Q&A: Matthias Hollwich on designing for aging urban communities

The architect and creative lead of the BOOM communities discusses a better design approach to growing older.
Written by Sun Kim, Contributor

BOOM is a series of residential communities being built around the world, currently including Palm Springs in California, Costa del Sol in Spain and a tower in New York City. The communities are pedestrian-oriented, culture-driven, and socially empowering. Although originally conceived for the aging gay community, the project was expanded to provide a new community experience for any creative citizens looking for a better way to live.

The projects are led by HWKN (Hollwich Kushner) and the BOOM Communities development company and display high design. Along with HWKN, almost 20 established and emerging architectural firms, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Juergen Mayer H. are designing custom pieces of the project, with free reign to apply signature style.

Evolving from years of research by Matthias Hollwich, the BOOM projects focus on enabling socially involved and culturally rich lives within a multi-generational community.

SmartPlanet asked Hollwich for some insights into the projects, the first of which is scheduled to break ground in 2012.

Hollwich gave a surprising answer to my first question of why he is interested in aging: that at 40, he himself has surpassed 50% of his life expectancy and could not see any community he would want to live in for the next half of his life. So he decided that architects should get involved, because architecture is the reason a lot of people do not live well in their later years. The rest of our exchange follows:

SmartPlanet: Can you explain the history and idea behind the BOOM communities?
Matthias Hollwich: It all started with a 40 acre site and a client who asked us [HWKN] to think about a retirement community for the LGBT community. Two and a half years later the concept has grown way beyond retirement [to] now empowerment and from one location to many locations. It also involves 18 architectural firms and many other smart and ambitious people who want to make a difference.

SP: How is a LGBT senior community different from a hetero senior community?
MH: Lots of differences:
1. There is no classic family setting and the LGBT community operates with the idea of extended family. Friends can become brothers we care for.
2. LGBT community gives over 60% more care to others (formally and informally) so it’s great for a community that is about helping each other and re-socializing.
3. The leisure and fun activities are very different.
4. If you want to care about healthy living and aging, you have to put people together that think alike - like a tribe…so LGBT is kind of its own tribe.
5. We have to plan for all master bedroom settings.

SP: What ideas would you apply from one to another?
MH: With BOOM we can prototype something that grows from the LGBT community (since some of the age challenges are more heightened) and in the long run, turn that into an offering for everybody, most likely not under the BOOM Brand, but with the same principals. I also believe that we have to retrofit all urban and suburban settlements with BOOM principals. People have the right to live well all their lives and we all have to work together to make that happen.

SP: What do you think is the biggest challenge to building -- and selling -- senior living communities?
MH: Making it clear that it is not about senior housing -- it is about a place where living comes first and [being able] to do so at a later age needs to be supported by starting it early. Think about it: when you plan a trip, you do not do that last minute. You plan, plot and choose. And you would also not choose to make your first trip to a super exotic place without help. You will start getting accustomed and grow with your ambitions - and aging is the biggest journey of our life!

SP: I read in the description of BOOM Costa del Sol that it's for people beyond 40...is 40 really considered senior?
MH: Yeah, that is the point; at 40 we are old -- kidding. At 40 we have to start to build our future and [it's] best if we do that at a place where we can build a community around us, create roots, and feel the security that we do not have to move out at the moment we need the community most.

(Matthew Hoffman): The reason behind "declaring yourself old at 40" is an attempt to get people to plan for their future earlier. One of the biggest issues right now is that people deny that they are getting old. The funny thing is that if you ask a 45 year old person what age is old, they will say 65. If you ask a 65 year old what is old, they'll say 85, etc etc. The point is that people never want to think that they are old.

This leads to a huge problem with an unplanned future, at a point when people need that planning the most. When you are 85, have medical issues etc., you shouldn't be living in a house and community that doesn't support you. Many of the problems encountered when you are old can actually be solved ahead of time with proper planning.

So by declaring yourself old at 40, we are trying to get people to think about their future and begin planning.

SP: What do you think is the most innovative aspect of your idea?
MH: We are rethinking everything [about] aging. We believe we have to start earlier than later and center everything around community.

From a recent outline for BOOM:
Do not get me wrong. I'm not talking about being old; I'm talking about aging. We are all aging and BOOM is about doing so healthily; happier and longer - and you should join sooner rather than later because every day counts.

Research has shown that strong social connections, informal exercising, caring for each other, a healthy diet and meaningful activities increase longevity up to 15 years. The LGBT community is poised to take advantage of this with our powerful sense of community, tendency to consider friends family, an increased health consciousness, and willingness to fight for change within society. This is why we assembled a team of the best architects in the world to design BOOM Communities that are nothing the world has ever seen before. From informal fitness environments, purpose driven business infrastructure, stress shredding activities, healthy food choices, extended family places, and a strong unifying identity to be proud of.

Related on SmartPlanet:
Designing for an aging population
Windscraper: Integrated wind harvesting for Greece's Piraeus Tower

Images: courtesy of HWKN

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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