Best Small Footprint Design of 2021: A Pocket Neighborhood for the Middle Market

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It’s a common expectation that the baby boomers will want to live in senior living communities that offer social connection, purpose and engagement, all at a price they can afford.

A new senior living concept added to a 346-unit Lutheran Homes of South Carolina continuing care retirement community (CCRC) offers all of the above.

The community is Heritage at Lowman in Chapin, South Carolina; and the project is a pocket neighborhood concept known as The Courtyards at Lowman. With 20 compact homes arranged around a shared green space, the new addition is the latest example of the growing senior living pocket neighborhood trend.

The design from RLPS Architects included open one and two-bedroom floor plans designed to let in natural light while making the most of the compact space. The community also has outdoor amenities and a lawn area to strengthen social bonds among residents.

This helped the forward-thinking pocket neighborhood take the top spot in the 2021 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards’ “Best Small Footprint” category, which was a new addition to this year’s competition.

The concept

Planning for The Courtyards at Lowman started in 2018, when Lutheran Homes of South Carolina President and CEO Frank Shepke was studying the small-house movement with great interest.

Shepke had envisioned an independent living addition that would offer both affordability and a sense of community for residents. He also wanted to add a rental component to the CCRC to diversify its campus and meet demand from prospective residents. As he examined different small-house designs and concepts, something clicked.

“We literally put this on the back of a napkin and kind of sketched it out, and began looking at what this thing might look like if we were able to put all those concepts together,” Shepke told Senior Housing News.

Shortly thereafter, the company tapped RLPS Architects to work on the project. The firm had been involved in similar pocket neighborhood concepts, including at Portland, Oregon-based life plan community Rose Villa, according to Partner Eric McRoberts.

From the outset, the CCRC and RLPS set out to create a pocket neighborhood that was both suitable for the middle market while also offering privacy and opportunities for residents to mingle in shared spaces.

The project was designed as two pocket neighborhoods consisting of 10 homes each. Both pocket neighborhoods are arranged around a common green space made of a synthetic turf that stays green all year round and doesn’t need typical lawn maintenance.

One early challenge was determining the size of each unit. A typical senior housing unit ranges between 900 and 1,500 square feet, but the designers needed to keep the pocket neighborhood’s dwellings to a smaller footprint in order to meet the project’s goals.

“The challenge for us as a design team was, how do you build a smaller unit but still make it feel bigger than it actually is?” McRoberts said.

To help meet that challenge, RLPS designed the pocket neighborhood units with open floor plans, features that let in natural light and higher ceilings. Each home was designed with a unique front porch facing the social area and courtyard along with a more private rear porch where residents can relax. The homes also have varied rooflines to keep them from looking too uniform.

“These needed to have some sense of individuality to make this work, so that a potential resident would say, ‘Yeah, that’s my unit right there,’” Shepke said.

The Courtyards at Lowman is also connected to the larger CCRC via pathways, and all of the homes were designed to have space in the back to store and charge a golf cart.

The construction

Construction on the community first began in early 2019, with McCrory Construction as the project’s general contractor.

Located near the community’s wellness center and on a site with a challenging elevation, the project’s early stages required “a good bit of dirt that needed to be moved around,” recalled Shepke.

Poor weather and water mitigation was another challenge, as was connecting walkways to the larger community. And like many other senior living projects underway around that time, the Covid-19 pandemic also posed a significant challenge in 2020, particularly as it related to the supply chain and social distancing on the jobsite.

In the end, construction was only slightly delayed, with a completion date in October 2020. But all in all, construction proceeded and wrapped up smoothly and on-budget.

The completion

Now open, The Courtyards at Lowman stands at a crossroads between the pocket neighborhood and middle-market trends.

One of the pocket neighborhood’s selling points is its monthly rental rates, which lie between $2,420 and $3,141. To keep rates to a relatively middle-income price point, stock residential casework was used in all of the dwellings’ kitchen and baths. In all, the community met its total project budget of $5 million.

“We were trying to get to a price point of under $150 a square foot,” McRoberts said. “With our first phase, I think we were able to hit that or come very close.”

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