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Living Without Limits

Podcast #10: The art of architecture.


Who are the people behind the gorgeous design of our Villas? In this episode you’ll meet Eric Harrmann, lead architect of The Arboretum Villas, who discusses “biophilic” design and all the unique details that will help our residents feel connected to nature as they live without limits.

FOLLOWING IS A TRANSCRIPT FROM OUR PODCAST:

Nitsa Foundos:
Hello, welcome to Living Without Limits, our fun and informative podcast about the Arboretum Villas at Plymouth Place in La Grange Park, Illinois. I’m your host Nitsa Foundos, and joining me today is Eric Harrmann, chief design officer at AG Architecture and the lead architect on the Arboretum Villas and, for those of you that are listening intently, there is construction going on outside of the skyline lounge as we speak. It’s so fitting, because we’re doing a podcast with you, Eric. Welcome, Eric.

Eric Harrmann:
Well, thanks for having me. As you hear the beeping in the background, know that’s the sound of progress.

Nitsa Foundos:
Oh my goodness. Well, let’s start off with you. Okay. It’s always about you, Eric.

Eric Harrmann:
Yes, it is. With my role at AG Architecture, I’m the chief design officer. I manage an entire design team and my role, is to think big and look at the big picture of a project and then help drive the success of it by meeting the big picture with all of the smaller details. AG Architecture, we specialize in senior living, we’re working on it across the country, but we were brought into help your team kind of develop the product that is being constructed right outside right now.

Nitsa Foundos:
Well, before we get into the Arboretum Villas, tell me how long have you been doing this Eric?

Eric Harrmann:
I’ve been with the firm for 17 years. I started right out of undergrad and I always knew that I wanted to work on places where people lived, residential design, coming from Wisconsin, bit of a draw to Frank Lloyd Wright and the other residential architecture. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Nitsa Foundos:
Wow. I don’t think I could have said that. What I’d like to ask you, Eric, is when you think of the very first time you designed a residential community within senior living, versus what we’re doing with the Arboretum Villas, what I’d really like you to do is talk about the then and the now and what has evolved through those 17 years you’ve been doing this.

Eric Harrmann:
Do we have a couple hours, or?

Nitsa Foundos:
Sure.

Eric Harrmann:
The biggest difference is just kind of the form that senior living has been taking. It’s been a lot of effort to really downsize the overall footprint of the building designs. Very quickly as I was working under Gene Guszkowski, who was the founding partner of AG Architecture, I learned that corridor length is the first question that everybody’s going to ask. The challenge is that the previous designs, the seniors had to walk for days to get from their premier corner apartments.

Nitsa Foundos:
That’s true.

Eric Harrmann:
To be able to get to the amenities that were so popular. You were being punished basically for having that fantastic end corner unit, because you had the longest walk to dinner.

Nitsa Foundos:
It’s all about convenience and close proximity.

Eric Harrmann:
Yeah, and that close proximity to the very important amenities for the seniors, because the sophistication of all these amenities is getting so much nicer and so much appropriate for the younger demographic.

Nitsa Foundos:
Sure. As we progress to the Arboretum Villas and how that all came to life, I know you and I had a very early conversation probably close to two years ago or maybe a year ago. I don’t know, time just seems to kind of evaporate very quickly, as we really wanted something different. I know everybody that starts a project with you all says, “I want something different and unique,” but I truly believe that we set a trend. I hope you can validate that.

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm.

Nitsa Foundos:
I remember sending you a picture of a California row houses. Do you remember that?

Eric Harrmann:
Yep, I do.

Nitsa Foundos:
We had this vision and I did a lot of research and I really wanted this to break the traditional congregate housing mold.

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm.

Nitsa Foundos:
You took it and ran with it and I was so extremely humbled and grateful and excited by what you came up with that. Can you just talk a little bit about the hybrid design?

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm.

