Multitude of Merits in Providing Energy-Efficient, Affordable Senior Communities

Many Americans age 55 and older are facing a looming financial crisis. Longer life spans, coupled with stagnant investments, the housing slump and overall economic downturn means seniors will live years, perhaps decades, on fixed incomes. A number of seniors and their caretakers have found that the options of staying in their own homes or moving to retirement communities that require large up-front deposits are not feasible. The demand for high quality, affordable rental housing for seniors currently far exceeds the demand, offering opportunities for developers, builders and investors. And when the communities are planned and built as sustainable properties with a focus on conserving energy and reducing residents’ monthly utility costs, then there is high potential to realize strong returns on investment.

According to a 2011 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, America’s Rental Housing: Meeting Challenges, Building on Opportunities, more than one out of every five renters is 55 or older. Thirteen percent are over 65, and as the baby boomers age, that number will increase by nearly 2 million in the next decade, according to the study. Because these seniors must stretch their retirement dollars as far as possible, they seek cost-savings options without compromising their quality of life. Green building practices, which lower utility costs for renters, are crucial for attracting residents and maintaining high occupancy.

As experienced builders, we know that constructing energy-efficient, sustainable multi-housing communities for seniors has a positive cascading effect. Green design and construction attracts and retains renters, and when occupancy rates rise and remain high, investor goals and return benchmarks are more quickly satisfied. Energy efficiency is not only important to the residents, but also to their adult children who often participate in the decision-making process about where their parents will live, and frequently subsidize their parents’ lifestyle.

Among the most impactful green features are window glazing and insulation. Low-flow plumbing fixtures help conserve water and keep costs down. Energy Star appliances are attractive to renters, as are resource-efficient design and building materials. When we build in accordance with the standards of the more common sustainable programs, the improvements may be cost-neutral, but can save residents an average of 15 percent on their monthly utility costs.

Of course, many developers, in partnership with their lenders and investors, are choosing to create properties that offer more than the typical sustainable features. For example, NorSouth Constructs recently completed construction of Oliver House, a beautiful new affordable senior community in the heart of Decatur, Ga., developed by the Decatur Housing Authority. Oliver House was named 2012 EarthCraft Mulitfamily Project of the Year by The Southface Energy Institute and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, and the Decatur Housing Authority (DHA) was lauded for its leadership in green building design and construction.

From the beginning, the DHA sought to make Oliver House an example of energy efficiency and set the bar high for future downtown multifamily developments. Some of the environmental features include roof-mounted solar photovoltaic panels that produce more than 50 kilowatts of electricity, a rainwater harvest system to provide treated water for toilets and outdoor irrigation, low-flow plumbing fixtures in all the units and electricity-conserving geo-thermal heat pump systems to heat and cool the common areas. The community was designed to meet and even exceed EarthCraft Multifamily standards from the beginning and its easy access to local schools and shopping encourages residents to walk to their destinations, a practice which also saves energy.

Building senior living communities in established neighborhoods where residents’ adult children are likely to live, and within walking distance to shops, restaurants, services and public transportation makes good sense for all involved. NorSouth Development took over a failed townhome project in Woodstock, Ga., which offered an ideal location for an affordable senior rental development. Within the healthcare-oriented mixed-use development is a retail drug store, medical services, walking trails, landscaped greenspaces and direct access to Cherokee County’s largest residential neighborhood. HearthSide Towne Lake’s sustainable building practices include energy-efficient appliances, indoor air quality improvements, rainwater harvest system, LED outdoor lighting, Star Energy appliances and more. City leadership fully supported the project, approving a property rezoning and several variances to make the project feasible, as well as meeting with the lender to voice approval of the project. The community was fully leased less than a year after NorSouth Constructs completed the building, and Woodstock’s mayor has called HearthSide Towne Lake “a beautiful facility in the perfect location”.

Another exemplary development is Savannah Gardens in Savannah, Ga. CHSA and Mercy Housing Southeast are redeveloping a former 1940’s low income housing site into an unprecedented mixed income, tenancy and use community of apartments, senior living, single-family homes, retail space and landscaped parks. During the demolition phase, NorSouth Constructs took great care to reclaim useable materials including hardwoods and bricks. Tongue and groove heart pine roof sheathing was re-purposed into beautiful hardwood floors for the common areas of the new apartment building and will also be used in common areas of the new senior building. Custom shelving and cabinetry were also constructed from the reclaimed wood, as were rain barrel stands for the single family homes. Hundreds of old bricks now comprise the dramatic flooring of the onsite welcome center. Altogether, the reuse of building materials diverted an untold volume of material from the landfill and reduced the requirement for new construction material on site.

The project’s design uses the latest techniques and innovations to maximize green space and reduce energy consumption within the framework of the Southface Energy Institute’s EarthCraft Coastal Community program. The designation indicates that the architecture, engineering, construction and management of the community are undertaken in a manner that is energy efficient and environmentally sustainable within the context of a coastal ecosystem. Furthermore, the certification ensures that each structure within the development meets the EarthCraft environmental sustainability standard and that all residents, regardless of the cost of their rental unit or home, will fully enjoy the benefits of residing in an EarthCraft unit.

The market for high quality rental housing for seniors will be extremely strong in the foreseeable future as demand far exceeds the current supply. As the world’s largest generation in history continues to age, savvy developers will fill the senior housing void with energy efficient, attractive properties in well-established communities, offering investors opportunities for healthy returns, and residents opportunities for the lifestyles they desire.