Room to Grow Old

Gretchen Grzybicki
January 01, 2001

My grandparents moved to a retirement community for a number of reasons, the first of which was that it meant living on one floor instead of three.

brown diagram with black lines

When asked what else they like about their new home (besides its lack of stairs), they have plenty of nice things to say: health care, maintenance. They like the placement of the garages. As my grandmother explains, they live in a duplex and "the garages are in the middle, so that there isn't a lot of noise or interference from the other home." They also enjoy the opportunities to participate in activities: playing cards, taking trips, attending church, just going for a stroll. "We walk on our street and we talk to people," my grandmother says simply. It seems like a good setup.

Retirement communities vary greatly: small or large, concentrated or open, confined or spacious. Despite these differences, their designers share basic goals. One, says Shahana Dattagupta, a graduate student in architecture at Penn State, is to counteract the isolation that can occur as people grow old. To promote social interaction, designers typically create what Dattagupta calls "shared in-between spaces," like walkways and courtyards, and "private in-between spaces," like residents' yards, porches, and gardens. But do these features really achieve their desired effect?

"Archaeologists try to figure out the social structure by looking at the physical layout of a place," says Dattagupta. "I'm kind of doing the opposite."

Dattagupta compared two retirement communities: Foxdale Village in State College and Longwood at Oakmont in Pittsburgh. Both are in Pennsylvania and have residents of relatively the same age, education, and financial status. Both have similar gender ratios in their resident populations and similar health-status requirements, accepting only the "well elderly," those who need only occasional medical care.

But they are distinctly different in design, especially in what Dattagupta terms their "encounter affinity," the extent to which a design promotes encounters. It is something easy to see but difficult to quantify. Drawings of Foxdale Village, for instance, show clusters of at least 15 homes, arranged in a rectangle, with very little space in between the units. The front of each home faces a shared, grassy courtyard, while the backyards and porches sit along public pathways. The homes do not have garages; parking lots are scattered throughout the community. Dattagupta said that Foxdale has "high encounter affinity."

Longwood, on the other hand, has only two homes per cluster. The clusters are far apart and separated by rolling hills. These homes have built-in garages so that residents can drive right up to their doors. Not surprisingly, Longwood has "low encounter affinity."

To quantify the obvious differences in the two sites, Dattagupta divided each into 60-foot sections—the approximate distance at which a person can be recognized on sight. Then she visited the communities, rating each section. If it had no physical barriers like walls or hedges, and no changes in level, like hills, she assigned it a high encounter affinity. According to this system, Foxdale rated near the top of the scale, while Longwood was near the bottom.

Next, she distributed questionnaires. While the residents in both communities seemed to appreciate the designers' intentions for promoting socializing, most wanted to socialize on their own terms, in their gardens or on their porches—areas that were theirs—instead of in the shared public spaces.

All in all, their social interaction wasn't much affected by the difference in their communities' designs. "People end up meeting a lot more because of the architectural layout at a place like Foxdale—it increases the chance of encounters," she says, "but the architectural layout doesn't have an effect on how much people actually socialize in shared space." Where layout did make a difference was in the private in-between spaces—gardens, porches, and yards. In these areas, social interaction occurred more often in Foxdale than at Longwood


Dattagupta believes her research shows the need for balancing shared and private social spaces, with enough of each to accommodate different styles. Giving residents such choices allows room for personalities. As my grandfather says, "You don't have to socialize. Why, if you want to be a recluse, then you can be a recluse."

Shahana Dattagupta received her master's degree in architecture in August 2000. Her adviser was Sidney Cohn, Ph.D., professor emeritus of urban design, College of Arts and Architecture, 206 Engineering Unit C, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9535; Dattagupta received the Alma Heinz and August Pohland Award for her research.

Last Updated January 01, 2001