Tips for designing or adapting durable, sustainable senior living communities

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Angela Gunn
Angela Gunn

As architects and designers, we constantly face questions about how to design buildings that can handle social, economic and environmental stressors while also making sustainability practices a priority. In the face of natural disasters and changing environmental conditions, we constantly work to uphold our ecological responsibility while implementing real cost savings in the process.

We see resiliency as a subset of sustainability — and that goes beyond simply emergency preparedness to withstand extreme weather or natural disasters. Additionally, resiliency is the ability to tolerate acute and chronic stressors for social, economic and environmental issues that may involve many types of stressors beyond natural disasters, such as disease, unemployment, climate change or lack of drinking water.

When it comes to designing for sustainability, the design elements for senior living residences are in many ways similar to other building types, yet senior living residences are unique in several ways. Their populations often are more vulnerable than others. Depending on the acuity level of people living in these buildings, residents may not have the ability to flee a building in an emergency or survive for periods of time without heat, air conditioning, fresh water or the ability to cook or store food. Health conditions also may require refrigeration of medications or energy to sustain medical equipment. That said, buildings designed for vulnerable populations such as aging residents often require their own design standards.

There are multiple strategies for designing senior living environments to withstand an emergency event while keeping vulnerable populations in mind. We'll review options to survive a power outage, optimize a building's envelope to handle extreme weather better and more. In particular, we'll address design adjustments one can make in an existing senior living community, as well as design efforts that can make a difference when implemented before breaking ground.

Design practices for new buildings

When it comes to resilience to survive extreme events, there are three primary objectives: protection, adaptation and backup. For exceptional protection and preparedness, it pays to design a building with this intention from the get-go rather than retrofitting it later.

Consider the building site and be educated about common local hazards such as blizzards, wildfires or hurricanes. Many strategies for resiliency also address sustainability strategies for reducing energy, water use and improving human health. Here are a few design elements that are best put into the blueprints right away:

  • Flood-proofing. Many buildings in hurricane- or flood-prone areas require certain design standards, such as flood proofing, which can be difficult to retrofit. Consider your location and site grading to direct water away from the building. Raise essential equipment, utilities and at least two exits above flood levels to keep the building functioning during a flood event. Be sure to design a durable structure with a strong membrane around the building and reinforced foundations, fences and impact-resistant windows. Additionally, flood vents or sump pumps may be included in the design. Onsite stormwater detention and infiltration through the use of permeable paving materials, increased green spaces, bioswales and green roofs will lessen the risk of local storm infrastructure becoming overburdened and have the added benefit of removing pollutants from stormwater and reducing temperatures that can lead to the heat island effect.
  • Fire protection. A proactive approach that goes above and beyond fire codes can reduce the risk of fire and give vulnerable residents more time to flee. Controlling the exterior environment is key with wildfires, and simple design strategies such as non-combustible building materials and construction can help prevent flames from catching and spreading. Although fire-resistant roofing material may not be able to extinguish a fire, it will help limit the spread while buying residents more time for evacuation. A defensible perimeter around the building with limited vegetation and a border of non-combustible materials, such as a rock bed, surrounding the building façade also can help slow the spread of fire and allow more time for help to arrive.
  • Temperature control. It pays to plan ahead for unexpected fluctuations in temperature, such as power outages, heat waves or freezing temperatures. A lack of air conditioning or heat can result in illness or even death, especially for susceptible populations. In these cases, designing space and power for backup generators (and locating them in protected areas) can make a big difference while a city waits for power to be restored. What's more, designing a building for passive survivability to take advantage of free heating and cooling from the sun, wind and shading can regulate temperature to some degree with little or no energy needed, allowing the building to remain operational for a longer timeframe and ultimately reducing operating costs and the carbon footprint of the building. Thermal mass can help regulate temperatures by absorbing the heat during the day and then slowly releasing it at night as the temperature cools.
  • Glazing. Senior residents often desire operable windows as a way to connect to the outdoors, bring in fresh air and enjoy natural light. As part of a better building envelope that can cope with extreme temperatures, designing an adequate amount of properly oriented windows with good thermal performance and shading can improve energy efficiency and thermal comfort and provide daylight. During a power outage, operable windows can replace electric lighting, provide thermal heating and open for a cool breeze, which additionally offers passive strategies for ventilation to regulate internal temperature and air quality without using a lot of energy. Designing a narrow floor plate will allow daylight to better penetrate interior spaces and operable windows on opposite sides of the building will allow cross-ventilation
  • Water sources. A lack of drinking water and sanitation is a key risk in the event of a natural disaster, especially for the aging and those in poor health. In locations where rain water collection is legal, it can be a smart idea to design a method to collect and storing water which reduces the burden on local infrastructure. If drinking or washing water becomes contaminated and clean water is at a premium, then a reliable water source is crucial. Regardless of whether water collection is feasible, placing filters on drinking water will improve water safety when water quality is compromised and will improve health year-round. A power outage may prevent pumping of water, so hand pumps or onsite electric pumps tied to a generator or solar system can be used to distribute water.

