The Staff Lounge is getting some serious upgrades

As shortages plague industries such as senior living, education, and healthcare, Perkins Eastman designers are rethinking spaces that are devoted to caregivers, teachers, nurses, and their fellow staff.

It started as a pitch for Markitects, Perkins Eastman’s internal program to help architects and designers nurture new ideas and innovations in the Senior Living practice area. Associate Principal Hillary DeGroff, an interior designer in the Chicago studio, wanted to research how much more effective caregivers could be if the design for senior housing allocated higher-quality spaces for them to rest, decompress, collaborate, and develop in their careers.

At the time, DeGroff had been watching her mother care for her stepfather as he battled Alzheimer’s Disease, and then manage his case once he was in a care community. “It made me think about all the people we design for in these communities—and also the people we don’t design for,” she says, noting that facility owners are primarily concerned with the experience of residents rather than those who serve them. “Is there a correlation between our environments and caregivers’ motivation to interact and empathize with residents?” she asked in her Markitects presentation. One of the pictures she used in her slideshow was of a basement “break room” that was set up next to the furnace.

As DeGroff pointed out, “I want spaces that support caregivers in senior care environments going from this:

Staff Retreat


to this:”

Staff Retreat 1

DeGroff made her pitch in 2019, before the onset of COVID-19. Fast forward to today, and the senior housing sector, along with hospitals and educational institutions at all levels, has suffered dramatic staffing shortages nationwide. Though there are many factors behind the problem, one looms large: these sectors share a front-line workforce that has had to keep coming to work through the pandemic. During a time of such stress, traditionally designed facilities weren’t offering the kind of spaces that workers needed to seek respite and renewal. With these conditions as a backdrop last year, Perkins Eastman’s Design Research team, headed by Senior Associate Emily Chmielewski, announced it would take on DeGroff’s topic for its Connect series of research papers. DeGroff then began pursuing it in earnest with her colleague in Pittsburgh, Associate Principal Samantha Belfoure. “A big topic of discussion in senior living right now is around staff retention,” Belfoure says. “Our clients want to make sure their staff feel as supported as their residents, and it’s our job to make sure we’re having conversations around that to make sure it’s implemented into the design.”

Their research produced an article last month titled “Changing Perspective: Transforming Work Spaces in Senior Living.” It looks to other practice areas such as Higher Education, Healthcare, and Workplace to inform how senior housing design can be more intentional for all its occupants, not just the paying residents.

Staff dining room at David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City Staff lounge and conference center at David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City

The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York includes staff-only dining, lounges, and a conference center. Left photograph by Andrew Rugge/ copyright Perkins Eastman; right photograph copyright Chris Cooper/ courtesy Perkins Eastman

DeGroff and Belfoure describe tours they took through senior living communities where a break room had staff competing for a single computer for online training, while others were stepping around them to heat up their lunch. Those who needed to take private phone calls either had to go out to their cars or step into the custodial closet. Such stories led the women to ask in their paper, “Is the hierarchy of focusing architecture and design on the experience of the resident (and then administration, with care team members coming last) outdated? … If the experience of the resident is primary, the people caring for residents must be equally important.”

In a firm as big as Perkins Eastman, with 18 practice areas across 24 studios around the globe, the authors didn’t have to look far to see how their colleagues are handling similar situations.


“We were always concerned about staff,” says Los Angeles-based Principal and Executive Director Jason Haim, referring to the airy and open spaces made available to them at MarinHealth Medical Center in Greenbrae, CA. When he led the team that designed the new hospital prior to its opening in 2020, Haim says, “we refused to allow staff spaces to be closets and afterthoughts.” Staff lounges are in each department, for example, rather than a central location that makes everyone travel, and each has ample space, windows, and natural light. “There are industry expectations” for such spaces, Haim explains, “and then there’s the right thing to do.” Noting that the hospital was designed before the pandemic, he says he would have gone much further for its staff today. “You have an overworked and traumatized staff who are asked to go above and beyond. The need for respite, the need to take a break, to separate, has really become important and paramount.”

Perkins Eastman principals Federico Del Priore and Joanne Violanti followed the same imperative in New York when they worked, respectively, on the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Josie Robertson Surgery Center. Each facility offers staff—at all levels—richly appointed lounges, work rooms, and dining areas.

The staff lounge at Memorial Sloan Kettering Josie Robertson Surgery Center in New York City

An entire floor is dedicated to staff at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Josie Robertson Surgery Center.
It includes a lounge and workspace, a café, and an outdoor terrace.
Photograph copyright Chris Cooper/ courtesy Perkins Eastman.

The hospitality-like setting that Memorial Sloan Kettering wanted for its patients and visitors at Josie Robertson extended to the staff, Violanti says. “They realized it was an important tool for recruitment and retention.” Del Priore adds: “If you feel good about the space you’re in, you’re going to feel better about the different aspects of your job.”

