Best Small Footprint Design of 2023: Former Care Neighborhood Becomes Apartments With Middle-Market Appeal

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A recent project in Pennsylvania has transformed a once-decommissioned personal care neighborhood into a vibrant living space with apartments geared toward the middle-market.

The $2 million revitalization project at Messiah Lifeways, a continuing care retirement community in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, breathed new life into a small neighborhood of rental apartments now known as the Bailey Street Apartments. .

Messiah Lifeways and other project planners set out to create a community that would meet the needs of middle-market residents, with a unique pricing structure for those who don’t want to pay an upfront entrance fee. But crucially, the space was designed with a “fresh aesthetic” that included a bright neutral color palette and natural materials so that it would not stand out as a lower-cost option.

The project’s design, coupled with its forward-thinking pricing structure, helped Messiah Lifeways snag the top spot in the SHN Architecture and Design Awards’ “Best Small Footprint” category. 

The Concept

Project planning for Bailey Street Apartments began in Spring, 2022. The initial plan was to transform a former personal care neighborhood that had not been in use since the early days of the pandemic in 2020.

“We were having trouble placing appropriate folks in that [area and Covid hit, our census declined and we made the decision that we really needed to rethink that use,” said Alicia Titus, who is the senior vice president for mission advancement at Messiah Lifeways. “That’s how we got to identifying that we had really strong independent living demand in our market and that it would be good for us to offer additional residential living options on campus.”

A major factor influencing design included determining which units could be combined to maintain existing infrastructure to keep project costs down.

Project planners eventually landed on a design to convert 13 pre-existing apartments into 11. One-bedroom units in the design ranged between 478 square-feet to 551 square-feet. The design also contained one 826 square-foot two-bedroom and one 260 square-foot studio residence.

RLPS Architects already helped design the community’s decommissioned personal care neighborhood, a project that took place in the 90s. The architectural company was able to find and review the original designs from decades ago to inform the renewed planning process, according to RLPS Associate Partner Paul Nikolaus.

“Every once in a while you get a chance at a redo and this was a great opportunity for us,” Nikolaus said. “They were looking at options for unit size combinations and so there was an ongoing evaluation of the best market to hit while providing the right price point to succeed in the market.”

Planning was a “true team effort” in the end, Nikolaus recalled.

“We identified a need and we wanted to be able to offer a more affordable product and we wanted to make sure that this project fit within the range that some folks with more modest incomes could still have access to the quality care offered by Messiah Lifeways,” Titus said.

The Construction

Construction on the project began in March of 2023. Crews worked to reuse the existing space while maintaining the infrastructure that already existed onsite.

That meant understanding which walls within the space were load-bearing and which walls could be removed for units to be reconfigured, Nikolaus said, across the three-story structure.

“It ended up being a beautiful product and everyone thought it was brand new even within working in a fixed parameter,” Titus said.

The workers also were able to reference the RLPS planning documents from the 90s to inform decision making on which units to combine and how to properly layout the space, Nikolaus said.

Construction remained on schedule with no substantial delays, he added.

The project did not deal with any major delays for materials as other senior living operators did during those years, and construction crews only had to wait on smaller items, like door knobs and door handles. With no residents living in the former personal care building during construction, crews were able to access units that may have typically been occupied in similar projects that could have forced delays or resident disruptions.

“It was a blessing for the whole team,” Nikolaus said. “They could get in and open up the ceilings and look at issues ahead of time where sometimes if you have an occupied building, you can’t go into someone’s room and do that so it was very helpful to construction.”

Titus added: “Construction went very smoothly and there was very little disruption to residents’ lives.”

Construction remained on schedule throughout the process and lasted seven months from beginning to end.

The Completion

Today, the Bailey Street Apartments stand as a seamless addition that breathes new life into the Messiah Lifeways campus.

“I don’t think we envisioned it to really look as great as what it does,” Titus said. “It was heartbreaking to see this beautiful area that used to be bustling with people … so, to see it open up was incredible.”

The finished product contains touches that expand the perceived size and scale of the space, such as contemporary color accents and wood pattern luxury vinyl. Kitchen layouts were equipped with full-size appliances and storage with other spaces like unit bathrooms to increase accessibility for less-mobile residents.

While the units in the newly renovated building are small, Messiah Lifeways added ample communal space for residents and common kitchen areas. The community’s “heart” is a great room space envisioned to serve as host to gatherings including meals and game nights.

The community also contains spaces that other Messiah Lifeways residents can use, such as a media room and classrooms, and it has a common kitchen area designed to resemble a cafe that formerly stood on the spot.

Another selling point is a pricing structure called an “asset preservation plan” that lets residents with limited assets, such as those who don’t own a home, pay a higher monthly fee in lieu of an entrance fee.

Titus said she knew the project was a success as soon as she saw residents “gushing over how beautiful” it was. Units are selling “very well,” with three remaining open for sale, Titus noted.

“Repurposing space on this campus is definitely a priority for us in taking some of those areas that haven’t been functioning at optimal levels and infusing new life into it,” Titus said. “It’s been a great project.”

Judges who scored the project praised it for the community’s commitment to creating affordable senior living spaces.

“There’s good design, and I like the neighborhood and units,” said SHN Judge John Cronin. “This is a nice resource to create a housing opportunity for the middle market.”

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