Design upgrades for existing buildings

Although it's always ideal to implement sustainable and resilient design elements upfront, sometimes high costs, availability or lack of awareness can create roadblocks. Instead, building operators could put into practice a maintenance policy of replacing old materials or amenities with more environmentally friendly or durable products. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Solar power backups. Many building owners add solar panels later in the life of a building. The efficiency of solar technology has improved, so the up-front cost and length of payback has lessened and grid-tied systems may reduce utility peak demand charges and utility bills. Using renewable energy sources also will reduce the carbon footprint of the building. In situations of power loss, solar panels continue to generate energy. If a battery storage system also is included, a building may be able to function off-grid. For senior living communities, solar could retroactively serve as a backup for generator resiliency. When both solar panels and a localized generator are raised above the ground, they are especially protected from flooding.  
  • Roof and wall insulation. Simple solutions can have a big payback by reducing energy costs throughout the year. For improved thermal resilience and energy efficiency, additional insulation can be added to a roof or walls (if space allows) to improve the thermal envelope, keeping buildings warmer in cold temps and cooler when the heat is blazing outside. Passive design strategies function regardless of whether the building is receiving power in an emergency.
  • Efficient appliance and fixture upgrades. A building that conserves energy and water will need fewer resources to survive an emergency event and will cost less to operate during the year. When appliances fall into disrepair, replacing them with Energy Star-rated or WaterSense-certified appliances can make a difference in energy and water use, saving building owners on ongoing energy expenses. Likewise, replacing light bulbs with LED versions instead of compact fluorescents, and installing low-flow valves or aerators on sinks and toilets, can help conserve water.
  • Low-VOC paint and finishes. Interior air quality is especially important for the health of aging or vulnerable populations. When repainting the walls in community areas or private rooms, go for low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) formulations to minimize the chemicals in the air. Look for other low-emitting flooring and finish options when planning for renovations. Extreme events can lead to the loss of air conditioning, and temperature increases the amount of VOC emissions increase, exacerbating health conditions such as asthma, allergies or other medical conditions.

The importance of integrated communities

When it comes to creating resilient, sustainable buildings, don't forget the residents inside who call those buildings home. The single best thing a building owner can do for resiliency is encourage residents to get to know their neighbors. Those ties to the community forge relationships, people to check on one another, help each other and band together in the face of adversity. This type of social resiliency encourages interaction, integration and making everyone a part of the community.

Likewise, this type of community integration finds a home within sustainability practices. Able and independent residents often care about their effect on the environment, can share resources, and with the right education can help work toward greater energy efficiency through their actions. This not only gives residents a greater sense of ownership, but when multiple residents make an effort to control energy usage, the cost savings can be significant.

Angela Gunn (associate; pictured above) and Julie Zielinski (LEED AP; pictured here) are part of the senior living architectural team at OZ Architecture, a Denver-based design and architecture firm with a 50-year history.

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