Earl S. Swensson, F.A.I.A.
Chairman of the Board Earl Swensson Associates, Inc.
More than other factors, the size and wellness of our mature population promise to enhance the character of twenty-first century society. Through sheer force of numbers, the population wave initiated after World War II and swelled by advances in the health care sciences will cascade over us during the next 10 years, changing the way we live and think.
For the architect, pressure to anticipate these changes is intensifying. The very nature of our profession is evolving beyond technical considerations of structure and art toward more universal concerns for social and individual "wellness," in all senses of the term. Architecture has entered a new age, one that will require adaptation of sophisticated technologies to daily life within a mature society. My associates and I refer to this age as the Synergenial Age. Through the integrating process of synergy, architects will have to coordinate complex issues of technology, engineering, design, aesthetics, and economy into genial environments that allow larger older populations to remain independent, productive, and satisfied.
Today, more than 50,000 Americans are over 100 years old; those over age 90 exceed 1.3 million. In the next 10 years, these numbers will swell, indicating a need for architects to devise community plans that accommodate our maturing population. There are other considerations as well. Health care, for example, is evolving beyond the mere treatment of manifest crises into a preventive discipline. Driven by technological change, education is becoming a continuing, lifelong pursuit. Shopping is serving as entertainment: a social interaction. Recreation is big business -- diverse, individual, and an acknowledged component of a healthy life style.
The combined effect of demographic change and public activities and appetites has created a need for communities that incorporate comprehensive medical care; educational resources; regional shopping; recreational and fitness facilities; auxiliary services such as day care, car maintenance, restaurants, public service facilities, cultural and amusement. areas; and elderly care facilities consisting of continuing care retirement centers (CCRCs) and chronic care centers -- all coordinated as a single residential and service community. Independent automobile access will remain vital, but so will interconnected, covered walkways.
In short, what the next 10 years will make obvious is the need for Synergenial Suburban Villages such as the 220-acre prototype designed by Earl Swensson Associates as an integral part of a 650-acre planned neighborhood incorporating residential, commercial, office, and recreational facilities (see Figure 1).
By the year 2000, the Synergenial Suburban Village will represent a social and residential revolution in this country every bit as pervasive as the development of planned suburban communities in the early postwar period.
The Synergenial Suburban Village attempts to redress two distinct biases that deflect both the American public and the American architect. First is the bias favoring segregation of elderly persons from the rest of society; second is the tendency to design for a presumed ideal human prototype -- the 30 year-old male, 5'10" tall and weighing 145 pounds. In the Synergenial Suburban Village, the CCRC is no longer isolated but is integrated into the community. Its residents enjoy access to residential, employment, shopping, recreational, and medical facilities that, while tailored to mature needs, are also blended into the overall neighborhood. And given the reality that the typical CCRC resident is not male or 30 years old but female and 75, the synergenial village incorporates designs and technologies appropriate to her -- down to the smallest detail.
As a planned community, the overall Synergenial Suburban Village represents a "critical mass" design. It incorporates two CCRC residential communities; 1.3 million square feet of office space; an 800-room hotel; a covered shopping galleria with parking; continuing education/conference facilities operated jointly by university and hotel interests; recreational, fitness, cultural, and amusement facilities; and a medical center with 320 acute-care rooms, a medical office building, a diagnostic center, and outpatient facilities.
Within the CCRC complexes, all design accommodates the physical, social, and emotional needs of residents, who range in age from 75 to 110. The two CCRC structures are six stories tall, are situated on 10 landscaped acres, and offer 320 apartments to accommodate a total population of approximately 800. Self-contained communities with their own mini climate, underground parking, personal care center, and chronic care center, their design evolves from total attention to detail in our synergenial approach to meeting the special needs of mature residents.
Extensive natural lighting, for example, can bring the outdoors indoors, reducing both the dependence on artificial light sources and the glare and disorientation they produce (see Figure 2). An entire mini community can exist under glass in a garden-like atmosphere, with soothing but constant natural sounds to mitigate disorientation even further. There, individuals can gather or separate for their myriad pursuits. And throughout the CCRC, there will be no ups and downs except for elevator connections between floors, no stairs whatsoever except for fire escapes. Moreover, elevators will be constructed of glass to further enhance the spatial orientation of the residents.
