House or Home?

The bulk of my architectural career has and is spent designing structures that are not considered Residential per the building codes.  Some may call it Commercial.  Much of it is Institutional by Code.  But that does not mean it is not someone’s Home.  You see, I primarily design buildings in the Senior Living sector; have been my entire career.
When I began my career more than 20 years ago, there was already a movement under way to make retirement and senior living spaces much more residential.  Even in dwellings classified as Skilled Nursing Facilities, the idea that these building should feel like someone’s home had been one that many providers had embraced.  The problem was that most of the providers (at that time) had buildings that looked like hospitals instead of your home. 
A Cruciform Church.  Early hospitals took their shapes from churches.  Thus, so did the early nursing home.
Beddington Corner Hospital. (source: )
The economy is easy to see.  The result is not necessarily a religious experience.
What can you do for an existing building?
I feel the best way to illustrate how our buildings fulfill the qualifications of “home” is by showing how we can improve existing condtions.  The difficulty lies in all of the regulations associated with a facility that provides nursing care to its residents.  The International Building Code identifies these buildings as an Institutional or I-2 building.  NFPA reviews these buildings in (almost) exactly the same way as a hospital (Health Care).  In either case, the Use Group enclosed therein is the second most hazardous category according to code.  What would be worse in terms of hazard?  Think fireworks factory.  The hazard to Skilled Nursing Facilities is exiting…someone bed or chair bound is not able to get out on their own; or not capable of self-preservation in CodeSpeak.  Also in Institutional buildings, nearly all aspects of the building have to be accessible.  So features required in these buildings are not similar to those you have in your home, nor in a building pre-1990.
So what can we do?
Sometimes an improvement to the exterior facade can make a significant impact with easier application as it is, more or less, surface applied.  However, most Institutional buildings are non-combustible construction, so there are limits.  You can’t just add anything to the exteriors.  In new construction, you can utilize scale and materials to humanize the sequential experience.  Many vintage Skilled Nursing Facilities are economic ‘blocks’.  Even modest additions to the exterior may improve the approach to a building.  
Mennonite Home Exterior – Before
Mennonite Home Exterior – After (Obviously).  The addition to the right created a one-story, human scale.
But let’s face it, the folks who reside in these buildings spend nearly 100% of their time inside.
What about the interiors?
In new buildings, it is much easier to provide open, residentially scaled rooms on the interior with connections to the outside.  In the many, many renovation projects of nursing homes we have done, it is much more of a challenge.  Traditionally. resident rooms line up in a continuous 8-foot wide corridor up to 120 feet from the original nurse’s station.  One way to bring some residential life to these facilities is to blow out a couple of rooms to allow the addition of a living room with access to windows.  Many of these buildings are non-combustible, as I said earlier, so exterior and corridor walls are often concrete block and they do not have tall ceilings.  You can see the challenges.
Corridor – Before.  Hard and highly reflective surfaces are not atypical in vintage nursing homes.
Corridor Concept Sketch
Corridor  – After.  Sometimes all you have to work with are finishes and lighting.
Another issue is that whether there are 15 or 50 residents, they all need to eat in a dining room.  No one has a dining room with seating for 50 (well, no one that invites me over for dinner anyway).  These rooms need to be broken up visually into human scaled rooms.  Some times that means providing a serving (residential looking) kitchen with several smaller rooms around it for dining.
Dining Room – Before.  No connection to the outside or the community at large.
Dining Room – After.  Here we had the opportunity to add skylights to add natural daylight.
Adding just a bit of privacy and homelike environments can also do wonders for one’s main living area.  This is especially true in a double occupancy room.
A Double Room – Before.  Only the thin curtain between you and a neighbor.
A Double Room – After.  There is still a curtain, but the interior window provides a more substantial barrier.
FYI: the window wall is not a full height wall so as to not trigger sprinkler revisions.
There has been a more recent movement for skilled nursing called the Green House Project © about 10 years ago.  And while the word “house” is in the name, the feeling of “home” is what is intended.  This method limits the occupant count to 10, favors a universal worker for more homelike care, and has strict spatial rules.  This project is an actual Brand-name developed by a doctor and requires a lot of staff training.  The concept has a lot of merit and you can learn a lot more about it on their website here:   The Green House Project
It turns out that concepts we (not just my firm but others, too) had in the 1990’s have only just made it to the Code books.  In 2012, the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code addressed the ability to allow a kitchen to be open to the corridor (with a whole lot of provisions).  Nearly the same provisions made it to the 2015 IBC.  In fact, the Commentary shows a floor plan illustrating the open kitchen concept with a plan by our office in 1995.  For twenty years, we had to convince State and Local jurisdictions that it should be allowed, so that is a little sweet reward to be the example in the Code Book!
ICC used this 20 year old project of RLPS’ to illustrate a brand new concept in the 2015 IBC.


While many may not consider what our office does as “residential”, I would argue that it is extremely important to our end users in the buildings we design that the spaces, “Look like, act like, feel like home.”  This quote is attributed to one of our clients, who had the vision to create the first freestanding Hospice facility in Pennsylvania.  That’s another topic in itself.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series (led by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect ) where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is led by Keith Palma and is “House or Home”.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
The Designation between House and Home

–>Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
House or Home? It’s in the story.

–>Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)
House or Home? A Choice of Terms

–>Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
house or home: #architalks

–>Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
House or Home — Discover the Difference

–>Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
“house” or “home”?

–>Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #24 : House or Home

–>Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
House or Home? – Depends

–>Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
House or Home? Train for One, Design for Another

–>Greg Croft – Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)
House or Home

–>Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Designing a House into a Home

–>Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Making a House a Home

–>Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
I don’t design homes

–>Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
#ArchiTalks #24 House or Home? #RefugeeCrisis @GrainneHassett mentioned

–>Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
A Rose by Any Other Name…

–>Mark R. LePage – EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
Emotional Marketing for Architects: House or Home?

–>Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
ArchiTalks: House or Home?

–>Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
House or Home? The Answer to Everything

–>Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
A Rose by Any Other Name…

–>Samantha R. Markham – The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
6 Ways to Make your Architecture Studio feel like Home

–>Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
Dwelling on a Macro scale

–>Tim Ung – Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
Architalks – A House is not a home

–>Rusty Long – Rusty Long, Architect (@rustylong)
House or Home