A Trend Toward Living Green in Retirement

Free-range chickens, organic gardens, certified wildlife habitats and ENERGY STAR© certification are just a few of the sustainable features increasingly being found in retirement communities across the United States. In spite of the debate as to whether the upfront costs of building green are worth the investment, the senior living industry is trending toward developing more green retirement communities—which is good news for seniors who want to continue a green lifestyle during their retirement.

“All the modeling show significant savings” said Senior Lifestyle Corporation’s Vice President of Development & Acquisitions, Bob Gawronski, but he cautions that there isn’t the history available yet to show the actual savings. He saw the move toward building green senior communities begin in 2006-2007 as a result of public financing requirements, with the government promoting the addition of green features in affordable housing.

A Helping Hand From Uncle Sam

Senior Suites of Fay’s Points uses a geo-thermal system to provide heat for the community.

Senior Lifestyle Corporation’s Senior Suites of Fay’s Point is one such community that has the green features required to receive public financing. Heating and cooling is provided by 28 geothermal wells and with its flexible, two-pipe heating and cooling system, the geo-thermal system uses less energy and costs less than other HVAC systems to maintain. “To those who understand the technology, our project is exciting, but for most of our residents, the geothermal heating is more of a mystery because they can’t see it,” Gawronski said.

Because of the upfront building costs, Senior Suites of Fay’s Point was a project Senior Lifestyle Corporation wouldn’t have pursed had the public financing provided by the Illinois Housing Development Authority not been available. This public-private partnership resulted in a senior community that is not only affordable but also meets LEED certification design standards, though it wasn’t certified at the time of construction. Gawronski said they chose not to pursue LEED certification at the time, something he would change in hindsight because people do recognize the LEED designation and its usefulness as a marketing tool.

A Little Education Goes A Long Way

Green senior communities require an educational component. While Baby Boomers are savvy in recognizing the value of green building elements, their parents may be unfamiliar with these features, which may defeat the purpose of building green. “Our residents were confused by the green stuff,” Grawronski admitted. The permeable asphalt was greeted with comments of the developer being “full of hot air” and the native grasses were considered weeds that weren’t being cut. “You do have to have an educational program for residents and staff so they understand the building’s design, such as how it is cooled and heated and why native prairies grasses are used,” he said.

With three Senior Lifestyle Corporation communities scheduled for LEED certification next year, Gawronski has learned that it is a lot easier to be green and meet certification requirements than people realize. But while being LEED certified may be the most prestigious designation to showcase sustainability, there are other certifications or recognitions available that demonstrate a community’s commitment to being a responsible steward of the environment, even in well-established communities.

An Influential National Brand

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR program is an “influential brand recognized by over 85 percent of Americans” and certifies more than just energy–using devices, said National Program Manager Clark Reed. Since the Environmental Protection Agency created the ENERGY STAR program in 1992, it has morphed from focusing on energy-efficient computers to certifying energy-efficient buildings. Administrative offices were the first of 16 building types receiving certification in 1999.

In 2009, the EPA reached out to the Assisted Living Federation Association (ALFA) to develop a partnership that encouraged ENERGY STAR certification of the senior care communities sector. An energy survey conducted in 2010 identified the energy drivers, which weren’t known prior to 2010 according to Clark.

Using the survey’s results, Reed’s office developed a rating system that launched in 2011; the rating system accounts for variables such as location and size of the community. To achieve ENERGY STAR certification, a senior care community must earn 75 or better out of a 100 rating score. To ensure that the rating system is applied equally, if a community consists of 50 percent or more independent living units, it may not be eligible for ENERGY STAR certification depending on metering. “Since the energy performance scale’s launch in 2011, it became possible to identify the senior living industry leaders in the country,” Reed said.

Gaining Recognition With Industry Leaders

These industry leaders include Sunrise Senior Living and HorizonBay (now owned by Brookdale Senior Living) who were among the first participants in the ENERGY STAR program. Becoming a leader and recognizing the value of energy efficiency within operations is why Sunrise Senior Living joined the program. “We had the systems in place to collect the data required to achieve certification and 30 communities were certified in 2011,” said Jim Shaffer, Director of Maintenance and Capital Programs at Sunrise Senior Living. At the end of 2013, 33 communities became ENERGY STAR certified, and Sunrise’s 248 communities in the United States are now entered into the EPA’s Portfolio Manager®.

