In these days of increased energy rates and growing awareness of sustainability, affordable senior housing providers can reduce costs and improve quality of life by greening their properties. Although sustainable building and operating practices are not yet widespread, some providers have made it a priority, offering everything from cooling towers to electric cars to solar energy.
Greening properties is a “win-win-win approach—it benefits everybody,” says Don Stump, CEO of Oakland, CA-based Christian Church Homes (CCH), which has built 3 properties using green construction methods and renovated 4 of its remaining 56 communities sustainably.
Green buildings “save money and the more money we save, the more programming we can have for the residents,” says Stump. “As well, seniors are often pretty sensitive to a wide variety of environmental issues so having a low-VOC [volatile organic compounds] building is great for people with asthma and allergies and other breathing concerns.”
In addition to using low-VOC products in construction and cleaning, CCH buys energy-efficient appliances and uses recycled materials in its buildings and properties. Its residents also participate in gardening, composting and local recycling “to the max.”
Eco-Alternatives to Air Conditioners
With existing properties, CCH replaces water-guzzling lawns with low-water shrubs, decorative sidewalks and stone gardens, and it puts low-flow devices in every unit. “In California, we are really sensitive to water consumption and water management―we’ve had big swings in water prices and availability, with lots and lots of rain and a few years with no rain at all,” points out Stump.
Many CCH properties are in California’s central valley, which often gets “day after day of blistering sun and 100-degree temperatures.” To combat this grueling heat, CCH is adopting smart cooling methods rather than relying heavily on air conditioners.
For instance, CCH orients buildings so that their exteriors “face in a smart direction so as not to be slammed by sun from the south,” says Stump. “The southern side of the building always gets the hottest, so if you can manage the southern exposure you can control heat in the building.” CCH also puts sun shades, which automatically open and close based on temperature, on south-facing windows. Another way to manage the heat: variable-speed air and coolant circulation pumps that can be adjusted as the temperature changes. In addition, its Sierra Meadows community in Visalia features a louvered cooling tower that catches the prevailing winds as they go across the valley, using passive means to cool the building.
These cooling methods have led to a 50% reduction in air conditioning consumption. Stump doesn’t know the extent of energy savings across CCH, but he says the Lorenz community in Redding, renovated 3 years ago, has reduced energy consumption by 16%. CCH also saves about $15,000 per year in energy costs at Sierra Meadows, a Gold LEED-Certified property. (All of CCH’s recently rehabbed or newly constructed communities are certified under California’s GreenPoint Rated system.)
Stump encourages housing providers who want to go green to hire architects and builders that specialize and to educate staff about green building and cleaning methods. “It will pay off if the general education of the company goes up a few notches,” he says.
Giant Greening Project in California
With about 320 properties in its portfolio, Mercy Housing is a large player in the affordable, nonprofit housing scene. It’s also in the middle of what Caitlin Rood, its national environmental sustainability director, says is “probably the largest project of its kind in the United States.” It involves implementing energy and water efficiency in about 100 of its properties in California (30 of the buildings geared to older adults), using a pay-from-savings program based on actual, measured savings.
Besides California, Mercy Housing has implemented projects in all regions of its 24-state portfolio through its Green Hope environmental sustainability program. Although each project is property-specific, Mercy typically considers water conservation upgrades (faucet aerators, low-flow showerheads and toilets) and energy efficiency upgrades such as insulation, air sealing, efficient space and hot water heating systems, and boiler controls.
In terms of renewable energy, Mercy Housing is putting some solar thermal (hot water heating) technologies in its properties, but its primary focus is solar photovoltaic (PV). “Not very many places in the country have community solar figured out, but it works quite well for us where it is figured out, because it's a lot easier than putting solar on our physical properties,” Rood says.
Mercy Housing aims to reduce energy and water consumption by 20% in 10 years, says Rood. It has measured the results of energy efficiency projects in some properties and they range widely, with some showing reduced energy and water consumption of more than 60%.
“We're very excited about the energy savings model,” she adds. “What is most compelling is that the capital investment, together with the significant savings in utility and operations and maintenance costs, are all provided at no cost and no risk to Mercy Housing.” Rood notes that assisted multifamily housing owners are “uniquely and significantly constrained in their ability to implement efficiency and renewable projects” as they lack capital for investment, can’t take loans at their properties, and are not in the core business of implementing environmental sustainability.
PEP Housing, another California-based affordable senior housing provider, is also investing in green building and green living. “We find that more and more of our residents are looking for healthier environments to live in,” says Mary Stompe, PEP’s executive director.
PEP’s environmental initiatives include using low-VOC paint and cleaning products, buying carpets and benches made from recycled materials, and putting in water-efficient landscaping. It has also insulated windows, walls and attics; weather-stripped doors; and installed low-flow toilets and shower heads, LED lighting, tankless water heaters and PV solar panels. In addition, PEP aims to switch its entire fleet of cars to electric. (For a 160-mile trip, PEP’s plug-in hybrid uses less than 4 gallons of gas, compared to the 12 gallons a standard vehicle would use.)
As well, all PEP communities have extensive garden beds (vinegar and salt are used to get rid of weeds instead of toxic chemicals), and newer ones boast fruit trees. “It's really nice to see how much food is being grown on-site,” says Stompe. To further encourage healthy eating, PEP distributes high-quality surplus food from local farmers’ markets and organic food nearing expiration to residents. “We’re not just providing an apartment—we're providing healthy living.”
Of PEP’s 17 properties, 6 are GreenPoint Rated gold. “It's becoming an expectation that you will build to a very high standard,” says Stompe. “You can't just meet the minimum green rating, you need to exceed it significantly. Of course, we also believe in this, and this is the way we build.”
When it comes to outcomes, PEP’s Sun House property in Ukiah, CA, consumes about 40% less electricity than similar-sized older properties. Although operational costs will be less in the long run, the initial cost of building sustainably is more expensive, says Stompe. “But you have to look at the benefits beyond the dollars that are going out,” she says. “You need to look at what your residents deserve and what they now require. I think it's a philosophy that your organization has to adopt and then commit to, and it's worth it.”
Passive Houses Lock Out Extreme Weather
Another up-and-coming trend in green building is the “passive house” concept, which features super-airtight design and is up to 90% more energy efficient than standard building code requirements. These types of buildings keep in heat during winter in part because exterior walls are extremely well-insulated, and windows are typically triple-paned.
They also provide a ventilation system that continuously supplies fresh air. It’s unknown how many affordable senior housing providers are using this construction concept, which was developed in Germany, but there’s at least one. Cathedral Square’s Elm Place community, the first multifamily building certified to passive house energy standards in Vermont, has won 3 national awards from the Passive House Institute US.
Katherine O’Brien is a writer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.