Housing Market: Architects Get Lean, Green and Senior

The real estate recession has cut architecture and design companies to the quick. There were 219,000 architects on firms' payrolls in 2008 as the housing market was cratering; last June, only 166,000 architects were employed full-time at firms across the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Building starts in Dallas-Fort Worth, for example, are a quarter of what they were during the boom, builders tell me. With so few new homes going up, what's an architect to do?

Think small. Dallas-based D2 Architecture has found a niche even in this depressing housing market by focusing on existing home renovations and smaller-scale design projects. The most common projects? Nursing homes, or at least what used to be called nursing homes. Archictect David Dillard's firm consists of 12 employees, many of whom transferred to D2 from the Dallas office of a 62-year-old Baltimore-based architectural firm that shuttered last October, CSD Architecture. Dillard shut down the company and watched 120 employees leave. But then, with eight of those employees, he turned around and started D2 with a new specialization in the last remaining well-to-do demographic: Senior citizens.
It helped that Dillard had designed one of the most exclusive luxury senior citizen retreats in Dallas, the Edgemere. This Tuscan-Mediterranean complex on the affluent border of University Park and Preston Hollow offers micro-McMansion style-living to residents -- manicured landscaped exteriors, marble, granite counters, high end appliances inside. Let me put it this way: If former President George W. Bush needed a senior home, this is where he'd want to be. There is a formal dining room with the feel of an elegant restaurant, even a meeting room for philanthropically-minded residents who may want to have the Crystal Charity girls over for lunch, with wine. The Edgemere put David Dillard's career on the map. But today, he says, luxury senior living projects like the Edgemere are on the back of everyone's burner. What's front and center? Small, affordable, retrofits and renovations for seniors.

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While homes the size of Texas have not disappeared in Texas, they are getting smaller. The size of a new home in the Houston area has shrunk from 2,873 to 2,849 square feet, according to Metrostudy. (While 30 square feet may not seem like much, it's significant in the state of Sam Houston-size closets and masters the size of Manhattan.)
Nationally, home size has been shrinking since the peak in 2007, when the average-size home measured more than 2,500 square feet. Until now, homes have been increasing in size almost every year since 1982.

So yes, this tendency to go small is related to the weak economy, an anemic housing market and hard-to-get mortgages. When the economy is healthy, people tend to buy bigger homes, even multiples.

But Dillard's group is staying alive and well, designing for seniors. A current project in downtown Fort Worth is the Stayton at Museum Way, a $78-million luxury senior apartment with a rooftop dining room as well as a state-of-the-art rehabilitation wing in the Fort Worth arts district. And his firm just landed an intimate and affordable rehabilitation-and-24-hour-skilled-nursing facility in Sulphur Springs, Texas, about 50 miles east of Dallas. The project, called Carriage House Manor, will be two 12-bedroom houses where seniors can live and feel like they are in their own homes as much as possible. D2 is also renovating existing senior-living communities.

These small-scale, affordability-minded projects will become, hopes Dillard, his company's bread and butter. It is entirely possible to build or renovate, economically, with features that suit an older population, says Dillard. Immediate changes that he suggests in new or retro construction: Building windows lower to the ground so wheelchair-bound seniors can see outside; adding more space between toilets and the wall; making bathtubs easier to get into and out of.

The more that the complex feels like home, says Dillard, the better. Remove all vestiges of "institution" -- from lay-in ceiling tiles to smocks. Install cove lights to keep lightbulbs hidden, for people with macular degeneration. Bring in lots of light, natural and artificial, but all indirect. Glare hurts at 80, he says. Close your eyes and imagine living in -- literally in -- the same apartment building for the rest of your life. And that building should be in the hubbub of a community, not out in "the pasture."

"Remember that you, the architect, really has four clients," says Dillard, "in this order: the resident, the resident's 55-year-old daughter, the staff and ... the one who pays you."

The architect needs to make them all happy, says Dillard.

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