Green senior centers

By Brian Robinson, SVP, Commercial Banking

Find out if "going green" is right for your seniors' housing development.

Green senior living centers attract baby boomers and their loved ones assisting in their search, who seek eco-friendly residences for themselves or their aging parents. These centers feature environmentally conscious designs intended to reduce the carbon footprint. These green buildings offer other benefits too, such as lower property operating expenses and a sense of purpose for seniors.

For senior housing providers, being environmentally conscious can mean anything from adding a recycling program to installing a green roof to constructing a new senior living center that is a model of sustainability.

Providers can begin on the low end of the green spectrum, with simple upgrades like faucet aerators and LED lightbulbs. Alternatively, they can take it one step further and retrofit a building by adding features like solar panels and double-paned windows. For example, Menorah Housing Foundation in Los Angeles County added reflective roofs, gas-fired boilers and Energy Star appliances to its low income senior housing complex. Since California is drought country, Menorah landscapes with water-saving drip irrigation.

Other senior living centers have made similar changes. Leading Age magazine reports the Bethany Health Care Center, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Framingham, Massachusetts, installed a cogeneration system that reduces greenhouse gases by using “waste” heat (emitted during processes like doing laundry) to produce electricity and hot water for the property. Thanks to the cogeneration system, Bethany received a $25,000 local utility credit, reduced energy costs by $125,000 per year, and can sell back $35,000 in annual renewable energy credits to the federal government.

Bethany’s cogeneration system paid for itself in two years, and is one example of how going green can mean saving green. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) says insulation retrofits have a 5 year payback (20-percent return on investment), water retrofits have a 3- to 4-year payback and lighting retrofits have a 2- to 3-year payback. Green construction may cost 2 percent more than standard construction, but the long-term savings in energy, water and waste costs more than make up for that initial incremental expense.

Another type of financial incentive that may encourage builders to go green is tax credits. Under the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program, many state and local governments have mandated green designs in new housing in exchange for such credits. In New Orleans, Boston and other cities, developers have created green facilities to house low-income seniors by taking advantage of local, state and federal tax credits, or FEMA funding.

For example, Senior Suites of Fay’s Point in Blue Island, Illinois received public financing, and has geothermal wells and two-pipe heating and cooling. Long Pond Senior Housing received a 9 percent community renewal tax credit from New York state for its high efficiency boilers, advanced air sealing and reduced wood waste.

Incentives are also provided for green roofs, which reduce heating and cooling costs and can have a lifespan three times that of a regular roof. Various cities offer rebates, bonuses or reduced permit costs to contractors that construct roofs covered with vegetation.

As noted in Leading Age magazine, Roland Park Place, Baltimore’s only not-for-profit CCRC, installed an extensive green roof of special grasses and sedum to provide insulation and absorb water, thus preventing storm water runoff into the nearby Stony Run watershed. Roland Park Place receives a credit against Baltimore’s runoff tax, and senior residents in the eight-story complex enjoy a beautiful balcony view of greenery versus the previous pebble roof.

In Washington D.C., the city with the highest concentration of green roofs in North America per the Annual Green Roof Industry Survey, Regency Apartments for seniors boasts a low maintenance green roof full of native plants and perennials. Green roofs are blooming in D.C. because of The Riversmart Rooftops Program promoted by the Department of Energy & Environment, which offers building owners a $10-per-square-foot tax credit if they upgrade to a green roof and a $15-per-square-foot credit for adding a green roof in a targeted watershed region.

Senior living providers who add green features to buildings can lower operating costs and reduce emissions, and may also receive public recognition for being good stewards of the planet. The USGBC awards Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certifications based on a property’s water and energy conserving features, neighborhood walkability, green roof and other factors. Categories include LEED Silver, Gold and Platinum. Columbia Parc, an eco-friendly complex built in 2014 for displaced seniors in New Orleans, was certified at the highest level, LEED Platinum, according to Multifamily Executive magazine.

There are other recognition categories too, such as the Assisted Living Federation of America’s (ALFA’s) “Going Green, Saving Green” awards and the National Wildlife Federation’s certification of wildlife habitat communities. In addition, the federal government maintains a directory of senior care communities that meet Energy Star guidelines. Note that Energy Star began as an appliance certification program but is now much broader.

Incentives, tax credits, high returns on investment, and award recognitions all help explain the shift toward green senior housing, which makes up 10 to 20 percent of the green building total. Not to mention that senior housing remains a profitable venture, with cap rates hitting a record low and ten year returns at 13.3 percent in 2015, according to Building Design+Construction.

Providers can examine the feasibility of joining the green movement by asking their local utility company to perform a basic energy audit (gas, water, electricity). Alternatively, they can call upon the government’s Energy Star program, or hire a private energy contractor (for up to $20,000) to perform a complex audit in exchange for producing green technology cost savings.

While green senior centers can be profitable for providers, they can also be beneficial for residents. Green living can give seniors a feeling of community, provide them with pleasurable activities and allow them to make the world a better place. From Vermont to California, seniors at green living complexes can enjoy a variety of activities, such as growing herbs for cooking to raising bees to make honey to observing birds and butterflies while taking a stroll in a rain garden.

For example, at Medford Leas in New Jersey, residents help select the native plants grown on the property. At Wesley Enhanced Living in Germantown, PA, seniors grow the organic vegetables and herbs that appear on their dinner table.

In Chicago, seniors at the 300-unit CCRC The Admiral on the Lake can leisurely walk through circular garden paths, which help memory care residents establish a normal routine, feel relaxed and stay calm. Landscape architects for The Admiral selected pathway materials and garden plants that offer privacy but still allow seniors to be easily seen by staff. Similarly, Senior Star at Wexford Place in Kansas City, MO, features a 1,500-square-foot garden with a vintage car, and a labyrinth to help dementia patients.

Beyond the mental stimulation and physical relaxation provided by gardens and greenery, there are other health benefits for seniors who live in green environments. The low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and low-VOC flooring offer better air quality, which is particularly important for seniors with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Daylighting and other select lighting is well-suited to the aging eye and changing visual nervous system. Recycled rubber porous patios drain water and provide a softer and safer walking surface for seniors.

Green living engages and stimulates senior residents and allows them to contribute to the community. Green senior properties are also a win-win for providers, because such buildings can produce lower operating expenses while positively impacting the planet. Considering the environmental consciousness of many aging baby boomers, green buildings for seniors are likely to increase in number.