The past year has been especially challenging for the senior living industry. Hit hard by multiple crises—the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires up and down the West Coast, a record number of hurricanes in the Southeast, and extreme cold in the South—many in the industry were caught off guard. These compounding crises required emergency responses such as evacuations with the wildfires and lockdowns for the pandemic, which put extreme stress on residents and staff and caused potential residents to question making the move to a senior living community.

To better prepare for a future with more frequent and severe natural disasters, the senior living sector must focus on resiliency—the capacity to recover quickly from present stressors and adapt to future challenges and crises. While resiliency is important in all aspects of the business, resilient buildings are the first line of defense to keep residents and staff safe and comfortable. The onus is on architects and designers to guide clients toward developing a climate resilience plan and incorporating resilient strategies into every senior living project, for both new and existing communities.

A call for climate resilience

A warming planet is bringing powerful natural disasters more often, including pandemics, super storms, heat waves, wildfires, and drought. Seniors are typically more negatively affected by these stressors than younger people because they’re more likely to have health conditions that lessen mobility, impair cognition, and hamper the body’s ability to adapt to environmental extremes such as heatwaves. Not only do these stressors disproportionately affect seniors, but they also present a serious business risk to owners because they may disrupt daily operations and damage assets, reducing the ability to market to potential residents.

The antidote to the increase in environmental stressors is to create climate-resilient communities. Climate resilience is defined as the ability to prepare for and respond to natural disasters and climate trends. This is more than just adaptation to current and potential crises, it’s also about creating systems that can absorb shocks and then self-renew, which ultimately contribute to fixing the underlying problems creating the crises.

Developing a plan

The path to climate resilience begins with developing a specific plan. This plan does three things: identifies potential threats and stressors, establishes design goals that incorporate resilient principles, and lays out a path for implementing concrete resilient strategies into the design. This plan can be developed during the design process for new buildings or can be done for existing buildings. Architects and designers typically lead this process, with collaboration from the owner, operator, engineers, and, in some cases, sustainability consultants.

A key element of a resilience plan includes defining vulnerabilities and threats for a particular geography. These can be acute or chronic, localized or large scale, or stem from natural disasters or human activity. They can be fast moving, such as hurricanes, or come on slowly and be prolonged, such as chronic water and food shortages. Some exist regardless of location, such as heat stress, but others are geographically distinct, including floods and wildfires.

Once threats are identified, the next step is for design team and owner to develop resilient design goals. During this process, the design team gathers information from the owner on its financial and operational priorities before, during, and after a climate threat. These priorities are then refined into resilient design goals that are focused on how the environment responds to and mitigates threats as seamlessly as possible to provide for residents’ basic needs—life safety, food and water, comfortable living conditions, and energy. Priorities may be different for new construction projects than for existing communities looking to renovate.

Typically resilient design goals fall into three categories: adaptability and responsiveness, or being able to change to respond to different environmental conditions; diversity and redundancy in building systems and services for occupants; and durability, or the environment’s ability to last. Resilient design goals may include such things as being able to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature during the winter in the event of a power outage, ensuring that a building exterior can withstand hurricane-force winds, or making certain that optimal indoor air quality can be maintained during a smoke event.

The next step is to use the design goals and previously identified threats to develop a risk assessment and strategies matrix, which includes the likelihood and severity of each threat, the potential solutions and their associated costs. This provides a series of alternative solutions that the owner and design team can prioritize and choose based on cost, the extent of the threat to residents, and the owner’s ability to cope with change. The risk assessment and strategies matrix should help guide the community’s master plan and identify items that can be done easily and quickly versus those that are longer term.

While the resilient design goals may be the same for new construction and renovation projects, the strategies to achieve these goals may differ. For example, a community in Northern California would certainly list wildfire as a potential threat. The matrix would describe that the likelihood of a fire at the community is low, but the likelihood of severe smoke that impacts residents and staff is high. While both scenarios can be planned for, the higher likelihood smoke event is a higher priority. Strategies to deal with this scenario in a new construction project would include enhanced filtration in the HVAC unit and air sealing. In a renovation project, these solutions may not be possible, so having portable filters on hand would be a small-scale solution.

Incorporating resilient strategies into design

Once a resiliency plan is developed and the framework is set, concrete design strategies are defined and prioritized. These strategies fall into four categories: energy, resource use and sourcing, physical plant durability, and passive systems. Energy is a major focus because it’s a fundamental requirement of keeping residents safe and comfortable. Strategies focus on energy independence, which includes backup power and storage, incorporating redundant energy systems, and including on-site renewable sources.

Resource use and sourcing is focused on redundant sources like materials, food and water, and energy; having the ability to store them; and sourcing them locally so the supply chain is less likely to be disrupted during a disaster. With water, for example, it’s beneficial for a building to be as water independent as possible. This means incorporating redundant water supplies, such as rainwater capture, water storage, and greywater reuse, all while trying to reduce water needs.

Additionally, it’s critical to build a durable physical environment that can withstand intense climate stressors such as high heat and strong winds. This can be achieved by using high-quality construction materials and methods that utilize both vernacular and passive approaches. Examples include high-performance windows, continuous insulation, and rain screen exterior cladding systems. A passive resilient design approach can minimize or eliminate the reliance on energy-intensive systems such as mechanical heating and cooling systems and can include strategies such as building orientation and shading devices.

While some of these resilient strategies cost more at the project’s inception, they save money over the building’s life cycle by reducing operational and maintenance costs and creating more comfort for occupants. Looking ahead, it’s likely that many of these changes, especially those focused on energy usage, will be required in building and zoning codes and may even be required by insurance providers to maintain policies.

Adapt, mitigate, and solve

Now is the time to develop climate resiliency plans that allow the senior living design industry to change, improve, and be better at providing safety in its communities. The sector can come out of 2021 better than before, introducing strategies that allow it to adapt is buildings quickly, mitigate risk, and ultimately help solve the underlying problems that create crises.

Betsy del Monte is a principal consultant at Cameron Macallister Group (Dallas) and the incoming chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment. She can be reached at delmonte@cameronmacallister.com. Alexis Denton is an associate principal with Perkins Eastman (San Francisco). She can be reached at a.denton@perkinseastman.com.