The benefits of building green can be abundant — from water and energy efficiencies, to improved indoor air quality, less maintenance and increased real-estate value. Even more important are the positive effects on the environment and community at large. 

In industries such as senior living that demand a constant draw on energy resources, costs and operational conveniences can pose a significant barrier to taking on more sustainable approaches, causing many organizations to put those efforts on the back burner, at least for now.

Although we may not be able to tackle every green building technique out of the gate, senior living leaders can begin to take small steps to take to move us in the right direction.

1. Put residents at the center of your approach. Always start with the question, “What’s best for my residents?” or “What matters to residents most?” Doing so will help you home in on your priorities and ensure that you gain the support of both current and potential residents as you move forward with changes related to building green. Some of these shared values might include:

  • Incorporating large outdoor spaces and surrounding your community with green life. The pandemic has further increased the value of having access to safe, outdoor spaces to enjoy fresh air and natural sunlight, keys for better health. When we build, we inevitably remove some plant life. We can make sure this is not only replaced but added to, ensuring lush surroundings for our communities and helping us do our part to give back.
  • Bringing green elements indoors. By using biophilic design, such as living plants and water features, indoor spaces can feel alive, and research shows that such design also has a positive effect on well-being.
  • Ensuring plenty of natural light, which encourages less electricity usage.
  • Enhancing ventilation to improve air quality. Adding plants and trees also can naturally help purify the air.
  • Choosing non-toxic, low emission building supplies for the safety of residents and the environment. We can think about paints and using more materials, such as natural stone and wood, that emit little to no toxins and have fewer pollutants.

2. Consider what will have the most operational benefit. Solar energy is a change that all of us in senior living should be moving toward. It is approachable, and you can increase the lifespan of your building by adding it and experience the cost-saving benefits over time. Lighting is another important and impactful area. LED lights offer lower consumption and the bulbs last six-times longer than their non-LED counterparts. Better windows contribute to less energy loss, as do more efficient appliances for main areas and resident apartments. Those things add up to efficiencies that positively affect operations, your bottom line and your environmental impact.

3. Get creative. For organizations that have more capital to invest in sustainable changes, explore other avenues to make an impact. For example, harvesting rainwater and/or recycling water (graywater). The former is water that is lightly used, often recycled from bathroom sinks and showers and washers. At two of our communities (Aegis Lake Union and Aegis Greenwood), graywater makes up 60% of total water consumption on the properties. There often are opportunities to re-use and recycle materials onsite, from practical approaches with reusing furniture in new spaces to even creating beautiful artwork with scrap materials.

Although we might not expect senior living companies to replace buildings with all LEED-certified properties next month or even next year, we all can keep in mind incremental changes that can make a big impact in supporting resident wellness and the community and environment at large. Those changes may even bring an unexpected operational benefit. Making them, however, requires company-wide commitment, ingenuity and patience to keep exploring and trying what works.

Through the process, more of us can bring lessons learned to make these steps easier and knowledge to better advocate on behalf of the industry to gain support of local and national governments.

Walter Braun is chief development officer for Aegis Living.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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