Eric Harrmann:
When you sent the row houses and coming from a appreciation for Chicago architecture, kind of the brownstone and the classic walk walkup is what came into our mind. We got to the point where the image of that brownstone with the five stairs and the large front porch and the big front door became kind of the catalyst for the design of these individual buildings. Then we kind of made it appropriate for the senior living environment. We eliminated the stairs, created some more privacy at the front entries, but still kept that kind of brownstone architecture.

It’s a hybrid bringing those concepts together, you get some density with the height and the unit footprints on each building, on each floor plan, but you also have that personal connection of walking directly to your front door.

Nitsa Foundos:
That was so important to us.

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm. The exterior materials and the overall exterior design that we touched on, we’re building on a Georgian style, which is a very timeless architecture. It’s the structure that we have here in the tower, but we’ve taken that Georgian style and we’ve updated that exterior design of the Villas.

Nitsa Foundos:
But we knew and understood that there were a lot of the blending of the two buildings had to be somewhat similar, but the textures you brought into the new design was absolutely amazing. A lot of the comments have been how large the windows are, because the natural lighting was so important also because where these buildings are, there’s four buildings, right?

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Nitsa Foundos:
They each are at different elevations.

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm.

Nitsa Foundos:
Do you want to tell the audience why you decided to do that?

Eric Harrmann:
It was the antithesis of the tower. We have a beautiful tower that we’re recording in and there’s a lot of units. I believe it’s nine stories tall, but when you pass the tower, it’s the tallest thing in the La Grange Park. It is very apparent that you have arrived. The architecture wasn’t going to be about arrival to the overall campus, it’s going to be about the destination of those buildings.

A lot of work went into the initial planning for these four individual buildings, not only the height differences that we mentioned, where two, three and four story structures really make that village feel, but in the individual units and how many of them are going to be corners.

The really attractive part of these buildings is by designing so many corners, we’re able to achieve two or three sides of light in every single one of the units. When you do that, your master bedroom and your living room can have two sides of light, a piece. You can have a dining room that gets additional light coming into it. Your second bedroom is having potentially two sides of light as well. That was kind of the Genesis for the unit designs. Then from there, we just took advantage of those extra outside connections.

Nitsa Foundos:
I know that has been a very important feature by having the enclosed walkways, especially made all mostly in glass so they can actually see as they’re walking through their Arboretum Villa, building through the campus to see how beautiful all of that green space is.

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Nitsa Foundos:
Eric, those one bedroom with den are so beautiful. When you just look at it on a floor plan, it’s just not enough. It doesn’t do it justice.

Eric Harrmann:
The one bedroom plus den has been incredibly laid out, where you open up the front door and you have a great natural view to those large windows. It is your very first impression is the natural light that’ll be flooding in. The other thing about the one bedroom plus dens that we have here, is in a typical project that we’re working on over the last 17 years, you’re looking at one bedrooms that could be 750 or 850 square feet. They’re larger offerings are in 1100 here. When you get a one bedroom plus den that starts at 1100 square feet.

You’re getting that extra square footage, even in your one bedroom, which allowed us to have that flexibility to create an office in a separate plant. In a typical one bedroom, you wouldn’t have that type of flexibility, but here with the footprint that we gave it, we really have the ability to take advantage of that large master bedroom, that large living room.

Nitsa Foundos:
I know they’re amazing.

Eric Harrmann:
It’s amazing. The unit design pieces that we talked about earlier, with the location of balconies and patios, we didn’t block that large natural light with a balcony and the furniture locations. We set those off to the side. In addition to that large view, you have a private door over to your patio. We aren’t impacting that first impression on the exterior.

Nitsa Foundos:
Eric, how high are the ceilings?

Eric Harrmann:
The standard height of the ceiling is nine feet, which is a very, very gracious height. The window heads, the tops of the windows, they’re going to be at eight feet tall. You’re going to have to jump if you want to touch the top of the windows, which luckily you don’t have to, but you have a great amount of light coming into a very tall space. That’s on the second and third or fourth floor.

When you’re on the first floor, as we dealt with some construct ability, you’re actually getting a 10-foot ceiling. Those first-floor residents, not only do they have great ability to step out and enjoy the landscaping. If you have a dog, can you imagine the flexibility of that first-floor patio with your own dog to be able to step out and have the grass right in front of you?

