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An Executive Director’s Keys to Navigating a Successful Community Renovation


Renovating a senior living community while it is presently occupied is a little like trying to replace the wing on an airplane in flight. Maybe it’s possible, but it sure isn’t easy.

There’s dust and noise, and sometimes the contractor shuts off the water. Residents may have to shift rooms. Common areas get blocked. Staffing routines may be disrupted. The stakes are high: It is important to avoid the missteps that compromise resident safety or undermine satisfaction.

For an executive director, a community renovation can be a trial by fire, but there are ways to win—tips and tricks to not only survive a renovation, but to come out on the other side with a better, stronger community. We talked to four executive directors who have been down that road:

Sherry Fischer, executive director
Canyon Trails (Integral Senior Living)
Community Project: A $4 million total rehabilitation

Ann Ricci Kenah, executive director
The Oaks at Denville (Springpoint Senior Living)
Community Project: A dining room rehabilitation; the first phase in a four-stage overhaul

Christopher Barstein, executive director
Edgehill (Benchmark Senior Living)
Community Project: A 35,000-square-foot addition and renovation of 55,000 existing square feet

Amber Foster, executive director
Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal (Commonwealth Senior Living)
Community Project: An eight-residence addition on an existing building

Residents first

“This is their home.” This is the mantra repeated by every executive director in the midst of a renovation. Resident satisfaction is by far the predominant concern and proactive leaders take steps early on to ensure those living in the community will be comfortable when the loud, dirty, intrusive, and unpredictable realities of residing in a construction zone come to fruition.

“It starts with communicating the benefits of the project,” Barstein said. “Before we even talked about the negative impact, our residents needed to really understand the need for a dedicated memory care neighborhood. Once they understood the need for the renovation, that helped to get everyone on board, because they could see that these were good things for the community.”

Selling the benefits of a renovation can help ease frustration when the inevitable disruptions begin. Even with residents in a positive frame of mind, however, executive directors still must engage in some heavy lifting to ensure a smooth process.

Much of it comes down to communication. Kenah, for instance, engaged residents early on in the planning process, both to ensure buy-in and to help set expectations. “We had a group of residents on the renovations committee and they were in the discussions with the architect and with our team. They in turn became the town criers; they let the other residents know that a lot of thought had been put into this,” she said.

When the work began, the community went from a single-seating dining approach to a shift system, with resident dining times staggered. “They weren’t used to that and so we had to explain it. We had many town halls to talk about what we had to do and we also offered free room service to lessen the number of people coming into the dining room. That went over really big and it took of a lot of the pressure off,” Kenah said. She also tried to sell the upside of the new arrangement, which temporarily changed people’s dining habits. “We pointed out that people were meeting new people, and there was a lovely sense of people getting to know each other.”

Barstein likewise disseminated a steady flow of information during the 18 months it took to add 10 traditional assisted living residences, nine new independent living apartments, and six skilled nursing spaces to his community.

“Every Friday our operations team would meet with the general contractor and get an update on what would happen in what areas the following week. Then we would have a town hall meeting that was open to all residents,” he said. That meeting would communicate not only what would be happening next, but would provide visuals of completed areas and finished projects. Additionally, any time an individual resident was going to be impacted, someone on staff would reach out personally to convey the needed information.

While Barstein kept this up throughout the entire renovation, he found that the more information he was able to supply, the less pressure there was from the residents: As long as they felt like they were in the loop, they seemed satisfied. “Turnout from the residents was pretty extensive at first. In the beginning it was a packed house. Then as they got used to the disruptions it died down a bit,” he said.

Barstein found that on some occasions, resident satisfaction required turning lemons into lemonade. When a contractor hit a power cord and blew all the lights, the staff fired up a generator and went ahead with a planned party for the residents. “When things went wrong we tried to never let it impact our operations. The show must go on. It gives people confidence in the team when they see that no matter what happens, we will keep things running,” he said.

Fischer took a similar approach. “You take something that could be dismal and make it a treat: ‘Hey, they are going to be tearing down the pool, come and see the destruction!’” she said. The team would give folks advanced notice when the fire alarms were being tested, “but when things were really noisy, for those who could go out we took them out for a scenic drive.”

