Real Estate / High-Rises

Making Senior Living Cool — Watermark at Houston Heights Takes Aim at a Stagnant Retirement Industry By Showing a Different Way

From a Hot Architect to a Prime Location and Learning Perks Galore, This is a New Type of Building


Jorge Munoz is not the type of architect people consider when it comes to senior living. In fact, using Munoz for a senior living building probably strikes some as the Hollywood equivalent of having Paul Thomas Anderson direct the latest Fast & Furious movie. Isn’t it a waste of Munoz’s talents?

“Part of our reasoning is that we’d use one of our best living space architects,” says John Mooz, Hines senior managing director and Houston/Austin/San Antonio market head responsible for the development and financing of projects in the Southwest. “Jorge is not commonly thought of when you do a senior living space.

“We purposely did not want to use someone whose basic CV was in the senior space.”

The many reasons for that can be seen in walking around The Watermark at Houston Heights, the new seven-story, 222-unit mid-rise at 1245 W. 18th Street (between T.C. Jester and Durham) that aims to help change the idea of what a retirement community can be. From the sweeping elevated driveway that puts you outside of the second floor lobby’s doors to all the natural light flowing through the open lobby and the front desk that seems more fitting for a five star resort, there is not really anything that says senior living.

Which is the point.

“In a nutshell, if you use a senior living architect, you won’t get this,” Watermark Retirement Communities chairman David Freshwater says, gesturing around the new building. “Because they have an idea of what it should be. Because they’ve done it so many years.”

The entire point of this Hines and Watermark partnership, which is already continuing in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area with a new 14 acre senior living community that’s breaking ground this summer, is to shake up a senior living realm that often offers spaces much more old and tired than the residents. That means using architects like Jorge Munoz, known for innovative and often hip high-rises like  The Residences at La Colombe  in Houston and The Victor in Dallas. It means food you’d actually want to eat in interesting settings. It means having the building in The Heights, the type of happening urban setting full of interesting restaurants and bars, where senior living traditionalists don’t think older people want to live. (They’re wrong.)

And it also means making the programming — what you can do and learn — much more important than providing entertainment.

On the day of PaperCity‘s exclusive private tour of the new building, a few memory care residents took to the putting green for a little outdoor fun and bonding. A Watermark staffer helped facilitate the putting contest, but she didn’t seem to be a dictating presence.

“We should want to live in every community we build.” — Watermark chairman David Freshwater

Watermark is partnering with a number of leading hospitals, including Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, on studies into what produces the best results for seniors. One of those studies centers around the idea that cognitive decline can be slowed by physical activity.

The type of thing these seniors are doing on the putting green without even really thinking about it.

“These are the type of interactions I love to see,” Meg Meliet, Hines director senior living & health care development, says as she watches the putting fun. “To see these residents interact and thrive in the environment we built is a fantastic feeling.”

Watermark Houston Heights by Heather Durham Photography
Watermark at Houston Heights knows its outdoor spaces are almost as important as the indoor. (Photo by Heather Durham Photography)

While Watermark at Houston Heights includes everything anyone could need to relax — a full service salon and spa, locker rooms fit for a private club, a pool, a movie theater room, a pilates studio, a yoga area and an arts and crafts studio — the chances to do might be more important.

Watermark University has residents and staff members teaching classes on everything from bridge to fly fishing to gardening. A former entertainment industry agent who lives at Watermark’s Los Angeles building put together a whole class on that world. Another Watermark resident is a former CIA agent who teaches an espionage class. Two Watermark housekeepers from North Philadelphia teach a wildly popular class on the history of hip-hop.

“I think it’s camp for older people,” Mooz says.

The idea is that Watermark communities will be a place where you continue learning and growing. Which is a far cry from the picture of seniors being essentially warehoused that so many retirement communities can conjure up images of.

“Just because someone’s eighty, they have the same exact desires and are triggered by the same standards of quality that a 28-year-old is,” Freshwater says. “Or a 45-year-old is. Those are the things we fight for a lot. But it is important.

“Quality matters.”

Freshwater has the calm manner of an NPR host, which may be fitting since people who listen to public radio and watch public television line up with Watermark’s demographics. This mild-mannered man with a trim beard is not a slick salesman given to bold pronouncements.

