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Mixing It Up with Elders: An Interview with Byron Kuth and Liz Ranieri

"In its current state, the senior living industry is all about isolating senior communities from the larger communities around them. We're proposing a very different social structure."

By ArchNewsNow
October 18, 2011

Editor’s note: Pictured here is ECO-Commons, a socially and environmentally sustainable community proposed for Levittown, New York, with a focus on introducing new paradigms for retirement/eldercare constituencies. Kuth/Ranieri Architects looked to the tradition of UBRCs (University Based Retirement Communities) as both precedent and development model, here expanded to assert contiguous systems of dwelling, wellness, education, commerce, recreation, ecology, and energy production. ECO-Commons establishes a nexus of use and activity for residents and the broader community, providing new opportunities for overlap and engagement. The proposed community includes 450 units of elder housing, educational, commercial office and retail, parking, open space, reservoir, and urban agriculture.


The entire site behaves as a constructed ecosystem attending to water, energy production, and waste management. The social components and ecological systems are dynamically intertwined, connecting system, site, and programming.



The elder population is projected to double by 2040, from 40 to 80 million people – in other words, from 12% to 20% of the general population. This is a new demographic paradigm. The baby boomer generation has always had an independent streak, and it’s not going to settle for the standard models of senior living. Byron Kuth, FAIA, and Elizabeth Ranieri, FAIA, principals of Kuth/Ranieri Architects in San Francisco, are known for their architectural research incorporating Modernism, psychology, art, and popular culture. We interviewed them on their radical notions for redesigning senior living – and our nation’s suburbs to boot.


Q: How did you become interested in senior living?


Byron Kuth: Both of us have worked together to build accessible homes for our parents – and design support systems for them as they age. For my family, we designed a community compound for five aging couples.


Q: Like a small cohousing project?


Kuth: Yes. It was my initial entry into thinking about the needs of seniors and how architecture helps to organize issues of privacy, community, landscape, and housing. Then we were approached by a group of people involved in digital networks and media. They were interested in buying an RV park and turning it into a contemporary version of “RV living.” The ownership would be shared by people of a similar age who had common interests and philosophy about the environment. It was going to be LEED certified, with a community center, a store, and garden. That was just before the economy went sideways, so it never came to be. But it got us interested in thinking about senior living for a new culture. These folks were not finding the senior living industry responding to their values.


Elizabeth Ranieri: The design problem is the tip of the iceberg. The larger questions revolve around how we want to live for the rest of our lives. What is the quality of that life? How do we relate to our community? How will we get around? What is the shape of the community that meets the needs of our generation?


Q: Tell us about the thinking behind the Eco-Commons, the proposal you submitted to the Long Island Index competition asking for new ideas for developing vacant parcels in suburban Long Island.


Kuth: Ultimately, suburbia will be the location for new forms of senior living because of the significant aging-at-home movement. And the suburbs are where the biggest aging demographic is. In investigating new ways of creating communities for the elderly, there is also an opportunity to recognize virtues that may have value for other project types, for all generations. Virtues like a walkable community, good public transportation, a mix of uses.


Ranieri: Once, this country had small towns with active main streets. Then, in a number of American cities, like Detroit for example, there was an exodus from that center. Now people spend their time at the malls – they’ll spend all Sunday afternoon there. How do we reintroduce healthful, multiuse environments that enrich the lives of those who use those commercial centers? So we’re not rejecting the suburban commercial strip, but activating it in a new way to make it more livable, more green, and multigenerational. There are countless office parks and shopping centers that are empty and need to be redeveloped. The catalyst for that may be a new, visionary kind of senior housing.


Kuth: The challenge is to get developers to change the way they build and sell land. Changing the way we develop elderly communities is a good place to start, because dense mixed-use communities make a lot of sense for the elderly. They can’t drive 30 miles to distant places. They can’t live in the dispersed world that suburbia is built on. So a dense, mixed-use community for seniors becomes a positive economic model that developers can buy into. And from that, they can see that this can actually be a more positive economic model for all different types of suburban conditions, not just senior living.


