assisted living facility

MEP Design Considerations Unique to Senior Living Facilities

Since the last recession, the multifamily sector has contributed significantly to the boom in new construction.  The sector’s niche market — Senior Living — is a driving reason.

As Baby Boomers age, the demand for senior living options has dramatically increased.  For those who don’t design Senior Living facilities, it’s easy to assume the design is similar to any other multifamily facility with the exception of being age restricted. It is so much more! Senior Living design requires specific knowledge and expert know-how to address the needs unique to the facilities’ occupants and owners.


Special MEP Design Considerations for Assisted Living, Memory Care and Skilled Nursing Facilities

Assisted Living (AL), Memory Care (MC) and Skilled Nursing (SN) facilities provide specialized care to their residents, and thus require specific MEP systems to help deliver that care.  The MEP designer will take design cues from the architect and operator while also taking the building’s functionality into account.  They will likewise build their design to meet all relevant codes and state health department requirements.

These considerations and restrictions can present a challenge for the MEP design.  For instance, AL, MC and SN facilities frequently contain centralized plumbing systems to allow for more efficient maintenance whereas the mechanical systems often consist of centralized boiler/chillers, water source heat pumps or VRF systems to allow a more energy efficient system as well as a higher level of individual control for all occupants. The electrical systems typically include some degree of backup power to not only meet NEC requirements for essential Electrical systems but to give the operator the flexibility to run the facility during power outages and natural disasters, thus not requiring a relocation of the tenants.


MEP Systems Designed Specifically for Senior Living Facilities

The amenities and services provided in the facility, and any mixed-use of the building, determines the complexity of the MEP systems design. When facilities are mixed-use, it can include everything from commercial office space, restaurants, and retail areas to hospital-level care.  These different needs enhance the need for a well-thought-out MEP design that can accomplish the multiple goals and uses of the facility.

Regardless of the facility type, MEP systems should function flawlessly behind the scenes.  For this to occur, however, regular maintenance is required.  The goal is to perform this regular maintenance with little to no disruption to the facility’s tenants. This presents a challenge for Senior Living facilities as their systems should be designed to maintain a certain level of access control for those trying to enter the building and for those who reside within. Balancing the ease of maintenance with the individualized needs of the occupants is achievable with proper space planning and MEP systems in place.


Special MEP Design Considerations for Independent Living Facilities

There is, however, one type of Senior Living project that does closely resemble traditional multifamily design — Independent Living (IL) projects.  These facilities are typically designed as age-restricted apartment buildings.

Even though they are designed to follow the rules and codes of apartment building design, there are some differences from an MEP standpoint. Below are just a few we consider when designing the MEP system for IL projects:

  1. The hot water systems often use a centralized boiler system instead of individual water heaters in each unit. This allows the IL operator to more quickly and cost effectively manage and service the hot water system.
  2. Depending on the long-term goals of the developer and operator, the mechanical systems — from standard DX split systems and water source heat pumps with cooling towers to VRF systems — can vary greatly.
  3. The electrical systems can also vary significantly. For instance, for projects located in hurricane-prone areas, a back-up generator system may be essential to meeting the occupants’ needs. Another example involves metered electrical services.  IL facilities typically have single metered electrical services in lieu of multi-metered apartments. While this is dependent on the local jurisdictions and utility to approve, a single-metered system makes sense when there is no need to track individual electric consumption.

Having an MEP firm on the design team that is experienced in the nuances of senior living facilities can guide the entire team through many of the pitfalls that can, and do, occur during both design and construction. This ensures a smooth-operating facility that makes both the owner and the residents happy. Contact us and let us be your guide.

About VP Engineering

VP Engineering is a full-service mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering firm, serving clients throughout the U.S. and around the world. With experience in a wide range of building types, from housing to commercial, our MEP engineering services help keep projects on budget and achieve your goals. Learn more at

senior living design trends

Senior Living Design Trends to Implement Today

It’s easy to see that senior living facilities are thriving: just look at the demographics and industry numbers. The anecdotal evidence is there too – I pass three new senior living construction projects during my commute to work. As the Vice President of Business Development, my personal knowledge of senior living design has become limited to attending conferences and reading articles. While these are great opportunities to gain insight at a broad and higher level, there is a large difference between that perspective and what goes on in day-to-day designing. In an effort to stay well-rounded, I recently sat down with two of my Project Managers to get specific details on the current state of senior living and how we at VP Engineering are preparing for and reacting to the “boom.”

What different senior living projects have you worked on during your career at VP Engineering?

Zach: “I have participated as both a designer and project manager for senior living, memory care, and independent living for about eight years. The most memorable projects I have worked on are The Blake at the Grove, The Veranda, Mebane Ridge, and Chatham Ridge.”

Sanjay: “The first senior living project I worked on was in 2009/2010. It was Westinghouse, an independent living facility designed with Narmour Wright. I have also worked on Mebane Ridge, Chatham Ridge, and multiple Wellmore projects. We have been designing for senior living consistently ever since I started at the company about nine years ago.”

What makes senior living projects different from the multi-family buildings that we design?

Zach: “The life safety aspect is very different. With limited care facilities, you are required to have an essential electrical system with a life safety branch and critical care branch.  The code is specific with regards to what goes on each branch, so care needs to be taken to design them properly. That also includes the nurse call system as well as a generator for emergency power.”

Sanjay: “The amenity areas are a lot like multi-family, but it also has a lot of back-of-the-house necessities such as a full kitchen. It’s a lot more like a hotel than it is a multi-family building.”