In fact, getting people out of the building was a major component of Fischer’s strategy. With 70 percent of the building slated to be under construction at one point, she worked to relocate residents to appropriate communities, eventually whittling down her occupancy to 35 percent in order to make room for the construction.

Contractor contacts

For many senior living companies, architects and contractors are chosen by executives in the corporate office. Corporate strategists decide when and how a community will be rehabbed and they set up the working terms with the construction company. Corporate leaders order the furniture and set the timetables.

For an executive director, this makes the renovation something akin to an arranged marriage: an executive director and the contractor may not have chosen each other, but they need to find a way to make it work—together. The ability of the executive director to communicate and cooperate effectively with the foreman and the crew is key the success of any renovation.

As director of development for Benchmark Senior Living, Bill Cook gave careful thought to this before engaging a contractor to work on Barstein’s project. “We needed them to know that this was more than just a commercial project. This is effectively a residential project of the highest order: People live here, this is their house, and it’s up to you to be respectful,” he said.

Setting the expectation helps, but the conversation needs to continue once the wheels are in motion. In Kenah’s case, this meant having her own project manager in an office practically adjacent to the construction zone. He and a facilities director kept up a running dialog with the construction crews, so that when the contractor needed to temporarily block a main thoroughfare, they could remediate without any substantial impact on residents.

We put up signs everywhere and had physical staff blocking the area so residents didn’t simply ignore a sign by accident,” Kenah said. “It required really good communication for that to work. We had to know what was happening and when.”

Sometimes executive directors may need to stand their ground, especially when it comes to resident comfort and safety. “Things were happening so fast and furious sometimes,” Fischer said. “I would be toe-to-toe with the construction manager. He’d say, ‘Okay, we are turning the water off today,’ and I would say ‘No, you can’t, I need to notify people. There are things I have to do.’”

Foster ran into the same scenario. “There would be times when they wanted to shut the water off pretty quickly but we would have to say no. We need eight hours’ notice or a day’s notice before we just do something like that,” she said.

Contractors say that in order to avoid such situations, they rely on the executive directors to keep up the dialogue, and to ensure that staff members are available to share key information.

“We need to understand their needs,” said Ryan Null, director of the special services group at Horst Construction. “If we are renovating a dining area or a corridor, they might have specific times of day where they need to use that space. Or they may need a certain number of resident rooms at a certain time.”

By working together, the executive director and the contractor can do more than just set limits around shutting off the water. They can collaborate on ways to lessen the impact of construction.

“If we understand in detail what it is that they need, sometimes we can offer an alternative solution,” Null said. “In some cases, for instance, we have been able to manipulate schedules in order to be out of a certain area, or we have been able to identify alternative spaces for certain activities. Sometimes there are walls coming out and the space itself is changing, so if we go ahead and take those walls down early, we can create some usable space for them to occupy during the rest of the construction.”

For that kind of high-level collaboration to happen, executive directors need to be willing to pull staff members out of their usual routine and give them a chance to interface with the contractors to express their specific needs. “We need them to be available to us,” Null said. “We need to be able to communicate to their staff on at least a weekly basis just to keep them up to date and address any questions or concerns.”

In fact, staff at every level can play a key role in any senior living community’s successful renovation.

Sales Chart

Staffing success

When you look at a renovation through the staffing lens, it isn’t an especially pretty picture. Routines get disrupted. People can’t get to the places they need to be to do the work they need to do. Daily and weekly construction updates pull people away from other pressing tasks. Residents may be disgruntled, putting extra pressure on staff members who may already be stretched thin.

“We had to retrain staff to serve a buffet, to get the food out there and replenish it in a timely manner,” Kenah said. “They had to go through common space with the food, moving between residents and then getting the dirty dishes back to the kitchen for cleaning, and we needed them to do that with minimal mess, to be respectful of the fact that we were essentially in the residents’ living room. It was a big change for them.”

While the primary focus is always on the residents, a savvy executive director will realize that managing staff through a renovation is a critical task: No one wants their new common area to come at the cost of massive turnover.

Foster recently guided her team through an eight-month renovation that added four assisted living and four memory care residences onto an existing wing. “We would have a daily stand-up meeting each morning and when construction was going on, that was the main topic every day: What’s happening in construction today and what do we need to be aware of?” she said.

This exercise was more than merely informational. Foster used these moments to build cohesiveness in her team.

