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Senior Living Executive Magazine

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Certifiably Green
Certifiably Green
Assisted living will soon earn its first LEED certification—marking the latest milestone in an industrywide trend toward environmentally friendly residences
By: Bryan Ochalla

Providers throughout the country continue to implement initiatives that make their communities healthier and more environmentally friendly places for residents and staff. From energy-efficient appliances and lighting to environmentally friendly air ventilation systems and native landscaping, providers are keeping pace with what has become a central point of corporate responsibility and consumer preference—so much so, that green initiatives are fast becoming a new norm of operational excellence.

There’s one green milestone, however, that senior living has yet to reach, and that is official building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Since the USGBC rolled out its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program nine years ago, more than 2,300 construction projects—including commercial properties, government facilities, and educational buildings—have become LEED-certified. Now, Chicago-based Pathway Senior Living may soon become the first LEED-certified provider for a community it recently opened—Victory Centre of South Chicago.

The 112-unit community, developed in partnership with the not-for-profit Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, was designed by architectural firm Harley Ellis Devereaux with the goal of achieving LEED Silver certification. (There are four levels of LEED certification: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum, and each level is based on a points system.)

“We’ve always had an interest in energy efficiency,” says Robert Helle, a principal at Pathway Senior Living. “We pay all of the utility costs at our assisted living communities, so there has always been an economic incentive for us to invest in communities that are as efficient as possible.”

That history has helped the provider on its path toward LEED certification, as has Helle’s status as a “LEED-accredited professional”—a designation the USGBC gives to those who have “demonstrated a thorough understanding of green building practices and principles and the LEED rating system.” More than 80,000 people have earned the credential since the program debuted in 2001. Pathway has also eased its way toward certification by working with LEED-certified architects (LEED APs) on the Harley Ellis Devereaux staff.

Working with LEED APs is a simple but important strategy for providers interested in pursuing LEED certification, says Ashley Katz, USGBC manager of communications. Not only does a LEED AP on your project team earn you a point toward certification (26 points are needed for certification), but “because they are building professionals with the knowledge and skills to successfully steward the certification process, they can make the whole process seamless.”

Another tip for providers pursuing LEED certification, Katz says: Register your project as soon as possible so you can receive additional resources that will help with the certification process. “Once registered, project teams receive information, tools, and communication that will help guide them through the certification process.”

There are many providers, however, that are still in the planning stages of embarking on such initiatives, in which case it’s important to look at the big green picture before committing to a comprehensive plan and specific strategies. Especially in a challenging economy, smart providers will examine the pros and cons and determine whether the return on investment aligns with company goals.

 

Checks and Balances

Checks and Balances

Cost is among the first considerations any company executive examines when deciding on the plausibility of a green initiative, particularly if it involves building a LEED-certifiable community from the ground up. However, that bit of homework may leave providers scratching their heads, says Brian Dawson, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, a principal at Irwin Pancake Dawson, a residential architectural firm based in Costa Mesa, California.

“The cost of becoming LEED certified depends on whether the project was intended to be LEED certified from the start or if it became a LEED project partway through the process,” Dawson says.

Examples of the former cost less because “you plan accordingly from the start,” Dawson explains. “You hire consultants— electrical, mechanical, plumbing, structural—who have experience with LEED-certified projects and you bring on a LEED AP who can act as the team leader and set up goals and parameters along the way.”

In the case of Victory Centre of South Chicago, Pathway Senior Living was introduced to the project by the Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, whose chief goal was to bring affordable senior housing to south Chicago. At the same time, the City of Chicago was working to convert that area into a LEED-certified neighborhood. Together, the circumstances led to the Victory Centre of South Chicago.

It took Pathway Senior Living and its partners six years to complete the assisted living part of the senior housing project— twice as long as a typical construction project for the provider. (Construction of a 72-unit independent living building has begun and is scheduled to open in May 2010.) But Helle says that had little to do with the LEED certification process. Aiming for LEED certification “adds consulting fees and some construction fees, but in my experience it doesn’t really add time to a project,” he says.

That said, the additional consulting fees needed to confirm LEED certification will likely steer the provider away from pursuing LEED certification for future communities, “unless there is some reason or incentive for us to put up with the extra fees,” Helle says. “Our niche within the assisted living industry is that we build affordable assisted living communities, and as such our budgets don’t have a lot of room for adding fees that are outside of the norm—like some of the fees associated with LEED certification.”

Helle says LEED consulting fees for a project the size of Victory Centre South Chicago can easily exceed $50,000.

 

Points and Pointers

There are LEED-certified projects in all 50 states, and every business day $464 million worth of construction registers with LEED, according to the USGBC. Once Victory Centre of South Chicago receives its LEED certification, it will become a model for assisted living communities seeking the same.