“The early efforts of Sunrise Senior Living and HorizonBay were recognized at the 2011 ALFA conference,” said Acting Vice President, Marketing & Membership, Jaclyn Allmon. ALFA also added a “Going Green, Saving Green: Energy, Recycling, and Expense Reduction Strategies” category to their Best of the Best contest in 2013, and awardees included Orchards at Southington, Benchmark Senior Living and Brightview Senior Living. These companies are making valuable improvements to their operations and doing what we hope all senior communities will do to develop and implement green programs, Allmon said.

Sunrise of Edmonds was the EPA’s Top in Category for Senior Care Facilities in 2013 and was also their internal Sunrise Energy Star winner.

Sunrise Senior Living developed an internal energy reduction competition modeled after the EPA’s national Battle of the Buildings competition which rewards communities that achieve the highest reduction in energy usage. “When the competition was unveiled in 2011, the reaction was positive, with communities seeing the competition as a way of being recognized within Sunrise as a top performer,” Shaffer said. Last year, the company recognized the top 2 performers, and for the 2012-2013 competition cycle, the top 3 performers will receive recognition. He too emphasizes that education is key to encouraging staff and residents to adopt energy-saving best practices. “[It’s] changing everyone’s mindset as it comes to your daily routine,” Shaffer said.

How to Find Sustainably-Built Retirement Communities

For seniors seeking future retirement communities for themselves or their parents, there are a number of searches available to find communities practicing sustainability. The U.S. Green Building Council has a directory of certified projects, and searching under the terms “retirement communities” or “senior living” displays the communities that have achieved LEED certification. Searching in the ENERGY STAR directory under “senior care communities,” displays the communities who have achieved ENERGY STAR certification and their annual ranking. The National Wildlife Federation also provides a list of certified communities so seniors can see if a retirement community’s surrounding grounds are providing habitat for wildlife. Other national recognition programs include the International Council on Active Aging® Green Award that recognizes a community’s environmental stewardship practices.

Allmon sees the possibility of prospective residents and their families seeking out LEED or ENERGY STAR certification, but it’s just a question of whether it will be in their top list of priorities for selecting a community. For Clark, he is optimistic this will be the case with retiring baby boomers having a very strong environmental ethic, and this sentiment isn’t just limited to the United States’ seniors. In the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)’s October 2013 report, A Sustainable Community for Older People:  Case Studies of Green Retirement Village in Australia, authors found that “most retirement village residents understand and recognize the importance of sustainability in their lifestyle.”

Over 2,300 Senior Care Communities Benchmarked by the EPA

This might prompt more communities in the United States to apply for awards that recognize their green efforts. For ALFA’s 2014 Best of the Best award, there weren’t any submissions in the “Going Green, Saving Green: Energy, Recycling, and Expense Reduction Strategies” category. “Senior living companies are likely integrating best energy practices, but out of nearly 100 Best of the Best submissions, we unfortunately didn’t receive any submissions in the green category this year,” Allmon said.

What is known is that over 2,300 senior care communities (188 million square feet in size) have been benchmarked in the EPA’s Portfolio Manager®, according to Clark. And both Shaffer and Gawronski also said that during renovations at their communities, efforts are made to incorporate sustainable materials and energy-reducing designs. “During capital improvements, we partner with the building’s owners to replace outdated assets with higher energy-efficient models and are willing to invest more upfront in capital expenditures that will yield significant energy savings,” Shaffer said.

One example he cited is installing a white, reflective roofing system with a high insulation rating to reduce the cooling costs during the summer and keep heat inside the community in the winter, consequently decreasing the energy usage of the community. For Senior Lifestyle Corporation communities, Gawronski said that when they renovate existing communities, recycled content and FSC-certified products are used.

The Green Choice in Town

In Australia, the retirement village industry is now realizing the need of providing sustainable communities for seniors, and in the United States, Gawronski anticipates many communities will be marketing themselves as the “green choice in town” within five years. With market-rate investors expressing more interest in green development, seniors can expect to see the sustainable practices found in affordable housing becoming commonplace in market-rate communities.

Andrea Watts is a Seattle-based freelance writer who covers sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWestThe Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

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