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BUILD Talks: A Conversation With Senior By Design

This article is brought to you by Senior By Design. The article is based on a live Q&A session with Reid Bonner, President of Senior By Design, at the SHN BUILD event in Chicago held on November 18, 2021. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Senior Housing News: Reid Bonner is president of Senior by Design. Reid, tell us a little bit about yourself and a Senior by Design.

Bonner: I’m Reid Bonner. I’m the president of Senior by Design. We’re based in Dallas, Texas, and we create interesting, wonderful, what we call “soul-warming” interiors in our senior communities. I’ve been in design my entire life, and when we started doing senior living communities, it replaced the joy I had for any other type of work. As we grew, I started cherry picking people from the design field in Dallas.

I have brought dozens of people onto our team who I’ve known for a very long time and are the best in their field. We have a fantastic, unified group following the same purpose, and it’s almost become somewhat of a ministry.

SHN: That’s great. So far, we’ve talked a lot about branding throughout the day. How do you explore the personality of a brand when you come to a new project or renovation?

Bonner: It starts at the very beginning. We have to go and look at each location, then sit down with the developer and make sure we understand everything about the location and surrounding region.. Maybe the land itself was a farm one day and we want to incorporate elements of it into the building or the story. All of that study begins with the location, and even if there isn’t much of a history, we look for other elements to create a strong, vibrant personality.

I want to make sure when we are creating and crafting that personality is the focus from the beginning. We bring containers and product in from all over the world to find things that are immediately identifiable for that community. We focus on interesting items with impact that give a lot of excitement and it starts at the front door.

SHN: Backstage, you mentioned that soul-warming design is the ethos of your design philosophy. Budgets are getting tighter, however, and we have to do more with less. How do you approach balancing soul-warming design with cost-consciousness when looking at new projects?

Bonner: We approach that by figuring out what this community is going to be before anything else. For example, we have a development in New Holland, Michigan that just broke ground, but I’ve already started purchasing some Dutch antiques from overseas and having them brought in. They might even go in the office where they’re going to have their marketing trailer, because I want to make sure that the personality that community is going to have is present from the very beginning.

We’re then able to start finding and sourcing. The challenge with some of these costs, however, go back to a unique thing that Senior by Design has. We have a 40,000 square foot design center warehouse right on the edge of Dallas. Most of the time, we have somewhere between $2 to $3 million worth of product, thousands of pieces of art, hundreds of chairs and other things I’m finding all over the world. I like to find things I’ve never seen in my entire life and incorporate them into our communities.

Consequently, to answer your question, if we have a restricted budget, I’m able to play with pieces I’ve been able to find. Maybe I purchased a piece at an auction and was able to get it at a fantastic value—I don’t need to put much of a markup on it. We are able to use items we already have and populate them into budgets.

Or it could be something for which we’re going to a manufacturer. Say Baker Furniture has a beautiful chair that’s perfect for senior living and maybe it’s an ugly yellow color or something. Then, here comes the next season’s furniture and the new color is blue and white stripes and a different tone of wood. I may purchase all of those chairs and custom upholster them when new opportunities come up.

We get chairs that would have retailed for maybe $800 at $200 a piece, then upholster them with senior friendly fabric customized to a specific project. As a result, I can charge a very small amount, the chairs look way better and it’s all within the budget. It would be easier for me as a design firm to take a different approach, but it doesn’t get the personality. I need to make sure that all of those pieces in that interior look interesting.

Some of our communities have art and furniture tours for the residents and their family and friends. They go through the building because so many of the pieces have fantastic stories and some of them are even museum quality. We put plaques beside these interesting pieces of furniture, art and other selections and tell the story.

It makes the pieces very personal to them, sometimes bringing in the regionality of the town or neighborhood they’re in, and our seniors especially love that history. It’s exciting and interesting. The warehouse is also a great way to give the biggest look. I always feel like with every one of our clients, I’m the custodian of their money. If it’s their community they’ve hired me to design, and we’ve got X amount of money to work with, then I need to stretch that as far as I can. Sometimes things get cut. Lighting might get cut. Something around the exterior might get redlined as we evaluate cost.

Not long ago, I was at High Point Market and saw a showroom that had gorgeous lighting, and I said, “I could buy all of this. It’s every piece I love,” and the owner said, “By the way, I’m the owner, and we’re moving this showroom to another market so it’s for sale. We actually have a group coming in this afternoon to buy it,” and I said, “Well, how much is it?” He told me and we just bought it. I bought hundreds and hundreds of chandeliers. Now, the warehouse completely freaked out when I said, “Okay, guess what we’re going to do this week,? I need 10,000 square feet of gridded ceiling, because we’re going to be hanging chandeliers.”

Instead of providing our developers with a typical chandelier that would cost X amount of dollars, we were able to pull them out of our warehouse. It was the same scenario as the chair examI gave earlier. We made a small markup on it and gave them a way bigger impact element, which is the key sometimes.

Art in any kind of commercial setting is often too small. Sometimes the lighting is not large enough to get that wow. My whole career has been about going into any space, whether it was a hotel or a hospital why there’s no “wow.” I’m like, “The art’s not big enough. The impact pieces don’t just go ‘oh my gosh,’” that kind of thing. Or the art story’s not moving through the building in a way that’s exciting and interesting.”

Consequently, we created the warehouse, which originally was one, then it became five warehouses. We don’t have any surprises. When it comes time to install, we’ve already curated everything that is going into the upcoming installation.Everything on site is pre-curated, staged and photographed.

It’s all pre-packaged and everyone knows exactly where it goes in the building, and sometimes I may have 20 people at the building. Two weeks ago, we had 20 people doing an installation in a four story IL in Florida, and a three story AL at a memory care. We brought in a huge team and finished it in about four days—the fifth day was a tweak, because it was pre-created.

SHN: How do you define the outcome of success with your clients today?

Bonner: Good question. One, we don’t ever go over budget. We also have this great excitement that comes from the staff working there and the tours that go through. The interiors we create all have stories, from a tiny little town in a rural area to a major metropolitan city. Every building is different, but every building has a soul and some of the soul comes from pieces of furniture and art.

When the staff and future residents get excited, it usually translates to faster occupancy. Leasing immediately goes up and it’s a snowball effect we can track. I’ve also had the opportunity to have a hand in ownership in some of the buildings we created. A lot of design firms don’t have ownership in senior living communities, and I do. I have done that from the very beginning. It’s my money. It’s our building. We make sure we have accomplished everything, then we study that census report. We get to look at it later and see if the results are going back to the bottom line.

This article is sponsored by Senior by Design. Senior by Design’s team strives to evoke a sense of home, warmth, and style in their spaces as these spaces influence behavior. From floor to ceiling, this team hunts for special pieces to display in their spaces — carefully curating each fixture and accessory to enrich the lives of those who will be living in the community. Offering the best and most cost-effective interior design, Senior by Design believes in thoughtful design that will generate all the memories and features of home. To learn more, visit seniorbydesign.com.

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