What new trends are you seeing in senior living design?

Zach: “The number of projects is increasing because of the baby boomers. A lot more projects are coming in because of the need.”

Sanjay: “The facilities are becoming increasingly nicer. Even when comparing to the one the project that I designed in 2009, it’s much more luxury and top-of-the-line. Owners are asking for dining areas with dance floors, almost like a cruise. They have nice hair salons, therapy rooms, awesome gyms, entertainment areas for movie nights, and bars.”

What are we at VP doing to make sure we stay up-to-date with the latest technology available to senior living design?

Zach: “We’re attending conferences and reading industry white papers. We are constantly looking for and learning about systems that will give owners the optimum balance between life-cycle and cost. Best bang for the buck.”

Sanjay: “We focus on comfort. Owners are leaning to more high-end systems than they’d even have in a hotel. Instead of just putting a PTAC on the wall, in assisted living units they are putting VTAC units similar to hotels. They really care about the comfort. I could foresee eventually going with VRF systems for higher-end buildings. They are willing to spend the money necessary to ensure comfort for their residents.”

How has designing for senior living changed in the last 5 – 10 years?

Zach: “We are designing a lot more because of the baby boomers. Also, the operators are much more involved than they used to be. They now participate in meetings and give us insight on their needs and new trends. Facilities are also much larger because of the number of amenities.“

Sanjay: “The designs are no longer institutional. It has the same requirements, but it is now more of a luxury resort-style. These new senior living facilities are larger buildings with fewer floors. We’re designing for nicer finishes, so you have to take particular care when designing – especially in the common spaces. We meld our systems to coordinate with interior designers. Interior aesthetics are extremely important now to the extent that they affect the MEP systems and where they go. They don’t dictate the function, but they do dictate the location.”

What do you imagine for the future of senior living design?

Zach: “It doesn’t seem to be slowing down. It’s getting nicer and nicer. It’s become more like resort living. People are living a lot longer, so we’ll be building for longer stays.”

Sanjay: “The end of the baby-boomer generation isn’t for another 12 years. They will continue building up new facilities until that time. Following that, I think we’ll move on to renovation. Even after the baby boomer generation, people will continue needing facilities. Perhaps they won’t be building as more, but I expect a lot of renovating.”

Zach Joyce is one of VP’s Project Managers is an Electrical Designer. Zach has been in the industry for 16 years and has been a part of our team since 2009. (link to bio)

Sanjay Patel is one of our Project Managers and a Mechanical Designer. Sanjay is a Professional Engineer in NC, has been working in the industry for ten years, and has been a member of the VP team since 2008.

senior living mep engineers

How Lighting Illuminates More Than A Room

Picture this: you’re at your desk, working on a project, stressing about the deadline. The phone rings, emails come in; it’s a typical day at the office. At some point, you look up from where you’re hunched over and glance outside. It’s beautiful. Cloudless and sunny. Instinctively, you feel the pull to go outside, to get away from the chaos of the office for even just a few minutes.

So out you go.

The sun is bright; the air is warm, the rich green color of the trees contrasts amazingly with the sky. Within seconds you feel better, more alive, a bit more at peace, and the stress seems to ebb a bit. What you’re experiencing is biophilia, the hard-wired human need to connect with nature.

Thirty years ago, we didn’t have the technology to conduct the studies to acquire the data to tell us what we already knew – that being outside is good for us. Now we do, and the information coming out is fascinating. Interacting with nature, even in an indoor environment (think greenhouse and bio walls), provides a great many benefits. Lower blood pressure, better sleeping and eating habits, greater cognitive abilities, reduced stress, stress hormone reduction and improved cognitive performance are just a few of the quantifiable effects of exposure to nature.

How does this happen?

One way is how the body processes natural light. Natural light, with its spectrum of wavelengths, causes specific hormonal cascades in the body which we perceive as emotional and physical well-being. Fluorescent lighting doesn’t come close to replicating this outdoor environment. Color changing LEDs and other specialty light sources, with the proper controls, can be used to better reproduce the outdoor environment for seniors. This is a bit of the knowledge that has come out of the biophilic design field and was presented at EFA (Environments for the Aging Conference).

Savvy senior living designers are starting to incorporate biophilic design principles into their projects, and savvy developers and operators are starting to insist on them. Biophilic design bridges the gap between the holistic, aesthetic, and touchy-feely mentality of architects and the focused, quantifiable mentality of engineers.

efa conference

Lessons Learned from the Environments for Aging Conference

Photo Credit: Environments for Aging

For those who design senior living facilities, the Environments For Aging (EFA) conference is a must-attend. As an academic conference, those who attend learn about the latest senior living design trends and the data that set and guide those trends. Of all the conferences I have attended over the years, the EFA conferences stand out the most.

Like all other conferences, EFA has networking and business opportunities. What sets it apart is the sense of caring you get from the attendees. I don’t mean care in the sense of learning to design better buildings – that goes without saying. I mean the kind of care that comes from understanding the magnitude and responsibility of what you’re undertaking. As we age, our health fades. Some lose vision, hearing, and mobility. Some get struck with disease. The ravages of dementia return many seniors to child-like states and they need to be in places which are as stress and anxiety free as possible.

Taking care of these people is an awesome responsibility that doesn’t start with caregivers, but with the building designers. This is the type of care you sense at EFA: a deep seated obligation and determination to make the last years of life for our seniors as normal, comfortable and anxiety-free as possible. In my opinion, that is an example of the best of the human condition.

If you’re interested in more of what I learned, please contact me to discuss!