Julie Edwards

We all know what it’s like to feel a chill in the air and automatically reach for the thermostat. For aging populations, sensitivity to heat and cold can be even more severe. That’s why temperature control in the senior living environment is so important for architects and designers as well as for residents themselves.

Yet there’s more to temperature control than simply turning a dial on a thermostat. Temperature control is tied to energy use, and energy use is tied to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental effects as well as operating costs.

Fortunately, mindful methods of controlling temperatures in senior living environments can reduce energy usage and cost. These methods can help lower the cost of living for residents who are retired and living on supplemental incomes. Implementing sustainable practices of temperature control also can reduce the effect on the environment for years to come.  

Here are a few options for designing more comfortable and sustainable methods of temperature control in the senior living environment.

Radiant heating

Many older adults prefer to avoid drafts, breezes and the cold, so it is important to offer ways to help them stay comfortable while they are indoors.

Forced air heating and cooling often involves uncomfortable air blowing from a vent, which can cause hot or cold spots throughout a space. Forced air cooling also can allow allergens and air pollutants into a space, which can be another area of sensitivity for many older adults, especially those with respiratory sensitivity or asthma.

Hydronic radiant flooring is a great solution. This type of heating uses water to heat pipes beneath the floor’s surface, delivering a more consistent heating or cooling effect with an even distribution that, unlike forced air solutions, eliminates hot or cool spots.

Radiant heat also can be contained to a certain area for greater efficiency. For example, a separate floor panel in the bathroom of the unit can offer an easy way to heat just the bathroom (ideal for post-bathing comfort), saving energy by not heating the entire space unnecessarily.

Additionally, hydronic heat has the potential to be paired with a solar hot water system. In this case, a traditional boiler or water heater controls the radiant flooring, but there would be a storage tank for solar-heated hot water. The radiant heating system would use water from the solar tank first to save energy, if needed, and the boiler would kick in after that.

The downsides to radiant heating are up-front cost and speed. Although not the least expensive option, it’s not the most expensive, either.

These systems also can be slower to heat up. Systems are most efficient when they are set to a constant temperature.

Often, the tendency is to turn the temperature up higher than is needed to heat the space to get that warm floor sensation. Doing so increases energy use and utility bills, however. Some resident education will be needed, but once residents are aware of the process, they often settle on a comfortable temperature and spend less time turning the heat up or down.

Buildings can be retrofitted by placing tubes underneath, as long as there is access to the floor joists from below, or on top of the subfloor. Placing panels of tubes on top of the floor will raise the floor height, however, which can be a problem for appliances, cabinetry and floor transitions if those heights aren’t flexible.

Flooring choice also will affect the energy efficiency of the radiant system. Tile or resilient linoleum are good choices for radiant heat. Carpet is the least desirable, because it acts as an insulator and tends to trap the heat below the floor, resulting in the need to increase the temperature and use more energy to operate the system.


For standard heating and cooling systems, items that offer ease of control, such as programmable thermostats, also are ideal for older adults. Some are designed to be especially elder-friendly, with large text and automated options. Some are even voice-controlled or learn the occupant’s schedule to adjust automatically, which can offer an advantage for those with mobility restrictions.

Regardless of whether a building operator can afford the latest models, simply installing programmable thermostats is huge. There is no reason to heat or cool a unit when people are not present or during periods of low activity (such as during sleep), and programming the thermostat is a simple, effective way of saving energy and money.

Building envelope

Another factor to consider is the building’s envelope. The better the envelope, the less heat transfers through it, which saves energy and dollars and keeps residents more comfortable. Envelope improvements can keep heat out during the summer and in during the winter.

A building’s envelope has two primary components: thermal performance (insulation, windows and doors) and air sealing. We suggest going above and beyond the minimum code requirement, which varies by region. Choosing Energy Star-qualified windows and doors will ensure better performance, and Energy Star provides specific guidelines for each region.

