Green design for better senior living

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Does it seem like more things are changing than staying the same? New technology brings countless opportunities that were previously not even considered, much less realized. And now, the age of sustainability and the green movement have grown from an isolated pocket of enthusiasts to attract a large following from diverse positions and industries. Even more importantly, this emphasis toward sustainable practices has delivered demonstrated, proven success that can impact long-term care (LTC) residents, employees, administrators, and the bottom line.

In addition to providing a healthier environment for residents, significant long-term cost savings are among the most exciting benefits that the recipients of an environmentally friendly facility may enjoy. Improved cognitive function, greater community support, stronger staff retention, and a more positive impact on the environment are all benefits that administrators can potentially anticipate from a well-designed, sustainable LTC facility. With so many benefits easily recognized, decision makers should take a close look at all of the sustainable options available to them as they consider upcoming building projects.

It's easy to see how new facilities, with an emphasis on sustainability, lay the foundation for a great story of quality care, while also being aesthetically pleasing, healthy, and cost-sensitive. Additionally, by designing and building green, one can connect with a bigger story of care for the environment that may be present in the community, or one might be the catalyst for this initiative.

Rising building costs, highly fluctuating energy bills, demands for improved performance, and greater competition for both residents and staff are critical issues that nearly every administrator faces. But many have not seen how the benefit of building sustainable facilities addresses these issues.

A good example of a provider that is reaping those benefits is Lutheran Homes of Oshkosh (LHO), Wisconsin, a family of healthcare and residential service organizations committed to providing quality care and life-enriching opportunities to the aging. Following a strategic planning process, this organization began to take greater steps toward sustainability. One result was the planning, design, and construction of LHO's new 77-acre campus, Eden Meadows, which was designed to expand services offered at the original campus.

Eden Meadows features Eden Rehabilitation Suites, a state-of-the-art skilled nursing facility for short-term rehabilitation, and two Green House® Homes-the first facilities of their kind in Wisconsin. These modern homes include private rooms and baths with barrier-free European showers, a bistro, and an extensive therapy program that is central to the services of Eden Meadows. These new facilities take their cues from the Green House model-a person-centered approach to providing skilled nursing care.

While adhering to all codes for skilled nursing, Green House Homes provide residents with an environment that looks and feels like home. Both the Eden Rehabilitation Suites and Eden Green House Homes were developed to take advantage of sustainable design strategies, improve long-term performance, and offer a healthful living and working environment. Numerous sustainable features provide residents, staff, and LHO with the many benefits that building green provides.


The impact of designing and building green, versus traditional construction, really does affect an organization's environmental footprint. It's important to celebrate that accomplishment, but the benefits are more widespread than many realize. Here's a sampling of the impact:

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Patrick J. Del Ponte

2010 FotoGrafix

Contrary to popular myth, it is now common for sustainable construction to cost less than traditional construction.

  • Green practices affect efficiency. Improving air quality, lighting, and comfort has proven to increase productivity and reduce absenteeism. According to one U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, the average worker spends nearly 90% of his/her time indoors, and building-related illnesses cost organizations tens of billions of dollars every year. By choosing green solutions, the study reports that staff members miss fewer days and are more effective at work.

  • Green practices affect attitudes. Recent studies have made a well-supported case that Millennials (persons born between 1979 and 2001) are more responsive to those institutions that are environmentally sensitive. The research demonstrates that 83% of Millenials will place more trust in organizations that are socially and environmentally responsible. This means potential employees and client's families, local media, and others are potentially influenced by your decision to be greener…or not.

  • Green practices affect staffing. A poll conducted by Mortgage Lenders Network USA states that 94% of Americans prefer to work in a setting that is designed to be energy efficient and ecologically sound. When people are considering their employment options, features like natural lighting and a comfortable, well-designed work environment are variables that are likely to give sustainable organizations the upper hand in successful hiring and retention.

  • Green practices affect the bottom line. Contrary to popular myth, it is now common for sustainable construction to cost less than traditional construction. On average, we've seen senior living construction savings of 12% when using sustainable practices versus traditional construction. But the savings don't go away once the facility is completed; building owners can often expect 22-30% lower utility costs for the life of the building.


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The integration of planning, design, and construction is critical for maximizing sustainable design and ensuring that LTC providers have a facility that operates effectively and efficiently. With this mind-set, all involved parties can look, with the greatest peripheral vision, for environmentally friendly solutions from the very beginning. This integrated approach emphasizes planning, communication, and brainstorming, involving the entire project team and stakeholders from the start and encouraging new ideas throughout the project.

Planners need to work with administrators and other leaders early in the process to seek efficient and cost-effective solutions and a commitment to holistic, sustainable design and delivery.

Designing and building a better environment today will positively impact one's team, decrease expenses, improve the atmosphere for residents, and demonstrate care for the environment.


Highly sustainable facilities contain features that impact health and comfort in numerous and significant ways. Here are examples of sound environmental practices that have been used in the LHO Eden Meadows project, and that can be implemented in other projects:

  • The strategic placement of more than 100 windows provides residents and staff generous daylight and exceptional views. High-performance glazing on windows and doors controls glare while reducing heat gain/loss.

  • Materials with a high recycled content, such as ceiling tiles and carpet, were selected. Using low-VOC (volatile organic compound) interior materials, such as flooring, adhesives, paints, and sealants, means that occupants have high-quality indoor air and thus a healthy living and working environment.

  • A man-made pond operates as the main storm water detention basin, and also serves the geothermal system, which uses the pond's constant water temperature to provide heating and cooling for the buildings.

  • Membrane roofing provides a high solar reflectance value, reducing the amount of heat absorbed and retained by the building.

  • The inclusion of low-flow plumbing fixtures and dual-flush toilets is expected to reduce water use by 25-30%.

  • Contributing to the buildings' reduction in energy use are energy-efficient light fixtures and digital temperature controls, which are geared toward maximizing the efficiency of the geothermal system.

  • Multiple lighting levels in resident rooms and common areas allow for using only the amount of light needed for a task. Occupancy sensors in storage rooms shut down unnecessary electric light. Energy recovery ventilators capture waste heat and temper incoming fresh air.

  • The landscape's low-maintenance, native vegetation is ideal for the Wisconsin climate. This eliminates the need for an irrigation system and reduces water use. Careful planning allowed natural features such as wetlands and woodlands to be preserved as amenities.


As you consider your next building project, sustainable design is one choice that can help you succeed. The benefits of being environmentally conscientious will impact residents, staff, and the overall environment. These decisions will have a profound impact for years to come. Designing and building a better environment today will positively impact one's team, decrease expenses, improve the atmosphere for residents, and demonstrate care for the environment. Make the change and build a better residence by building green. D

Patrick J. Del Ponte is Director of Planning Services, Hoffman LLC. An engineer and LEED-accredited professional, he leads a team that creates conceptual building plans and does space programming, project budgeting, and scheduling. Contact him at and learn more about the LHO project at Design Environments for Aging 2011 2011 March;():18-20

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