The CCRC plan includes a chapel, lap pool, activity center, small pond, and various services such as a restaurant, pub, research library, reading library, computer center, and investment club. Medical services will share the first floor, screened from the community spaces but nonetheless open to garden-like landscaping of their own; strategically placed nursing stations will maximize care, and modular space planning will streamline storage of equipment and dispensation of medications. Barber and beauty shops, banking, and other services are also assembled within this environment in an admittedly hotel-like arrangement. Will residents make use of all these facilities and services? Of course they will, just as their mature predecessors do today, but locations will no longer be scattered all over town.
Perhaps the most striking departure from accepted architectural practice, however, will be the synergenial residences in the CCRC. Here, more than any other place, it is mandatory to introduce the technologies that assist rather than restrict the mature resident. That means near-total elimination of hinges that need bending, plugs that need pulling, switches that need twisting, and so on. The technology already exists to provide more convenient ways to accomplish such tasks as opening doors and windows, drawing drapes, and stocking pantry shelves. Even telecommunications can be accomplished by voice actuation and facsimile transmission. The challenge represented by a synergenial vision of the future is to incorporate these technologies as universally as possible. We aim at a minimum of exertion and discomfort.
In the synergenial personal residence for the older person, open corridors six feet wide will extend the effect of an outdoor environment even to one's personal space. Resting places midway along corridors and curved walls will enhance mobility, whether one walks or uses the motorized three-wheeled scooter that is destined to replace the wheelchair. No residence will be farther than four doorways away from elevator access to the community area and parking facilities below; and entry into each apartment will require only the touch of a security plate, with fingerprint recognition technology replacing the need for tumbler locks and keys.
Individual apartments will be spacious. No one likes to pare away a lifetime's accumulations. Accordingly, apartments will include storage spaces, and the resulting tidiness will enhance the already generous living space. Moreover, assisted-living quarters will be more spacious in their own right, with more rooms that are larger and kitchens and baths that do not require 100 percent assistance. The goal is to protect the residents fragile sense of independence--even if only on an intellectual and emotional plane. Most residences should cause as little adjustment to life style as possible.
Inside, all surfaces will be soft and glare-free, and the traditional hinged door -- the source of more hazards and problems for the older person than any other household device -- will be eliminated in favor of sliding doors and windows. Curved bay windows without mullions, and a balcony whose radiant overhead heating and wind screening will render it useful 365 days a year, will actually integrate the residence into a natural environment. Yet polarized glass will control the wax and wane of sunlight; and, where necessary, covered lighting in the nine-foot ceilings will integrate artificial lighting to the naturally lighted space.
How can all this be economically feasible by the turn of the century? The solution is modularity. Using the "warehouse concept" of unitized construction, each individual residence in the CCRC, based on a two-bedroom master design that can be modulated into one- or three-bedroom designs, will be prefabricated and literally "rolled" into place. Utility and communications connections will be centralized at the rear of the unit, and the entire assembly of 320 such units in each CCRC structure will fit into an overarching skeletal span that is completely fireproof.
This unitized or modular strategy, which is already becoming the normal design for medical facilities, gives the architect outstanding opportunities for designing living spaces as a collection of molded, ergonomic task centers that include specially designed bathroom and kitchen facilities, living and dining room areas, communications and entertainment centers, and modular personal storage that maximizes efficient use of storage space. Best of all, modularity means that older technologies can literally be exchanged for new ones simply by replacing the unitized module with an updated version whenever one is so inclined.
As congenial and self-contained as each level of CCRC design is intended to be -- from the personal residence to the community structure to the entire synergenial village itself -- the object is not to isolate mature residents from the larger neighborhood but to integrate them to whatever extent they choose. Although the mental clarity and physical vigor of older persons depend on stimulation, younger members of a community will not need to go out of their way to "absorb" or make room for their older neighbors. By opening CCRC amenities such as fitness facilities, restaurants, and amusements to outside memberships, integration can be ensured. Moreover, the experience and training of our mature colleagues will be as essential to our businesses and national economy in the future, as they already are to our family lives and cultural experiences today.
Designing communities like the Synergenial Suburban Village will force architects to address real challenges that go far beyond issues of structure and form. At stake is the health and well-being of our society. How, for example, will we invest finite resources in the housing, medical, employment, and recreational requirements of our maturing population? How will we, at the same time, incorporate modem technologies and remain flexible enough to make room for newer ones as they appear? How will we minimize the costs -- financial, physical, and intellectual -- of living longer, healthier lives? One answer is synergenially -- in other words, by the application of an interdisciplinary design philosophy that incorporates science and art, efficiency and convenience, engineering and psychology.
Designing synergenial communities and structures is not a process that awaits technology. It is a process we can -- and should -- begin today.