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Environmental Concerns

Painting Retirement Green

Older Americans find ways to reduce their carbon footprint





giant wind turbines

— Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The next year, the community began installing photovoltaic panels to collect solar power. Today, it has 52 in place and two more on the way. It also started replacing older boilers with more efficient gas boilers, and utility bills went down immediately. “We estimate that we’re saving about $100,000,” Schaefer says.

There’s no getting around the extra capital investment required to go green. Old technology is almost always cheaper. But unlike many developers who complete a project and then flip it, developers of housing for older residents tend to hold on to their properties long enough to recoup their investments, even those that involve high-priced alternative power systems. Take for example NewBridge on the Charles, the latest project of Hebrew SeniorLife, which provides health care and housing in the Boston area. This eco-dazzler of a continuing care community in Dedham, Mass., draws its power from 408 geothermal wells, each up to 500 feet deep. The system cost a stunning $4 million. Repayment will take eight or nine years but after that, it’s money saved.

Green tech: not just for the wealthy

In some cases, nonprofit organizations that develop new housing for low-income Americans age 50 and older can better afford the latest and greenest technologies through special grants and tax credits. Berkeley, Calif.-based Satellite Housing is one such organization. In 2007, it opened the solar-powered Helios Corner, a mixed-use development that includes 80 rent-subsidized, independent-living apartments for older residents and also houses the company’s headquarters. A hydronic heat system—sort of a high-tech, superefficient radiant heat system—has kept winter heating bills at $10 or $15 a month per unit, significantly lower than the local average of $60 per unit. The company is also adding solar panels, dual-pane windows and efficient appliances to the 1970s-era structures it manages. Helios Corner also fits another aspect of Satellite’s green mission—developing housing in dense neighborhoods with easy access to services and public transportation, notes the organization’s executive director, Ryan Chao.

The next green wave

Indeed, where and how green communities are built is the next frontier. In-town living is gaining momentum. A building set in a dense area, close to shops, doctors and other services, is already halfway toward winning LEED certification as a green building. HPD Cambridge Inc. started developing in-town senior housing more than two decades ago. “For years we had been out in the cornfields, developing large multilevel care campuses,” says David Sanders of his St. Louis-based company. “We were getting more and more antsy, not just about the green aspect but about why we were taking people who were becoming less mobile and planting them in self-contained environments to live the rest of their lives so far away from their shops and beauty salons and communities. We decided there must be a better way.” Against the recommendation of many of their colleagues in the field, HPD Cambridge built an independent-living development two decades ago in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves. Today, the company is exploring wind turbines and other alternative energy sources.

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