Integrating Sustainability Into Senior Care Facility Design

Sustainability is key to protecting the environment and preserving the world for future generations. It’s a hot topic in many different fields right now, given the conversations around global warming. With a growing emphasis on sustainability, it’s increasingly important for senior care communities to embrace sustainable practices in their facility designs.

What Sustainability Looks Like in Senior Care Facilities

Mihaela Zaharescu

Mihaela Zaharescu, landscape architect and vice president at EDSA

When it comes to facility design, it’s important to focus on sustainability in both the physical buildings and in the landscape of a facility. Mihaela Zaharescu, landscape architect and vice president at EDSA, explains that the idea of sustainability can shape an entire construction or renovation project. “Sustainability is the overall view of applying environmental techniques. It’s a concept to live in the present in a way so as to not be a detriment for the future in how we use our resources,” she says.

She notes that sustainability can be everything from using more nature-friendly construction materials, to designing a facility to save on electricity and reuse water. When it comes to landscaping, strategic decisions like using plants that are native to the area and minimizing irrigation play an important role. Even the facility’s location in relation to the town, establishing good connections to the other space around the facility plays an important role. Sustainability can also refer to the general point-of-view of a facility, accentuating resident wellbeing and making sure residents live in a healthy, productive way.

Embracing sustainable practices offers many benefits. Zaharescu explains that sustainability is a good marketing technique. “If prospective residents know that the facility cares about the issues, there’s enhanced interest,” she says. “When developers and administrators are open to implementing features that talk to sustainability, like access to more fitness, physical activities, general activities, and a variety of options for the residents, then residents will be able to live a full and diverse life. A well-designed, thoughtful community that thinks about environmental aspects and the health of its population is also attractive to staff.”

Strategies for Integrating Sustainability in Senior Living Facilities

Zaharescu explains that a landscape architect can intervene at several levels to help incorporate sustainable elements into a senior care facility. “We like to work with an architect from the very beginning to create a more cohesive experience for the community,” she says. “The architect, client, and engineers focus on their respective disciplines, while we help to bring them all together and create a more cohesive campus.”

To accomplish that goal, Zaharescu looks at multiple elements, including arrival points, outdoor spaces and amenities, and ways to establish outdoor interaction between residents and nature. She assists with the selection of native plants, including drought-appropriate plants, and focuses on keeping irrigation costs down.

There are plenty of ways to incorporate sustainability into renovations, too. “Renovating a new facility is a sustainable action in itself,” says Zaharescu. “One of the tenants of sustainable design is to minimize demolition and to try to use what’s existing. If you upgrade instead of demolishing or starting fresh, that single action is already a sustainable activity.”

The renovation process offers opportunities to implement additional sustainable elements. Those can include, for example, better paints and materials that are locally sourced. Zaharescu explains that a facility can use the renovation process as a chance to analyze the current amenities and materials and consider replacing them with something that is better adapted to the area. “We found that here in Florida, pools are a great amenity to have, and they’re a huge attraction. If you have a small pool and update it, it creates more opportunities for residents to exercise and to attract visitors.”

She describes a sustainability success story from a senior care community in Pompano Beach, Florida. The facility had a very outdated pool that was small and that lacked shade. When the community decided to upgrade the pool, Zaharescu suggested that instead of having one larger pool, they create a space for a leisure pool and a lap pool. The redesign included better, wider paths to lead to the pools, as well as the creation of an outdoor bar next to the pool. The facility added pickleball and bocce courts, too.

Zaharescu describes the project as a huge success. “The bar attracts people, and in the evenings they use the pool deck for event space. They have huge water aerobics classes and scheduled pickleball classes.” Perhaps most importantly, the pool has tremendously increased visitation rates, and it’s a popular attraction for entire families. When giving tours to prospective residents, the facility makes sure to always include a stop at the pool.

First Steps Toward Embracing Sustainability

Zaharescu recommends that a senior care facility looking to implement sustainable design practices start with a vision exercise and decide the main visions and values that are most important for the community.

Certain design options are highly popular at the moment. “We’ve noticed that the senior living facilities are looking to revamp their look and offer a wide variety of options,” she says. “Pools and walking paths with benches situated at intervals are popular. There’s also a focus on locations that have nice visual attractions, like manmade lakes or fountains.” Activities like water aerobics and pickleball are popular, and there’s also a strong focus on providing quality dining experiences.

When implementing sustainability, Zaharescu notes that initial costs may be slightly higher, but in many cases, the costs are offset in time. Finding an appropriate location to build a new facility can also be tricky, as sometimes the best locations aren’t the most sustainable ones. “Maybe you’re too close to a wetland, or the best place is on farmland that should ideally be preserved for agriculture,” she says. “It may be better to develop an existing infill site.”

While there are challenges to embracing sustainability, it’s a practice that’s well worth integrating into senior care design. “I think that more and more people are becoming aware of these issues, so I think sustainability is going to be much more integrated in the future,” says Zaharescu. “It will become slowly ingrained in the developers, and I think that materials and processes are becoming more sustainable, themselves. It will be easier to integrate it without having to think sustainable. It doesn’t go as fast as we’d like, but I think it’s going in that direction.”

Topics: Activities , Design , Facility management , Featured Articles , Housing , Senior Environments