4 key elements of effective living spaces for seniors

The recipe for inclusive and innovative design for seniors living comes down to four key ingredients, writes Simon Drysdale.

The recipe for inclusive and innovative design for seniors living comes down to four key ingredients, writes Simon Drysdale.

Renowned English author and architectural critic Reyner Banham argued principles of modern design should always consider human engagement, foster interaction and be sympathetic to the environment.

This is particularly the case when it comes to designing seniors living spaces, such as lifestyle communities and residential aged care, where good design is informed directly by the needs of those who will use the space now and into the future.

After more than 20 years in architecture, I have developed the four Es to guide good design outcomes in seniors living. The four Es, and they order should they be implemented, are:

  • engagement
  • enquiry
  • experience
  • enterprise.

Our experience using the four Es shows the approach helps to create spaces that encourage independence, dignity and places of trust.


ThomsonAdsett’s project planned for Mt Gambier in South Australia, which has been designed after the city’s famous sinkhole.

The simplest and most successful form of engagement in understanding client needs starts with taking the time and investing in the resources to understand who will be using the end product or space, for what purpose and what they expect may be needed into the future.

The outcome is a resilient return brief and less variations later in the delivery because everyone understands the delivery path and appreciates the “I live here” experience. To achieve this, it is imperative to make a point of engaging with the right people who will be living in the final product.

Too often the wrong stakeholders have the biggest say and the result is an end product that doesn’t reflect the wishes and wants of the community member and their families, and those supporting the resident. Fine tuning your stakeholder list will make the world of difference to the success of your designs in functionality and inclusiveness.

Simon Drysdale

In the case of seniors living, our design process consciously considers the residents and how they will move through the space and interact with it.  Is this experience enhanced by the design or is it hindered by the design?

From non-slip floors to bright colours and unobtrusive security, there are many ways to facilitate ease of movement in safe and comfortable ways for residents.

Also critical to the engagement process is the way seniors living is designed to maintain connections with the external community. Does the design promote intentional neighbouring with consideration given to who and what facilities and services are nearby, and which can be accessed and supported by those living in the residential village?

COVID-19 has showcased that we are a social and vocal species and that design for encounter – or that which encouraged connection – helps fight loneliness.


Understanding the needs of the end user should always inform the design and encourage and promote the pursuit of knowledge, engagement and connections in design.

Encouraging and maintaining curiosity is essential to combating what we call architecture of sedation. This can be done through the inclusion of features such as hands-on gardens, private and group learning spaces and places for communal activities such as cooking classes or entertainment.

Touches such as the provision of a children’s playground and a coffee shop encourage residents to host visitors of all ages and keeps them connected to family and friends. Are the spaces designed to encourage and host inter-generational and community connectedness?


ThomsonAdsett’s project planned for Mt Gambier in South Australia, which has been designed after the city’s famous sinkhole.

Consideration must always be given to how a design will be experienced in physical ways by those using the buildings.

Without understanding the experience of those the design is for, essential elements may be missed. This is most notably the case when it comes to dementia-inclusive design, an important facet of design for residential aged care services.

A constant for our clients is the importance of how their buildings are and become experiential ambassadors of their mission values. Bravery, inclusion, enablement, dignity, environment and quality of life should be integral to any design especially for this community and should foster engagement.

When designing seniors living, you can never have too much information.


In the same way knowledge (enquiry) is ideally promoted and made accessible, so too should enterprise to ensure the residents of senior living villages and communities are able to contribute in ways which promote wellbeing and connectedness.

Retirement is now increasingly seen as a new opportunity to pursue passions, knowledge and enterprise; and smart designs recognises this.

It is now common to see senior communities designed with dedicated spaces for residents to pursue these connection opportunities. The latent human capital in communities is increasingly being viewed as true business opportunities, not only because the spectrum of age engagement, but also because consumer retail demands continue to become more sophisticated.

Residential aged care is no longer considered as a single service silo. They are increasingly becoming knowledge networks merging recreation, retail, lifestyle and volunteer integrated sophistication.

Why follow the four Es?

When designing residential living for seniors, you are not just designing buildings, you are creating a community. This needs to be reflected in the design from the inclusion of communal areas to establishing sustainable communities which are future proof.

Keeping the four Es in mind is a strong place to start in the process of creating smart, innovative and effective living spaces for seniors living that foster independence and inclusion in the wider community, and promote healthy, active living.

Main image: The sinkhole in Mt Gambier, South Australia.

Simon Drysdale is group director of seniors living at architectural firm ThomsonAdsett.

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Tags: aged care living design, architecture, design, senior living spaces, Simon Drysdale, ThomsonAdsett,

4 thoughts on “4 key elements of effective living spaces for seniors

  1. Interesting article, I have 2 comments
    1. Why are the four Es for good design outcomes in senior living only applicable to seniors. Surely these are a pre requiste for community planning of citizens of any age. Australia is an ageist society so what makes us think living needs of older citizens need to be any different to those of younger people?
    2. I belive residential homes into the future will be for palliative care, respite stays and people living with advanced dementia. Surely now is the time to get community home care right given most people do not want to go into residential aged care coupled with the multitude of issues raised and consumer confidence at its lowest about residential living. With this in mind will there be too many residential facilites left as great white elephants?

  2. This is an interesting concept. I was looking out for a senior facility for myself. But now it has been a harrowing time for me as my hearing is dwindling, and I’m trying to select the best hearing aid from the plethora of brands available. Thankfully I got to know a lot of stuff about hearing aids from online sites and blogs including the prices.

  3. I agree with Barb here – these seem to be general knowledge architectural and design concepts that can be applied to any circumstance – not just aged living.

  4. Thank you for your comments. I value the opportunity to discuss such an important topic particularly given it’s important to consider every facility and every community is unique. The four Es are foundation principles that are intended to be equally applicable to living spaces for the young and our elders – although there is not the equivalent building typology for children. Yes, while residential aged care is moving toward a palliative care environment, this does not mean they cannot be a part of a community.
    Specific discussion regarding the built environment and the impact that it has on an individual, let alone staff, from the Royal Commission has been sorely missing. If we don’t openly discuss techniques on how to improve residential living facilities we can mistakenly support an architecture of sedation – which these 4 points try to combat.

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