A senior living community is much more than just a building full of people. It is a caring environment of residents, family members, nurses, caregivers, and staff members. After all, it's the place residents call home, where they have a sense of comfort and security.
But then again, it is a building full of people-a physical space designed to create a warm environment, while still allowing for the practical functions critical to delivering high-quality care. Shared spaces, apartments, kitchens, and offices must have efficient climate control. This community also needs systems that support energy-saving lighting and appliances to help cut costs. And it needs cutting-edge building technologies that can do everything from track residents' movements to perform basic resident assessments.
Everything that goes into your buildings can either contribute to or detract from your organization's operational excellence. So which building technologies are plausible and affordable?
Smart Building Control
Probably more than ever before, senior living communities are benefiting from a range of HVAC technologies that help save money and increase comfort. Plus, eco-friendly systems help buildings run more efficiently while improving residents' quality of life-particularly when it comes to air quality-making energy-saving systems effective marketing tools, too.
Will Shea, corporate director of facilities management for Newton, Massachusetts- based Five Star Senior Living, says the company has been strategically implementing smart building control systems at several of its communities. "We are taking the latest technologies that are out there and applying them in our buildings in the proper locations," says Shea. In other words, the company is first targeting those communities best suited for these systems and measuring results along the way. This saves on upfront costs and allows for case-by-case customization.
The latest building control systems, for example, allow staff members to accurately monitor a building's various room temperatures in an easy-to-navigate PCbased format. "If part of the building has spiked up to 80 degrees, we can see that right away," Shea explains. Building control systems can also balance load, storing up heating or cooling power for the hours of peak consumption.
A number of Five Star Senior Living communities are being retrofitted with these technologies, starting with the least-efficient buildings. "We are looking at the buildings that are consuming the most energy, the buildings with the oldest equipment," Shea explains. In some cases control systems are 30 years old. Costs for conversion can run $30,000 to $150,000 depending on the size and complexity of the retrofit, "but you can see the ROI on those technologies pretty quickly."
At communities owned and operated by Hershey, Pennsylvania-based Country Meadows Retirement Communities, the push to upgrade control systems has driven efforts to update obsolete heat pumps and similar equipment. The company has steadily been updating infrastructure in many of its 33 communities, some of which date back 15 to 25 years. Newer, more advanced heating units "prevent major temperature swings and save energy, but still allow our residents their individual comfort," says Michelle Hamilton, vice president of operations for the company. "We also have started over the past two years to change out resident room PTAC (packaged terminal air-conditioning) units to more energy-efficient GE Zoneline 5800 model PTACs," she says.
Across many business sectors, building and facilities experts often agree that heating and cooling systems are an area where owners stand to reap the greatest gains in terms of operating costs, comfort, and rapid return on investment.
"The greatest advancements in technology are in the mechanical systems, simply the way we approach heating and cooling buildings," says Doug Pancake, principal at Irwin Pancake Architects, based in Costa Mesa, California. Plus, the progress goes well beyond just air-conditioning. The latest in HVAC technologies marry the structure to the needs of the bottom line. Pancake points to thermal storage as an example.
"We are designing systems that actually generate cold water or ice at nighttime, when you can get a really good price from the power companies," Pancake explains. The idea is to build up a storehouse of cold water when prices are low, "and then in the daytime, when the prices go up, you are circulating that water that is already cold." However, in a strategy like this one, "you have to find a place to keep the tanks," Pancake advises.
In 2010, some $60 billion in new construction will fulfill some environmentally friendly criteria, up from $12 billion in 2008, according to McGraw-Hill Construction Research & Analytics.
In practical terms, green building strategies for many senior living communities begin with turning on the lights. While luminescence may not be the most glamorous of all building technologies, it is the one where resident impact and ROI are most readily visible.
Over the past year and a half, Country Meadows has changed out all the incandescent light bulbs in its communities in favor of compact fluorescent lamps, Hamilton says. The result is 75 percent less energy used to produce the same amount of light. "The compact fluorescent lamps are even being used in all chandeliers and sconces, giving a warm, homey feel and still plenty of light."