Nitsa Foundos:
Wow.

Eric Harrmann:
Yeah. There’s unexpected benefits to some construction techniques.

Nitsa Foundos:
You know what I love the most? Is that no one has to compromise if they want a patio or a balcony. They all have one.

Eric Harrmann:
Absolutely. Yeah.

Nitsa Foundos:
I’ve heard you mention the biophilic design. Tell me what that means and how it applies to the Arboretum Villas.

Eric Harrmann:
Big picture, the simplest way to put it is bringing the outdoors in, bringing the sense of nature into the design So, it starts at that base level of being in a space and understanding what’s happening outside. Then also kind of ties into the decisions that we made from an organization of the buildings. Each of these four buildings kind of wrap around a shared green space. That shared green space happens to be covering the enclosed parking. Instead of looking down on a parking lot from your residence, you’re now looking at a beautiful Plaza that has activities and landscaping and different opportunities to enjoy the outdoors right there on what is kind of an elevated green roof looking down on the surrounding courtyards.

That was a nice addition to the design, because we had a considerable amount of green space on this project before we started.

Nitsa Foundos:
Right. Eric, we talked a little bit about the exterior of the Arboretum Villa design. Can you tell us the little things that are really setting us apart inside each of the Villas that we are offering as standard? Standard furnishing, standard offerings, so to speak?

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Our firm did a unit survey several years ago, trying to look at what are Baby Boomers looking for in the marketplace. That unit survey taught us a lot of things. Livability of a kitchen was one of the most critical things that we heard. Storage space, another thing that we heard at length. Size of master bedrooms, the ability to have a club chair in the corner of your bedroom for putting socks and shoes on in the morning. As you come to a Villa, you kind of expect the lifestyle that you had in your previous home.

Nitsa Foundos:
Mm-hmm.

Eric Harrmann:
So as we did the surveys and we studied more of the usability of a kitchen, you can’t reach the microwave up over the top of the oven. If you can, you’re leaning over the top of a potentially warm oven top. Those small things that as you age in place become more of a concern. We look to eliminate them. With these Villas, we have the microwave located under the counter in the island. While you’re at the sink and you’re prepping over your clear island space, you can pop the microwave drawer, open, warm up the things, lift it up and have it right there on the location where you’re working on them. You never have to reach over any other piece of equipment.

That’s one of the things. In the kitchens, one of the biggest pet peeves that I have, and I can’t imagine it being better as I age, is having base cabinets that you can’t get to the back of. If I’m crawling around on the ground to get the pan out of the back of a base cabinet, I can’t imagine what my grandparents are going through to get that very same pan. You’ll notice in these Villas, we have a larger number of drawers. That storage space that’s in the base cabinets is much more usable.

Nitsa Foundos:
That was extremely important to us. Talk a little bit about the adaptable units, because as you know, there are some of us, not all of us that are on the short side.

Eric Harrmann:
The adaptable units are intended for seniors who are coming into the community already needing the accessible features, whether it is the lower cabinets that are lower countertops, as you mentioned, or the more open showers, showers with the seats built in, more clearances around the toilet facilities, clear knee space underneath cabinets. You can actually roll in and or address a sink without banging on the base cabinets. But what we’ve done, is basically design the units to ensure that if you want those lower cabinets, those lower countertops, you can have them built in. But if you are a resident who wants to be prepared for needing them, but doesn’t need them today, you will have a 36 inch high countertop, which is standard in most homes. If you want the lower one right off the bat, that’s going to come at 34 inches.

That two inches might not seem like a big deal, but it really helps your ability to reach everything to the front or back of the counter and have a comfortable position to use that counter space. It also translates to the upper cabinets. There are gorgeous, tall, upper cabinets in these units.

I might be able to reach it, as a six foot tall gentleman, but Nitsa might have a challenge. But the part that you don’t think about when you talk about the height of the cabinets, is the lowest shelf. In an adaptable unit, that lowest shelf of your upper cabinets is going to be easier to reach. That’s going to be a little bit lower, a little bit more accessible.