“By bringing people together each morning, they felt they were involved in the process. We would ask their input: ‘What do you think would be the safest way to do this? What ideas do you have about how we can keep the residents away from this area?’” she said. “They liked that feeling of being involved in doing what was best for the residents. These are people who are hired for their heart, and a lot of times you can tap into that.”

Kenah briefed her managers three times each week and she expected them to keep their staffs up to date. Current information is critical in the midst of a renovation, since shifting spaces and evolving needs can dictate unexpected staffing changes. The more people know about the process, the readier they will be to jump in as needed.

“It helped to have my managers and directors abreast of everything going on, so that if I had to pull them to do something I didn’t need to give them the whole back story. They knew all about what was happening and could step right in,” she said.

As for non-managers or direct care staff, “they are here to serve the residents, and this is all happening in the residents’ space, so the more they know about what is going on, their easier it is for them to do their jobs,” she said. Her renovations mainly affected the dining staff, “but then the housekeeping staff needed to know too, because there was a new cleaning schedule, and then there was a new security routine because we had contractors coming in and out of certain doors. Pretty much everybody needed to know what was going on.”

Barstein saw that the ongoing renovations could potentially take a toll on his people. “Take security for instance. In addition to their regular duties, we needed a security person directing traffic. With housekeeping, there were people walking through dusty areas and dragging dirt through carpeting. There was constant cleanup,” he said.

Managing the renovation meant responding to these added pressures. “We have a pretty good culture to start with, but we still spend a lot of time and effort on recognition programs,” he said. “We did breakfasts and lunches, we’d buy them pizza. We would give spot bonuses: If someone did a big cleanup job that was outside of their normal operations, we’d give them $50.”

Fischer was especially cognizant of keeping her team together.

Safety First Chart“I asked the staff at one point: ‘What kept you here?’ And they said it was the residents.”

That esprit de corps was something she couldn’t afford to lose in the course of the renovation, and she worked hard to build positive energy around the changes. A constant flow of memos and meetings reminded her staff not just of what was happening, but why.

Sometimes this also meant smoothing ruffled feathers. The staff was disgruntled when the construction crews closed off their outdoor access in order to pave over a dilapidated pool and spa. Fischer reminded them of the long-term vision and the staff became more willing to wait it out. The whole effort paid off in the long run. By the time the work was completed, longtime staff “literally were crying, saying they never thought they would work in a beautiful building like this,” she said.

We’ve shown that communication with residents, contractors, and staff is critical, but for the senior living executive director, no list of stakeholders would be complete without the families. If you’re going to park a crane in the driveway, knock down walls, reorganize living spaces, and make a lot of noise, family members have to be kept in the loop.

Family ties

Barstein’s renovation required a bit of musical-chair action. While he generally tried to keep families informed, he said the effort to communicate became especially important when it came time to move folks out of their residences.

“We got out ahead of that by communicating a really strong timeline,” he said. “We let them know very early on that was going to happen, and then we tried to be very realistic about the time frame. We felt we really needed to call a time frame and stick to it.”

Fischer did lose one family in the course of the renovation, when inspectors determined that a previously locked door needed to be left unlocked. That made the family uncomfortable. Fischer’s take-away: There are some things you just can’t control.

But she did have control over the thing that mattered most to her families.

“The biggest concern around the renovation was whether we would raise the rent,” she said. “But we haven’t, we grandfathered them in. The people who are here have great rates. They couldn’t get what they get here anywhere else for the price they are paying.”

Generally these executive directors found that in the course of a renovation, the degree of family involvement tracks proportional to acuity. In an independent living setting, most communication goes directly to the residents, but for residents needing higher levels of care, executive directors tend to reach out more actively to families, who are in turn more eager to be kept abreast.

Overall, family cooperation “was huge,” Fischer said. “We communicated with the families every week, we talked to them directly and through email and through letters. If we had a short deadline we would call them directly.”

The executive director must manage contractors, family, and staff through the renovation process, but always with an eye on the bigger picture. At the end of the day, it all comes back to the residents.

“I come from a hospitality background. There, when you did a renovation you would close a floor or a wing and people were only impacted for the length of stay, which is just a couple of days. Here, for these people, this is their home, and now you have strangers in your home making noise and dust,” Barstein said. “You always have to think of the community you are working in.”