Yet as Freshwater walks around The Watermark at Houston Heights, he seems genuinely delighted.

“There are two or three things here that are the best I’ve seen,” Freshwater tells PaperCity. “I just love the courtyard. I love the reception area with the coffee. The Watermark University classrooms are fantastic. The units are great here.

“I’d say there are a lot of things about this one that are right there with where we want them to be.”

Watermark already boasts senior living communities in 23 states, but this Houston retreat is a little different. That includes the showcase outdoor terrace with sweeping views, seemingly of all of Houston, on the seventh floor. This is also where you’ll find Taboon, a Mediterranean restaurant with a wood fired oven that is about anything but bland “old” people food.

Spots like this — and amenities like the golf simulator — are not just for the residents. They’re for the kids and grandkids of the residents too. To make them more likely to be excited about visiting.

Yes, you want to be the grandpa or grandmother who has the cool place. Monthly rents at Watermark start in the $2,600 range and go up from there based on the size of the unit and the level of care that is required. Everything from independent to assisted living and memory care offered.

Elevating Memory Care

There is serious care going on at Watermark at Houston Heights. Including memory care, where residents suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurological issues get specialized treatment. And a specialized environment.

Watermark does a few things different in memory care. They even use simple baskets to make a difference. Every memory care resident gets their own basket. In it, they’ll find some things that are special to them. Whether it’s a brand of cookies they love, a particular type of Root Beer or the New York Times crossword puzzle.

“It sounds so simple, but it’s so powerful,” Freshwater says.

It is all about bringing a little joy and comfort to residents who may sometimes feel unmoored. Memory boxes hang outside of the door of every Watermark resident getting memory care. These are filled with mementos — including family photos or photos of the resident when they were younger — meant to trigger a sense of belonging and place.

Something as elementary as booths in the memory care eating area are there to help promote intimate conversations with visiting relatives. It’s all about making sure there is plenty of stimulation and a sense of joy.

Watermark Houston Heights by Heather Durham Photography
The Engage Vr Program lets Watermark at Houston Heights residents travel the world without leaving the building. (Photo by Heather Durham Photography)

While Watermark uses simple things, it also employs the latest high-tech tools and toys. Take the Engage VR program, which has residents (who typical average 79 or 80 years old at the time they move in) visiting spots across the world in virtual reality. Sometimes including where they grew up. The program was championed by the son of Watermark CEO David Barnes who recognized that some of these senior living residents who loved to travel wouldn’t be able to physically do so anymore.

The Watermark Life

It is all part of making this senior living community a place where people would actually want to live. Which marks a big departure from how things stood in the industry when David Freshwater first thought of the Watermark and Elan model. The driving force came from bull session with fellow CEOs in the senior living field when someone asked if the execs would ever want to live in their own communities and everyone to a man said, “No.”

“We said that shouldn’t be how it is,” Freshwater says. “We should want to live in every community we build.”

That can start with picking an architect who isn’t schooled on the old ways of senior living. Everything builds from there. This is apparent when you’re standing inside one of the apartments, sunlight streaming through the expansive windows, full kitchen and big closets at the ready.

“We have built a lot of multi-family (buildings) over the last 10 years, and I just look at this unit and look at the environment,” Mooz says. “There’s really not a significant separation from the experience. . . It feels elegant.”

Watermark and Hines are anticipating and embracing the Silver Tsunami that is coming. As Baby Boomers age, the population of seniors in America will dramatically increase. In fact, those 65 and over are projected to make up a whopping 21 percent of the the overall United States population by 2030.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that 77 million Americans will be 65 and older by 2034. For the first time that will mean that seniors outnumber children in the United States. Those 77 million are going to need places to live. Watermark and Hines are hoping that they can show a different type of model, a better way.

“I think we’re going to push the industry to go in this direction,” Mooz says.

Freshwater, who’s been in senior living for more than three decades, takes a more cautious approach.

“Definitely have a way to go,” Freshwater says. “But the more people visit communities like this, we will change perceptions.”

Back in one of the model apartments, looking out at the The Heights, Mooz boils down all the perks, the learning opportunities and the comfortable surroundings into one simple equation. One question, really.

“Success to us is: Could you see yourself living in this unit?” the real estate maven says.

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