that teamwork is important, both Palmieri and Birlson say. The partnership worked in part because of the back-and-forth collaboration between the teams (as well as between The Sky Factory and the contractor performing the renovations). “It becomes very personal because people fall in love with certain scenes or trees that have meaning, something very local," Birlson says. “This is especially true in senior care facilities, where memories are important.”