Hamish McDonald talks to Nigel Howe, Co-Head of Retirement Living Operations at Stockland.
How important are retirement villages to Stockland’s business?
Nigel Howe: We have around 60 villages, in most capital cities. It is an important sector for us. It really incorporates our purpose of creating ‘a better way to live’; retirement villages are part of our vision to build great communities, not just residential but for retirees as well. There is a real sense of community in our villages, and that’s what we pride ourselves on.
HM: What are the trends in design of retirement villages in Australia?
NH: There’s no doubt that there’s an increasing desire for older Australians to age in place. We know that 80 percent of Stockland residents are less likely to call an ambulance or visit the emergency department; require 96 percent fewer mental health consultations; and stay out of aged care for five years longer than the national average.* That’s due to a number of factors, one of which relates to design but there are other factors as well. In terms of some of the key elements of design trends, wellness as a holistic theme is becoming critical for operators to make their residents happy.
That can be everything from ensuring that there’s good access to outdoor space, community facilities, activities, and all those social and connection points, as well as incorporating natural and clean materials and textures into the homes. It’s sometimes little details that make it easier for our residents to age in place. That might be things like stepless entries, bathrooms with reinforced walls to make it easier for grab-rails to be fitted, ensuring fabrics and surfaces are durable and cleanable. They are some of the little trends and it all links back to that theme of older Australians wanting to age in place and enhance their wellness.
HM: Does that mean locating villages close to where they were living before, so they are not taken away from their longstanding community ties?
NH: It’s not always the case. We have villages in lifestyle, coastal locations where people can seek a sea-change when they retire. But we do find that for the most part our residents like to live near family and friends that they have made over their life in their communities.
Take our villages in Port Macquarie and Laurieton, NSW, for instance. Nearly half of our village residents there have lived in the area for a long time and have simply downsized and retired in the same place, with family and friends remaining close by. The other half are ‘sea changers’; those who have made the move to retire for a variety of reasons including to move closer to friends and family, for the high quality yet affordable options, or a change in lifestyle. The area is quite popular to retire in because there’s a lot of high-quality options for villages. Our Bellevue Gardens village is well located; close to town and medical facilities and has all the amenities you would want including easy access to public transport, indoor heated swimming pool, a village bowling green and on-site café and restaurant. Our Queens Lake village in Laurieton is also very popular. It’s set on 13 acres of landscaped gardens in a rare waterside location, with views over the lake and parklands. Our villages are also well priced so our residents are getting the lifestyle and amenities they want, for the price they can afford.
HM: Going back to wellness, does that mean you’re building in more facilities for keeping fit but also more for mental stimulation?
NH: We’ve got a lot of examples of that, whether in our established villages or our new developments. That’s absolutely a key focus for all our residents. As a couple of examples, we have a development in Ashfield, Sydney: our Cardinal Freeman village designed by Allen Jack + Cottier. It has multi-function rooms that can be booked out in the clubhouse, communal barbeque facilities, modern gym, heated swimming pool, and all the associated activities that allow our residents to be physically connected but also socially connected. That was critical during the period of Covid-19 lockdown: this feeling of social connection, ensuring that despite the physical lockdown that there was still some connection within the communities.
HM: Some of the retirement developments now being completed across Australia, like the Cardinal Freeman village, incorporate stand-out architecture. Does this reflect a more discerning customer in the sector?
NH: The perception of retirement villages being kind of bland is changing completely. Residents’ expectations are much higher, across several elements, and operators need to respond to that in new designs. Not only for brand new developments but also retrofitting both private and communal spaces in our established villages. We use designers with broad experience in hospitality and other fields. In our own experience the design elements of our standard residential built form and our retirement living products are really converging. So, in both private and common areas we’re seeing a lot of higher levels of finishing, like stone benchtops, joinery, decorative lighting, all those things. The design and architecture are becoming much more on trend, as a contrast to the perception of older retirement villages. Much more contemporary.
HM: Would that help the aspect of resale of the units when people move on? There seems to be a lot of stories about units not being quickly sold.
NH: Definitely. And in terms of the interior of the units we typically refurbish the interior prior to it being resold, and we are always looking to improvements to our specifications in those refurbishments. There’s no question that the quality of the refurbishments and the finishes has a direct impact and correlation to how quickly we can sell it.
HM: I note that the Cardinal Freeman village has some new technology incorporated, like monitors that detect when someone has a fall, and voice-activated appliances. Is that helping extend the time residents can live independently?
NH: It’s something we have trialled at various villages, to test some of these technologies. Within the units themselves, technology is still an evolving space. Certainly, the old assumption that retirees don’t use technology is quite frankly wrong. In our common areas and in the way we operate the village, technology is certainly an important part of that. Technology within the units like voice-activation is still evolving, and we will certainly be incorporating it in future developments.
HM: Do you find people are staying in retirement living for longer, partly because of better design and technology that allows them to look after themselves?
Definitely. We certainly see information and data that our residents in retirement villages stay in ageing in place for longer, and there’s a design element to that, also a social connectivity element. People value the programs and activities that we can provide and that all contributes to their wellbeing. Also of course the things like gyms, swimming pools, and yoga classes also keep our residents well in both a physical and mental sense.
HM: What is the typical number of years people spend in retirement villages?
NH: It varies and depends on when they enter. We have people entering quite young, the over fifty-fives. We also have people entering much closer to the time they are going to need wholistic support. It does depend on the village itself, and the age when they enter.
HM: How much sustainability can you build into your developments?
NH: This is evolving rapidly. We have a sustainability strategy across our entire group, and that really helps us drive those elements into our new communities. Things like maximising natural daylight and ventilation, water recycling elements, responsible material selection, solar. Even elements that encourage our community to be active and connected we consciously design into our new developments. Our Newport Retirement Living community in Queensland is a good example of this. Newport and our nearby Shine Birtinya were the first two retirement communities to have achieved 4 Star certifications under the Design & As Built tool (v1.1). Newport embraced several sustainability initiatives to help secure this, such as: optimising indoor environment quality, passive design principles to promote natural daylight and ventilation, potable water reduction through water saving fixtures and fittings and rainwater tanks for irrigation, and responsible materials selection.
It’s not just for the new developments, with the established villages we’re rolling out solar programs as well. Where there’s rooftop space, we can retrofit solar panels. It not only goes to the wellness of residents, but it can also reduce their cost of living, by cutting power and water usage.
We have the most Green Star rated retail town centres and retirement living developments in Australia, and are proud to set the standard for liveable, sustainable and affordable living. Stockland has also committed to 100 per cent of all new retirement living developments to be LHA Silver standard design.
HM: What about what you might call governance in retirement villages. How do you keep a lot of older people happy and handle any complaints and disputes that might occur?
NH: We have staff that work from the village – a village manager and several others depending on the size of the village to maintain and operate the assets. If residents have any concerns, about maintenance or other things, their first port of call is the staff who are well-experienced and set up to deal with those type of things. They get a lot of support from us. We have processes and systems that help government the decision-making, and resolution of any disputes.
*2018 Independent study conducted by EY on Stockland Retirement Living.