Heated saltwater swimming pools. Craft beer and cocktail bars. Pilates and wine tasting. There’s a lot more to today’s senior housing communities than the drab and dreary independent living and 55-plus properties of the past. Fortified by a lifetime of housing experiences and bolstered by decades of income and retirement savings, baby boomers remain renters of choice, and, as they consider senior living options, they’re revealing themselves as discerning rental customers with a housing budget to support choosiness.
And while sustainability, energy efficiency, and other environmentally friendly building performance and community design features aren’t always top of mind for seniors who are shopping for apartments, they are nevertheless a vital component to creating the healthy and vibrant properties that index highly with this demographic. To compete in the growing and increasingly luxury senior housing market, sustainability features like composting, recycling, and smart thermostats are must-haves within a broader resident experience centered on healthy, active lifestyle options.
Indeed, developers finding success with sustainability among the senior set say green features resonate more when they are part of the resident experience—think community gardens and proximity to nature and open spaces—as opposed to technicals like building performance. “Finding boomers that care enough about sustainability to make it a rental decision seems to be an anomaly, and certainly not enough to drive design,” says Seth Oakley, principal and director of Cincinnati operations at M+A Architects. “Since boomers moving into apartments are renters by choice, rental rates and sustainability and utilities are less important than amenities and luxury look and feel.”
With properties in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Washington, the Revel Communities branded senior housing portfolio of The Wolff Co. is finding success by designing and developing experiential properties where boomers are promised thoughtfully curated services and programs to encourage healthier and happier lives, including walkable communities adjacent to outdoor spaces and everything from rejuvenating spa treatments to chef-driven dining experiences.
“Our residents are not coming in saying they are looking for a green community,” says Revel executive vice president of resident experience and chief operating officer Danette Opaczewski. “But sustainability is definitely a part of the overall experience they’re seeking. We make sure there is a natural setting, natural lighting, and efficient utilities by design, because the purpose of senior housing is to attract people of age and the things that they gravitate to.”
And increasingly, senior living residents are gravitating toward luxury communities where health and longevity are maximized by sustainability. In addition to things like smart thermostats and recycling and composting programs, seniors are showing a penchant for natural design motifs that maximize natural materials like wood and stone, all within communities that are replete with lifestyle options to stay active and socially engaged.
At StreetLights Residential, baby boomers can often comprise more than half of the resident base at the company’s urban infill properties, and, within the portfolio of communities in 11 cities across six states, the two things that most broadly appeal to older renters is a desire for an organized social calendar and an on-site wine or cocktail bar.
But StreetLights communities are also embracing the FitWel certification for sustainability and building health as an alternative to traditional green standards like LEED and GRESB. “From a resident perspective, the more technical standards just are not as interesting and relatable,” says Tiffany Bakewell, vice president of operations at StreetLights. “FitWel is primarily lifestyle driven and rewards communities for green views, accessibility, and even farmers markets. We have properties now that have dedicated refrigerators for facilitating CSA (community supported agriculture) deliveries, too.”
Indeed, the broader focus on resident wellness versus rote sustainability allows StreetLights properties like The McKenzie in Dallas to actively market and get some green credit for amenities like bike share stations, fitness centers, and yoga lawns in addition to the improved ventilation, smart lighting, and solar window shades that contribute to more traditional green building health.
Opaczewski says success with sustainability in senior housing necessitates a modernist approach that melds environment and support services with thoughtful places and design. “We’re trying to break open the conversation and make it less about aging and more about living,” she says. “But it’s not a country club mentality. I don’t think that’s it. It’s about providing choices and options and wonderful places to go, and realizing you don’t stop having a glass of wine because you are 80. Hopefully we do that with nature and sustainability in mind so these spaces are not wasteful at the same time.”
Oakley agrees, saying that while sustainability per se consistently is not a key rental driver for boomers, it’s nevertheless an element of senior housing that developers shouldn’t ignore. “With all of this in mind, it’s still our responsibility as architects and designers to find innovative ways to incorporate sustainability that won’t add to the cost of the concept, but will make an impact on the overall outcome.”
Developers can likely achieve those objectives with a little creativity and keen site selection. The McKenzie is located right by the Katy Trail in Dallas, and Bakewell says just providing senior residents with the access—and impetus—to be “up and at ’em” can be a difference maker when it comes to being green. “From a sustainability perspective, the trail is a great way to move around, keep your car parked, and keep your carbon footprint to a minimum,” she says. “But really they simply like the trail because they are active, social, and want to be outside.”