Merutka: One way is to start with the architectural features you already have within your building and see if you can accentuate and join that existing architecture. For example, to make a ceiling look higher, we use vertical vs. horizontal details. We do this, for example, by applying full-height corner guards or creating columns of vertical floor-to-ceiling drapery panels. I recall a project with a lovely marble fireplace in an independent living facility (figure 3) that was an interesting architectural focal point but was cold and hard-looking. We simply added some wood columns along the sides and a wooden crossbeam resembling a mantle, and accentuated the fireplace wall with a darker contrasting wall covering. The fireplace was transformed into one with a warmer, more residential feeling and far more attractive to the consumer demographic market.
Marble fireplace is a focal point in the activity room
In general, we, as designers, approach the design process very systematically, addressing the question: What can be done to floors, walls, and ceilings, and how can we get the richest look by balancing all of the materials and design solutions within the limited budget?
Peck: Please elaborate?
Merutka: Start with the floors—this is the surface that is most difficult to redo in the future while census is high, and it's likely you won't want to be doing this again before another 10 years. Other areas are less invasive and open to more cosmetic refreshing over the years, such as paint, wall covering, furniture, and drapery which can be changed and refreshed more often—more so than with flooring.
Vinyl composition tile (VCT) is the least expensive flooring material and can be interesting if colors and details are incorporated into the total design, but it requires high maintenance. Vinyl is a bit more expensive flooring solution but has less maintenance than VCT. You can do vinyl patterns and add a lot of interest and texture to an otherwise bland floor surface. We have designed and installed very rich-looking designs in “first impression” areas by creating patterns that resemble far more expensive wood parquet flooring (figure 4) and have only a small extra one-time cost for installation.
Lobby was designed with vinyl flooring that resembles wood parquet
However, carpet with moisture barrier is even better than vinyl because it has no crevices for urine to accumulate, and it can be cleaned with water, without need for cleaning chemicals. Carpet tiles are a wonderful solution in allowing development of attractive patterns and textures with the added benefit of ease of replacement if one tile is badly stained.
Next, look at the walls. Painting is no doubt the least-expensive renovation option, but even with this I strongly recommend people get expert guidance on color selection. You want to know how the color envisioned interplays with room lighting, natural light, and the limitations of vision in the elderly? Wall covering is the next obvious option, and the good news is that you can use it on a limited basis—applying it, for example, as a panel along a long corridor wall to break it up, or as a headboard definition in a skilled nursing resident's room. You don't have to wallpaper everything.
Next, look up to the ceiling. Make sure that all light bulbs are the same color—you'd be amazed at how often this doesn't happen and results in a subtly uneven light level. Keeping 2×4 existing fixtures but perhaps adding a few decorative ceiling fixtures will enhance the light level and create a simple new look. Or with a little bit more money, replace some of the fixtures with newer indirect/direct lay-in fluorescent fixtures, which give an upgraded look and better light source. In lobby or key areas the addition of recessed cans will soften and update the look.
A couple more points on lighting of landscaped exterior gardens: Interior/exterior relationships are a wonderful opportunity to expand your visual space. You can use exterior lighting to draw people outside in the warmer weather and to sit closer to the windows in cooler weather. We all know how important natural sunlight is for our seniors. This can make the indoor square footage seem larger than it really is. Of course, you need good landscape design and adequately sized windows to pull this off.
Natural light is like gold to seniors. You should design for the maximum exposure of windows to natural light. You can control glare with adjustable wood-like slatted blinds. If the structure and budget allows the addition of skylights on one-story structures, we will pop a hole in the ceiling (figure 5) and capture natural light in darker interior areas. This will also add architectural interest, break up the space, and give it a new personality. If the budget and structure are more limited, you can create a ceiling detail that feels like an outdoor sky (figure 6) in closed-in interior areas.
Skylights increase natural light