Nitsa Foundos:
Well, I think these things are so important as people are researching new places to live that oftentimes they establish a one size fits most.

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm.

Nitsa Foundos:
Right? Talking about customization, that’s very, very important to these folks. We’ve had a few conversations with some of the founders and your firm about them wanting to really get into the weeds of making some significant changes.

Eric Harrmann:
Mm-hmm.

Nitsa Foundos:
Now it’s exciting, but on the other hand, I think people need to understand from your point of view, what’s the difference between customization and an upgrade?

Eric Harrmann:
As we go through the entire design process, we work hand in hand with the interior design team. As we’re designing the units, we’re thinking about the standard offering, which is going to be finishes, types of appliances, carpet, or wood in the living rooms. Those types of things. Then if you get into an upgrade, what you’re doing is you’re basically upgrading one of those items or a group of those items. It’s already in the plan, the configuration doesn’t change, but you’re upgrading from a vinyl tile to a wood floor. The same floor is there. You’re just improving the end quality. That is an upgrade process.

A customization is to come in and say, “Boy, Eric, you did a great job laying this kitchen out for somebody else. But I would like it this way,” where you’re starting to reconfigure cabinetry, configurations, where the oven or sink is. Those get into more of a customization where we would have to work with you directly to understand what your desires are and how we can make them work within the footprint of the existing unit.

Nitsa Foundos:
I have to say in speaking with several of the founders, they’ve come up with some very good ideas and so get ready.

Eric Harrmann:
Yep.

Nitsa Foundos:
Right? Does that excite you?

Eric Harrmann:
Absolutely.

Nitsa Foundos:
Is that the fun part of your job?

Eric Harrmann:
Yeah. The best part of the job is sitting there and working with the individuals going to be living in the space. This goes back to starting my college career, wanting to do residential design, it’s to work with the individual who’s living in that space, not necessarily with the manufactured type process. It’s really exciting. The founders that we’ve talked to so far and worked with on customization and the different unit designs have been such a pleasure and very, very supportive of the entire process.

Nitsa Foundos:
Well, they absolutely love working with you, Eric, and you’ve been very responsive and that means so much to the founders.

Is there anything else, Eric? I mean, is there any light bulb moment or something, inspiration that you’d like to share with the audience right now about the Arboretum Villas?

Eric Harrmann:
Well, one of the pieces that we did a lot of planning around, was giving the residents who are here today the same site features in the future that they have now. By the time we’re done with the Villas here, you’ll have an activity space with a golf simulator that you can walk directly outside, onto that green roof and have the putting green. We’re adding the greenhouse to the project and we’re taking a greenhouse that was on site and we’re bringing it closer to the campus. All of the amenities that Plymouth Place has offered its current residents are going to be there and more convenient for the new residents.

Nitsa Foundos:
Well, you know, we’ve embarked on a historical moment for Plymouth Place.

Eric Harrmann:
Absolutely.

Eric Harrmann:
Plymouth Place has such a long history of evolving its campus. From the original building to constructing this tower, the cottages that were here and now The Arboretum Villas that we’re creating. The built environment has been evolved over the years here at Plymouth Place, but I think the lifestyle that we’re creating through this architecture, it’s not necessarily about the buildings itself or the units. It’s about the lifestyle that we’re creating within the walls.

Nitsa Foundos:
Bingo.

Nitsa Foundos:
Well, Eric, it has been a true pleasure and honor working with you and I’m so grateful.

Eric Harrmann:
I’d say the same.

Nitsa Foundos:
I’m so grateful that you decided to do the podcast with us. Folks, if you’d like to know more about the beautiful Villas and resort lifestyle, give us a call at (708) 482-6634. You can also visit and see these amazing floor plans by visiting the arboretumvillas.org and sign up for one of our events, or better yet we do have business hours Monday through Saturday from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM. Thank you so much, everyone, for tuning into Living Without Limits. We look forward to talking with you again, until then I’m Nitsa Foundos.

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