The “Changing Perspective” paper also looked at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, CA, and its lushly landscaped gardens with built-in seating and sun-splashed gathering areas. “Caregivers flock to these spaces, whether it is to spend time during a break or to connect with patients,” it said.

Light-filled staff office with big windows at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California Light-filled staff lounge and terrace at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California

The Stanford Hospital staff enjoy offices, lounges, and garden terraces with magnificent views and natural light. Left photograph copyright Will Pryce; right photograph copyright Feinknopf Photography/Brad Feinknopf / both, courtesy Perkins Eastman

Higher Education

When DeGroff and Belfoure looked to educational settings such as James M. McKelvey, Sr. Hall at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, they found that its computer science and engineering professors and researchers were yearning for more congregation and collaboration in the new building. In their previous building, “the spaces were monastic and isolating,” says Senior Associate Jennifer Romeo in Washington, DC, one of the project’s lead architects. McKelvey Hall is organized in an L shape, with a central, open stair at the intersection of the two wings that arrives at a large, flexible common space on each floor. “It was meant as a nexus for people to come together who might not typically do so from day to day,” Romeo says. Each common space offers flexible seating that can accommodate casual gatherings or more formal presentations with drop-down screens; there’s also space for people to meet for a beverage or meal, using the adjacent kitchenette to prepare their food. “It’s a point that intersects a lot of things,” Romeo says. “It creates better connections. They’re in a space that facilitates collaboration, both within and across disciplines.”

Staff Retreat 3 Flexible common space in McKelvey Hall at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri

Flexible seating areas on each floor in McKelvey Hall allow for casual connections or formal presentations with drop-down screens. Left photograph copyright Paul Rivera; right photograph copyright Sam Fentress/ both, courtesy Perkins Eastman

K-12 Education

Professional development is also a major issue for staff working in K-12 schools, not to mention quality collaboration outside of the classroom and dedicated space for rest and wellness. Historically—particularly in public schools—teachers and staff would have to borrow a classroom for a conference or presentation, and their break room might be relegated to a central, windowless room. Even with constrained budgets, the K-12 practice team tries to create spaces with natural light and multiple zones to serve various needs. “Even when it’s small, it can be good. We just have to get creative,” says Ann Neeriemer, an associate principal in Raleigh. A single room can have a softer feel on one side, with seating and plants, while built-in storage systems, a kitchen counter, and small tables can be located on the other wall, with flexible worktables in the middle. “We need to make sure they have all the resources they need,” Neeriemer adds.

Teacher and staff lounge at Washington Latin Charter School in Washington, DC

Although small, the staff lounge at the Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, DC, is separated
into zones for relaxation, work, storage, and meal prep. It also enjoys plenty of natural light.
Photograph copyright Joseph Romeo/ courtesy Perkins Eastman


Media Center floor plan for the new Blanche Ames Elementary School in Easton, Massachusetts

The media center at the new Blanche Ames Elementary School in Easton, MA, includes a niche that can be closed off with pivoting white-board panels (top right of floor plan) for meetings and conferences. “Creating high-performance learning environments is not only for the students. It’s for the teachers, too,” Boston Principal Robert Bell says.
Plan and images courtesy Robert Bell.

It’s All a Workplace

The bottom line for senior living, DeGroff and Belfoure argue in “Changing Perspective,” is that all forms of care environments are, at their core, workplaces. Employees in these settings deserve the same treatment as those who work at more traditional corporate offices. It’s all about deciding which amenities are best for each environment, says Workplace Practice Area Leader Iramis Luz Audet, a principal in Boston. “It’s understanding who you’re designing for,” she says. That might mean “an incredible coffee station” for a healthcare company’s back-of-house triage line, where phone operators need comforting breaks. Or including a walking track for employees who work long hours and want to get their steps in each day. That’s why Audet’s group, along with those across every practice area, deploy teams to engage deeply with a project’s array of stakeholders before initiating any design.

Indoor walking track at Commonwealth Care Alliance in Boston

The Commonwealth Care Alliance in Boston requested a walking track around its workspace,
in addition to private booths for phone calls and flexible open meeting space.
Photograph copyright Robert Benson/ courtesy Perkins Eastman

Translating the workplace concept into its master plan for the Frasier Retirement Community in Boulder, CO, the Perkins Eastman design team included spaces such as private phone rooms, a dedicated staff lounge, and nooks where employees can complete coursework or study. The plan additionally fosters a true community, rather than an “us against them” setting where residents, staff, and C-Suite administrators are physically—and figuratively—kept apart. The layout below is included in the white paper, where the C-Suite includes meeting and conference spaces that are open to the community:

Floor plan of the Peak Canyons office suite at the Frasier Retirement Community in Boulder, Colorado


At Frasier, the bistro, meditation rooms, and pool are also open to all, encouraging more connection, friendship, and understanding between each group. “We’re seeing more and more senior living communities take this idea of bridging communities,” DeGroff says. “The more boundaries they can break down so a space isn’t just a resident-geared space, the more comfortable they’ll feel. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”