Buildings also must have well-sealed walls. Blown-in insulation or spray foam is better for air sealing, because fiberglass is difficult to cut around obstructions and often results in gaps during installation. Even with high R-value insulation, leaks and cracks in the envelop eliminates the performance of the insulation, which wastes money.

One product that combines air sealing and performance, and often meets the requirement for a vapor barrier is spray foam insulation. This product can improve the envelope and seal cracks. It has a high R-value, and because it is sprayed, it fills all cracks and crevices. More developers are using it because costs are coming down, and it offers a big advantage over rigid foam insulation and fiberglass.

Window coverings

Many buildings have exterior shading or window coverings, which offer a great way for controlling temperatures passively without the use of energy for mechanical cooling systems. When it gets too bright, however, many people — including older adults — tend to close the blinds and never open them again.

Living with the blinds closed can leave people feeling isolated and can even disrupt circadian rhythms — that is, the body’s internal clock, which controls bodily functions based primarily on sunlight and darkness. Disruptions can affect alertness, mood, sleep patterns and other internal functions such as digestion.

One option is to incorporate roller shades made from view-preserving fabric that blocks heat and glare but still allows residents to see outside — an ideal amenity for seniors.

A slightly more expensive strategy is to install a moveable screen outside the building, such as a perforated panel that moves automatically to block sunlight before it enters the unit. This option helps eliminate the need for seniors to reach or strain to adjust blinds manually. From an energy-savings perspective, it always is better to block direct sunlight before it enters a unit and becomes what we call “thermal heat gain.”

Another way to achieve this effect is with a roof overhang or shade structure outside the building that can block direct sunlight in the hotter months. These systems, however, can cost more because they need to be structurally mounted to outside of building.

Windows can be an advantage in the winter by bringing in thermal gain (which essentially is free heating) and reducing the need for mechanical heating. Some exterior overhangs can be designed to only block the summer sun and allow the sun to shine in below the overhang in winter due to the lower angle of the sun.

Through mindful shading, architects can design solutions that allow for both passive heating and passive cooling. Passive solutions such as these also can benefit sensitive populations such as senior living residents in the event of a power outage, because they perform regardless of a mechanical heating or cooling system.

Outdoor spaces

Getting outside for fresh air is important for any population, but especially as we age. During the summer, providing shade outside is a must for sensitive populations.

Simply planning for a shaded area of the landscape drops the temperature considerably. Additionally, planting lots of vegetation can reduce the temperature thanks to natural evaporation from the plants. Even efficient water features can help bring temperatures down.

In places with cold winters, wind blocks, partitions and panels all can help block the wind and cold. Consider glass roof panels or solarium, which can help magnify the sun’s rays to create a warmer space.

Heating elements also can help, but steer clear of wood-burning fireplaces, which are the least efficient. Bio-ethanol fire pits or infrared heaters are far better for the environment and don’t emit greenhouse gases like burning fuel does.

Thermal mass

From the inside or outside, heat moves more slowly through a building’s thermal mass. It takes longer for heat to escape or enter the building, so thermal mass can be a smart, passive way of regulating temperatures over time. This method can be especially useful in higher elevations, where night temperatures can be especially cold.

In a senior living community — or any building — concrete slabs or masonry construction can help improve thermal mass. Although these materials often present an upfront investment, they are maintenance-free and will perform for the life of the building, permanently reducing the heating and cooling load.

Additionally, thermal mass performs even during a loss of power, which means it can keep the building comfortable longer in the event of a power outage. This capability is a big benefit for vulnerable populations such as older adults, who may face serious health conditions such as overheating or hypothermia in the event of a power loss.

Through thoughtful design and a few smart upfront investments for temperature control, architects and designers can help senior living buildings achieve greater efficiency and cost savings for years to come.

Julie Edwards (LEED AP BD+C) is OZ Architecture’s director of sustainability. The Denver-based design and architecture firm has a 50-year history of thought leadership, innovation and creative design solutions.