Going Green in Senior Living

Steve Leone, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and director of sustainable design at Cubellis. The Boston-based firm offers architecture, interior design and engineering services throughout the United States, as well as in Dubai. Leone’s responsibilities at Cubellis include business development, client relations, architectural design and sustainable design. He has won several awards for architectural design excellence and was presented with the 2005 Architect of the Year award by his local AIA Chapter.Leone recently spoke at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging’s (AAHSA) 2008 annual meeting & exposition, held in Philadelphia, at a session entitled Green Communities: A Growing Trend in Senior Living. MHN Associate Editor Erika Schnitzer talks to Leone about the trend of greening senior living and how it affects the development and operations of these communities, as well as how aging providers in Japan, Germany and Switzerland are incorporating green design and sustainable approaches.MHN: Describe the overall trend in green building.Leone: The trend with respect to green has been the mirror copy of housing starts. It’s a straight line heading downward with respect to housing starts. Those that have come online more likely have trended green. We see the trend is definitely for developers who understand there is leverage with green, especially in the economy we are facing currently.It really has become a differential for developers, partly because of local mandates and partly because they are more aware that it’s a buyer’s market. Buyers are being much more selective, so to develop housing stock that is green or sustainable is preferential for the buyer. It will ultimately hit their bottom line, the units will be much more energy-efficient and will pay off for them in the long run. There are loaning incentives, local and federal, for the developers that will help them get their projects off the ground.First and foremost, we understand that, across multiple practice groups, there is a bottom-line orientation toward green for our clients. As we work across lines, we see synergies across practice areas and understand differences. While they are different practice areas, there is always overlap. MHN: To what do you attribute the growth of green in senior living?Leone: The growth of green design in senior living is no different from any other market sector. It’s about the greater consciousness for energy consumption and the world economy, and how they relate. In senior care, you are beginning to see another better-educated population enter. It begins with a population that understands the notion of better living and healthier choices. There’s a greater propensity for making choices that are aligned with social consciousness and a better understanding of energy consciousness and cost savings. It’s the same group of people transitioning to their golden years. The Baby Boomers are changing the face of our culture dramatically.MHN: What are some common green features you have seen in senior living? What are some more unique features?Leone: There are two common features: the first is probably the area you would understand more readily, from the provider or developer side. There’s a definite understanding of energy consumption, so that in order to really pay up the bottom line and get the return on investment, you need to get your building to a level of higher performance. So the bottom line pays off for the provider. On the flip side, for the resident, there’s a streamlined effort to make sure the indoor environment community is enhanced with increased daylight and the reduction of caustic materials or VOCs within the environment.The things that I’ve seen that are more unique that some people don’t necessarily associate with green are the use of living roofs—planted roofs that have a bottom-line orientation to the building in terms of keeping energy consumption and storm water mitigated and that are beneficial to residents because you can landscape a deck that might ordinarily be paved. It becomes an amenity. Maybe one of the less obvious strategies that gets some smiles is a waterless urinal.We take our lessons from each project and each marketplace and try to transition to others. There’s really a commonality among all areas of sustainability. For example, maximizing daylight is important for seniors but no less valuable to schools or office buildings.MHN: How does green design affect the development and operations of senior communities?Leone: With operations, there’s no question that it increases the bottom line and efficiencies. Senior care developers and providers typically own and operate the buildings. As operations, much like running your own home, you want your building to be as efficient as possible. Most providers will agree that they are in it for the long haul and will easily step up for a low percentage of increase up front that they will easily buy back within three years. It’s an investment.On the development side, those who are not owner/operators, it’s harder to make them understand the value of sustainability. However, the competitive market is working with sustainability. If you’re going to build anything, you need to be better than the guy down the street. Developers see there’s a market value—possible PR—and understand that there’s a higher building valuation.MHN: You recently addressed how aging providers in Japan, Germany, Switzerland and the United States are incorporating green design and sustainable approaches. How is each country doing this and what are the key differences among the countries’ approaches?Leone: I think that European and Asian countries are probably far ahead of us with respect to understanding issues of sustainability. Their culture allows them to stay grounded and be focused. Technology can do so much, but if the resources aren’t available, it’s not available. We look at the price of gas at $3 or $4 a gallon, and Europe is looking at higher prices—$7 or $8 a gallon. The strain on resources there has been far greater than we’ve had to live with to date, so it’s forced them to be more frugal and better understand savings and reduction.I think we are essentially of the same mindset these days, especially as we are growing more aware of a global economy. We are not removed from what happens; it is all sort of interrelated. They are more advanced, but that’s because of their cultures. In the U.S., we have grown comfortable with having resources readily available and at a reasonable price.At the moment, it’s sort of at a reversal because, while Europe and Asia have led in basic understanding of sustainability, once the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program was launched, it brought the U.S. to a higher stage, and now we are beginning to export that. We are seeing the export of LEED to a number of other countries. It’s becoming more formal in Europe and Asia.One thing that we continue to lag in but also continue to develop is carbon capping and trading. Carbon is the single greatest contributor to global warming and in Europe, they have already begun to trade carbon credits as a commodity. We are beginning to do that in the U.S., and I think that’s the next frontier here.MHN: Which communities are most resourceful when it comes to implementing green design?Leone: Like most concentrations of development, we are finding the coastal communities are quick to grasp the concepts. We are working in California, where there are greater incentives towards solar power. We are also working in Texas much in the same way. On the east coast, there’s a sort of different bioregional emphasis, looking at communities that may be affected by increased storm activity. They know they need to brace themselves for a more difficult climate. Interestingly, that’s where everyone wants to be so it’s where the highest concentrations of developments are.Interestingly enough, due to help from federal and regional governments, affordable housing is probably on the forefront with respect to sustainability. T
here’s a greater ability to incorporate strategies because of incentives they can take advantage of. I think they do lead the way but I don’t see any real difference between senior market and market rate, multifamily and single-family. Conceptually, it’s all in line with one another.We do have some clients that do rentals. And maybe there is a greater willingness for those folks to implement sustainable strategies because they have ongoing maintenance and operations that may be affected.