The green attributes that will help Victory Centre of South Chicago earn enough points to achieve Silver certification include:

Native landscaping throughout the community’s outdoor spaces. Plants and shrubs that are native to the Chicago area will require less water and chemical fertilizers to maintain. Landscaping projects also include planting extra trees to shade impervious surface parking, which in turn reduces heat retention and additional cooling efforts.

A bioswale rain garden that collects and retains water. The rain water collected can then be used to maintain the community’s outdoor spaces as needed.

Reflective Energy Star roofing. The non-patio roofs throughout the community are Energy Star products that bounce heat off the building, which also contributes to curbing energy usage.

Quality and copious insulation. This strategy affects all the community’s roof surfaces. The building also has additional cavity wall insulation, advanced air sealing at doors and windows, and vinyl windows with Low-E glass—all to provide more efficient insulation for heating and cooling to reduce energy usage.

Energy Star-rated appliances. These include refrigerators, stoves, lighting systems and accessories, and HVAC systems that use the least amount of energy to run over time.

Building and finishing products containing recycled materials. Victory Centre of South Chicago was constructed with gypsum drywall and insulation that contain recycled materials. Products that contain recycled materials can vary in price.

Adhesives, sealants, and paints that include minimal levels of volatile organic compounds, or low-VOC products. Use of non-formaldehyde processed insulation, for example, reduces the amount of toxins in the air, which can help those with lung disease and asthma breathe more easily.

Low sones rating fans in restrooms. These run quietly to reduce sound pollution.

And while Victory Centre of South Chicago may become Pathway Senior Living’s first LEED-certified community, it isn’t the company’s first foray into green building and design. Like many senior living providers, the company has implemented several green policies and procedures at its communities in the past few years. These include using electronic forms instead of paper; a quarterly “cash back” reward for communities that curb paper consumption; recycling toner cartridges and computer equipment; and using green cleaning methods and products.

McLean, Virginia-based Sunrise Senior Living received an ALFA Best of the Best Award in 2008 for its Sunrise Energy Council, a brain trust that spans all of the company’s functions related to energy. (See “Best of the Best” in the June 2008 issue of Assisted Living Executive.) The council has enacted several strategies, including retrofitting compact fluorescent lighting in more than 325 communities, to curb energy usage and costs. Sunrise Senior Living also has communities under development that will seek LEED certification.

Wellesley, Massachusetts-based Benchmark Assisted Living is slashing energy consumption and costs at its communities by applying best practices from the Energy Star program, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. (See “Sustainable Solutions” in the November/December 2008 issue of Assisted Living Executive.) The company has installed compact fluorescent or other energy-efficient lighting in all buildings, and is steadily replacing old appliances with Energy Star-rated appliances.

There are certain appliances, however, that are not yet covered by the Energy Star program, including some stovetops and ovens—but providers still have options. For example, many ceramic stovetops allow for more energy-efficient cooking because burners are spring-loaded beneath the glass and force even distribution of heat. Plus, the absence of replacement and maintenance parts needed for ceramic cook tops, compared with coil cook tops, “translates into both cost and landfill savings,” says Suzanne Owens, vice president of sales and marketing for Kenyon International, a manufacturer of ceramic cook tops. In recent years, the company has seen increased interest in its green product options across several housing sectors.

 

Resources and Next Steps

Providers have access to a host of resources that can help them make communities healthier and more environmentally friendly places to live and work, including the ALFA Web site, www.alfa.org, where they can access recent articles from Assisted Living Executive.

Here are other information sources providers may find useful:

• The U.S. Green Building Council, www. usgbc.gov, offers several free downloads that explain everything from the LEED basics to strategies for specific types of buildings.

• Energy Star, www.energystar.gov, offers product-specific guidelines and recommendations for residential buildings.

• The EPA’s Green Building site, www.epa.gov/greenbuilding, offers case studies that address water and energy consumption strategies.

ALFA is also working with Energy Star’s Healthcare Facilities Division to get assisted living added to the building categories rated by Energy Star. The program will provide companies with a tool to measure performance in all of their buildings and benchmark that performance against other providers. Assisted Living Executive will provide updates as soon as they are available.

If your senior living company or community is pursuing LEED certification, tell us about it. Assisted Living Executive will continue reporting on the industry’s progress in this area. E-mail editor@alfa.org.

 

Bryan Ochalla is a contributing writer to Assisted Living Executive. Reach him at bochalla@alfa.org.

 

Whos Who

Contact information for members in this article.

Brian Dawson, bdawson@ipdarchitects.com

Robert Helle, rhelle@pathwaysl.com

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First Published: 6/1/2009
 
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