Ranieri: You have the opportunity to create new, unprecedented adjacencies; programs that are critical to the current needs of the population, youth and seniors alike: a university annex next to a big box retail store, and a parking garage next to a farmer’s market and health center.


Kuth: In its current state, the senior living industry is all about isolating senior communities from the larger communities around them. We’re proposing a very different social structure.


Q: Reversing the isolation seems like a huge move.


Ranieri: We’ve talked about it with a lot of people in our generation. A number of them are doctors. They see that isolation ends in a hospital bed.


Q: But some people want to live in a community where it’s quieter, where there aren’t children.


Ranieri: In ECO-Commons, we laid out the community so that the independent senior living and assisted senior living facilities are in one area. But the parcel as a whole offers a number of housing typologies. So your neighbor is in your age group, but you can leave your block to go to a collective space and enjoy a number of experiences with people of all ages.


Kuth: There is an interest among developers for senior housing to return to cities, but the urban environments are laid out for a different kind of speed. At a certain age, just crossing a street can be difficult with cars speeding by. I think we may be looking to reinvigorate the suburb to combine an urban density with the kind of speed that works for members of all generations.


Q: What’s the most radical aspect of your idea?


Kuth: The introduction of urban agriculture into these new communities. The country will begin to recognize the energy it takes to transport food, and realize the opportunities for local industries and community participation and discover it’s worth the investment. To be living within an agrarian landscape in the middle of suburbia – it’s totally feasible.


Q: Where do you think the developer who sees this is going to come from?


Ranieri: The developer has to be forward looking, probably in partnership with a university-based senior community.


Kuth: Currently, the university-based senior communities that we’ve looked at are sequestered. But universities have traditionally been innovators. When they see the opportunity to create a new kind of community, a learning community, one that broadens their outreach and appeals to their alumni, you’ll see innovation in development. Universities often own the land that strip malls or other adjacent uses are sitting on. So it becomes an advantageous investment. In this economy, given that land tracts are very affordable now, they could become income generators for these universities.


Q: How do we get more developers to think about senior living communities differently, more holistically?


Kuth: Think of the other kinds of achievements the baby boom generation has pushed forth in regards to civil rights, women’s rights, and the organic movement. It makes perfect sense that – as we age – we will transform this aspect of society as well.


Q: So you’re saying it will come from market demand?


Kuth: Yes. But, it will be a grassroots movement.


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

ECO-Commons axonometric illustrates how systems, site, and programming are intertwined.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

ECO-Commons housing and wellness center

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

The commercial strip includes the University Annex and a pedestrian bridge.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

View toward University Annex and esplanade.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Community Town Square Plaza

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

View towards waterfront and marketplace.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

View towards housing and health center.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Community marketplace

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Urban greenhouses and open-air agriculture

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Amphitheater overlooking the reservoir

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Housing allée and esplanade

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Community recycling hub

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Site circulation is designed as a porous fabric for access and congregation. A variety of thresholds invite the community into the heart of this new neighborhood: transit + vehicular access points at commercial corridor, open and expansive access to the meadow, intimate connection through housing mews.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Elder community: university-based retirement community and communal programs.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Community anchored by Intergenerational Housing and Wellness/Community Center. Facility is designed as a UBRC (University Based Retirement Community) connected to Hofstra University adjacent to site. Facility shares classrooms and educational programming organized around a new town square.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Intergenerational matrix: a combination of uses and diverse populations provides a catalyst for active elders, assisted elders, students, families, and young professionals for living, learning, shopping and recreation.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

ECO-Commons provides a variety of experiences and opportunities for gathering, civic exchange, commerce, and recreation. Community building is enhanced by linked open spaces and public rooms: new town square, open-air/year-round marketplace, housing mews, amphitheater, meadow and wetlands, accessible gardens and orchards at agricultural green roof.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Agricultural products grown onsite in gardens, orchards, and greenhouses located on green roof and throughout the housing district provide fresh produce to the elder community, to on-site restaurants, and available community-wide through the open-air marketplace.

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Water harvesting: rainwater collection and conditioning with constructed wetlands

Kuth/Ranieri Architects

Gray water collection and re-use