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From Design Do-Over to Above-and-Beyond Special

Hannah Hanlon

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Travel with us for a moment to Scottdale, Georgia, just outside the City of Atlanta’s eastern limits. Tucked into the curve where Mills Creek Circle arcs gently to run parallel to main thoroughfare North Decatur Road, is a grand residence – one of a type that most would never expect.

Behind stately, curved Southern-style porch and stone-clad walls lies LIHTC senior housing – 80 units owned by the Housing Authority of DeKalb County, completed in 2017 and designed lovingly by Corcoran-Ota. It’s called, fittingly, The Retreat.

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This large-scale residence is, among other unique features, the recipient of a rare architectural do-over. Corcoran-Ota was initially contracted to create just construction documents for the building, but quickly found that the plans drawn by another architecture firm were out of budget for the property’s owner. We came on board to make it work – and to make a fitting home for the DeKalb seniors who would soon call it theirs.

“We spent a good bit more time thinking about the modeling of the building to make it great,” says COG Principal Michael Corcoran. “As great as it could possibly be, within the owner’s budget.”

To control costs and open up space for grand aesthetic touches, we reduced by half the number of steel beams and columns, ensuring the mostly wood construction’s walls “stacked” efficiently. We also assessed spaces for realistic usage – eliminating oversized storage closets and other unnecessary circulation areas not needed for this type of building. This value-engineering left us with an efficient design and leeway to add a few extra-special features, all while working within the building’s originally planned footprint.

The most magical of these elements – besides the rocking-chair front porch – is a light, airy, but impressively tall porté cochere at the rear of the building. The addition of this secondary architectural feature gives the building a double-sided punch, and a grand entry whether you approach from the property’s front or back. The adjacent rear lobby is also double-height, hung with two stories of glass that look out over the porté cochere and surrounding grounds. Deeper inside, in the residential areas, single-loaded, sun-filled corridors abound, keeping transitional spaces bright and friendly. Multi-purpose gathering spaces allow ample room for classes, large-scale dinners and events, fostering a warm, communal vibe. The complex even boasts its own resident-tended vegetable garden, raised 18” for easy planting and picking by seniors.

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Much about this project, including the rocky terrain and budget and space constraints, was a challenge, but one we were well suited to take on. “Almost never can you just go wild with anything,” notes Corcoran.

“So, we are forever problem-solving, working to not just do the best with what we have, but elevate the living experiences in these buildings within the constraints we’re given.”

It also helps to have great partners who have your back when conditions aren’t perfect. (Again, they never are). For The Retreat, we were lucky to have the help of two structural engineers who aided in making the more complicated features possible: M2 Structural and Jordan & Scala. Many thanks to them.

Project Manager Judy Warner-Babb sees COG’s work on senior living facilities as more than simple problem-solving as well. “We design in a way that thinks beyond ‘People live here,’ to ‘What will they do here?’ or even ‘How will they live in the space?’ To get there, I envision myself in the building as I’m designing; imagining how I’d move around within it. So, when it comes time to make it real, I like to experience it being built, and guide the contractors in translating between 2 and 3 dimensions.”

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“Just because this is a Low Income Housing Tax Credit project, it doesn’t mean it has to be boring or lesser-than,” says Corcoran. “We’re proud of the work, and want the residents to be proud to call it home,” adds Warner-Babb.

COG also worked alongside construction partner Walton Construction Services for this undertaking, and The Retreat makes the second project on which we’ve partnered with the Housing Authority of DeKalb County, the first being The View in Stone Mountain, Georgia.