May 26, 2016

Field Notes: Going Grey-Green for Energy-Efficient Senior Housing

By Alexis Smith, Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow

The current Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellows share their ideas, inspirations, and photos from the field on our blog. Learn more about the Fellowship.

Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly (JCHE) has taken immense strides in the green building arena in the past several years. Through the dedication of our Director of Sustainability, partnerships with knowledgeable consultants, and the aid of programs like LEAN and the Better Building Challenge, we reduced our portfolio-wide energy usage by 17%. We're extremely proud of this accomplishment!One of the biggest lessons we have learned has been that our seniors have particular set of needs. We have seen that for our residents, some green technologies work particularly well while others don't work so well. We've been calling this particular area of the green building field, "grey green."Our biggest "grey green" lesson is: no matter how fantastic a technology is, it's only doing good if it's used correctly. This means that, as senior developers, we need to pay a lot of attention to user interface. One great example is our recent renovation, we installed dual-flush toilets in each apartment. The particular model we used involved a lever to flush up for liquid waste or flush down for solid waste. What we didn't consider is that 80-year-old habits are heard to break. Despite resident outreach and education, our residents always flushed down, and we saw virtually no water savings. Of course, that's not to say that we shouldn't try new technologies - dual flush toilets are a great innovation. But for our particular residents, next time we'll probably select a low-flow toilet with a more traditional user interface.

image1 - dual flush
Photo credit: www.fluidmaster.com

In this building, we also installed programmable thermostats. These are a great technology and can save a lot of energy, however the model that we chose was particularly complicated. It further created problematic challenges due to its minuscule instructions. In the future, we'll be thinking about a more user-friendly model.

image2 - thermostat
Photo credit: www.berkunair.com

Another big area of consideration is window selection. Seniors are particularly sensitive to drafts, so it's important that windows be efficient and airtight. However, efficiency isn't the only factor to consider. It's equally important to consider operating force and range of motion to ensure that even the frailest seniors can operate their window. For one renovation project, we brought in three sample windows and had our residents try them out to see which ones were easiest to use. We've found that crank windows, which can be opened with minimal force using just the palm of your hand, are great for those with limited strength or dexterity.

image3 - window
Photo credit: artandalice.blogspot.com

All of this is a work in progress. We're excited to continue learning as we strive for buildings that are even more efficient for us to operate, and even more comfortable and usable for our residents.

About the Author: Alexis works with Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly which provides safe and affordable independent housing where older adults of all backgrounds can age in community. Through this partnership, Alexis hopes to arrive at "a very rich and nuanced understanding of how to design the best possible housing for seniors." In addition to focusing on design that improves resident health and wellness, her work looks at how design can foster supportive social networks not just within JCHE properties but with the neighboring community as well.