Hamilton notes that the company has also begun replacing all of its original inefficient fluorescent light fixtures in common areas and corridors to a higher- efficiency Avanti light, which reduces the amount of energy used and has a two-sided wash of light, reducing the number of fixtures needed in most areas yet still producing "a very bright and cheerful ambiance for our residents." Country Meadows is midway through a two-year program to swap out the lighting in all common areas.
At Five Star Senior Living, Shea is doing his retrofit with Sylvania products. "It's low-level technology, but it is also a great way to get out there and see some bottom-line savings quickly, without a lot of capital outlay," he says.
While HVAC and green strategies are solidly in the mainstream, other "a la carte" building technologies also hold promise. Least glamorous and yet arguably the most compelling of the new building technologies is the smart toilet, says James M. Warner, principal of JSA Architecture Planning & Interior Design in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A unit from manufacturer Toto can perform an automatic urine analysis, as well as measure weight, body mass, blood sugar, and blood pressure. Toto's toilet links to a PC to produce charts and graphs.
"This is the kind of technology that can keep people in an assisted living setting longer and can keep them healthier," Warner says.
Also related to a community's plumbing system, Pancake says the latest piping technology can save time and money in the costly construction process. In particular, the PEX Plumbing System replaces copper with easily-to-install plastic pipes. "It goes in remarkably fast," he explains, and unlike copper, it can take twists and turns without risk of kinking up.
New generations of plumbing and piping may not be among the most exciting building technology topics-but what they lack in glamour, they make up for in cost savings. Still, some building technologies can certainly deliver both- weaving together a higher level of efficiency and a marketable cool factor for the community.
For example, Five Star Senior Living is testing integrated GPS functionality at several of its communities that provide Alzheimer's care. The technology becomes part of the physical building and has the ability to track residents efficiently and unobtrusively. "If somebody went through a door in an elopement situation, you would still be able to locate that resident and get them back quickly," Shea explains. "There are good marketing opportunities in that."
Along these same lines, Warner is fascinated by the latest built-in motion detectors from manufacturers like Philips. These sophisticated infrastructure tools can map a pattern of activities and recognize when something is amiss.
"The software associated with this equipment can analyze movements and if something changes dramatically-if somebody falls or does not get up from a nap-that will alert staff to take a look at what is going on," says Warner. Such motion sensor technologies are becoming so mainstream in senior living communities today that it seems the rest of the population is taking notice. A current research study funded by the National Institute on Aging aims to prevent falls among seniors using the latest motion sensor technologies. Researchers are using sensors in carpets, walls, and clothing to conduct long-term studies of seniors as they age, so that tailored prevention measures can be developed to guard against potential falls and shed light on activity patterns and behaviors.
Motion sensor technologies, GPS capabilities, toilet analytics, HVAC control systems, next-generation pipes-all of these and many other physical building strategies not only help create a better living environment for residents, they become a selling point for the community. When prospective residents and family members learn about your community and compare it to others in the market, how stacked will your building features be?
Particularly in the competitive senior living business, every effort to enhance resident care and contribute to operational efficiencies matters. Family members and residents alike value green initiatives, for example, making it even more strategic to implement ecofriendly systems.
According to a Harris Interactive poll, more baby boomers and seniors are making the environment and green living a priority in their daily lives: 94 percent of baby boomers have taken steps in the past year to go green; 81 percent are concerned about the environmental legacy they will leave for their grandchildren grandchildren; and 79 percent want to do more to reduce their carbon footprint. Additionally, ALFA is working with the EPA to develop an assisted living category within the Energy Star Healthcare Facilities Division.
The Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) is the largest national association exclusively dedicated to professionally operated assisted living communities for seniors. ALFA's member-driven programs promote business and operational excellence through national conferences, research, publications, and executive networks. ALFA works to influence public policy by advocating for informed choice, quality care, and accessibility for all Americans.
By Adam Stone