The U.S. policy landscape of decarbonization, including the reduction or elimination of carbon dioxide emissions associated with buildings and their activities, is rapidly evolving.

In fact, the regulatory shift toward electrification of new residential projects is already well underway in states like California and New York, and it is only a matter of time before these changes come to additional building departments across the country.

Building and operations for senior living will be impacted by new energy-efficiency and net-zero emissions targets that will ultimately require the electrification of all fossil-fuel burning building systems and appliances to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions.

Understanding where in the country decarbonization policy is in effect, what it means for the equipment senior living owners and operators can expect to see in their buildings, and how these changes will impact the industry are vital to the future of senior residential design and construction. This shift also has the promise to lower operational energy costs and to keep vulnerable populations safer and more resilient in the face of an increasingly volatile climate.


Changing energy regulations

The state of California recently rolled out the 2022 California Energy Code, which heavily incentivizes the use of all-electric space heating systems and appliances. Additionally, many local jurisdictions have passed energy reach codes, which go further than state policies, requiring all-electric construction in all building types including residential and commercial.

The energy code changes alone are predicted by the California Energy Commission to provide $1.5 billion in consumer benefits and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 million tons over the next 30 years.

Similar state pushes toward greater electrification are underway in Washington, Utah, Colorado, Illinois, New York state, New Jersey, Vermont, and Massachusetts. These changes range from benchmarking of electrified building systems for new construction to requiring the elimination of natural gas entirely.

As a case study, the City of Berkeley, Calif., is undertaking a three-phase plan to fully decarbonize its building stock by 2045, having passed the nation’s first all-electric building ordinance in 2019.

These emerging codes, reach codes, and ordinances will increase the decarbonization requirements on multifamily residential construction, including senior living communities.

Push to electrification in senior living

Many all-electric heating and cooling systems, along with other electrified building products and appliances, have been brought to market over the past few decades. As electrification becomes more prevalent, those products are rapidly improving and becoming more innovative. Their benefits include helping to lower or eliminate the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas in power plants and boilers.

For space heating and cooling, natural gas-powered furnaces are out and heat pump technology is in. These come in the form of mini-splits or variable refrigerant flow (VRF) and air-to-water heat pump systems.

These units use an outdoor compressor unit to extract heat from the air and deliver it to an indoor air handler. Heat pumps are significantly more energy efficient than natural gas or electrical resistance systems and can also cover air conditioning during the cooling season.

More environmentally friendly R-744 air-source heat pumps, which use carbon dioxide as the refrigerant, are a great match for domestic hot water production. They are already available from multiple manufacturers and offer exceptional cold-climate performance while still producing high-temperature hot water.

This combination not only costs less to run than natural gas-burning systems but also promotes exceptional Legionella protection by maintaining sufficiently high water temperatures.

Air-source heat pumps require space for the indoor and outdoor infrastructure. In cases where that’s limited, sanitary water energy recovery (SWEE) heat pumps (which draw their thermal energy from a building’s wastewater systems versus outside air) are an option.

These systems offer even greater performance in all-climate zones, with lower electrical demand and associated electrical infrastructure costs.

New electric appliance options for senior resident spaces

In addition to the heating, cooling, and water infrastructure, all-electric appliances like stoves and heat pump clothes dryers are becoming the norm for new residential apartments.

Setting aside the media’s recent focus on the gas-versus-electric-stovetop controversy, the all-electric induction ranges currently on the market offer significant benefits to senior residents.

Unlike the bright-orange electric coils of yore that come to mind when an electric range is mentioned, induction technology is more sophisticated. Induction heat is generated using an electromagnetic field that only heats the pan sitting on the cooktop surface and nothing else.

In addition to allowing for precise temperatures and even heat distribution, the ranges have the added benefit for seniors that no part of the cooktop gets hot; the heat is actually generated within the pan itself.

This means that a dropped utensil, a hand reached out for unexpected support, or just an accidental brush will not result in burns.

Additionally, induction ranges produce none of the toxic off-gases produced by natural gas-burning ranges. Indoor air quality (IAQ) drops significantly in homes with gas ranges and is a contributor to health issues like childhood asthma. Elder residents can benefit from appliances that maintain a high and healthy IAQ.

The benefits of an all-electric kitchen also extend to the commercial kitchens found in licensed care communities. These spaces are like the third rail of senior living’s conversion to electrification. With many food service professionals unfamiliar with the new technology and an industry entrenched in traditional ways of operating, changing course to an all-electric commercial kitchen can seem overwhelming.

However, there are considerable benefits to the environment and to the staff who work in these spaces. In gas cooking, only 40 percent of the heat is transferred to the pan and 60 percent ends up in the room.

This creates a hot, uncomfortable work environment in addition to the reduced IAQ. Induction cooking does not have this side effect and the kitchen space stays much more comfortable for staff.

Designing for improved building resiliency

These electrified systems and approaches can also improve community security and resilience in the face of increasing natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Adding on-site power generation such as photovoltaic arrays and microgrids (a localized network of energy generation that functions independently from the grid) and battery storage (devices that can store on-site solar or wind energy for use later) to senior living communities allows them to continue functioning when the power grid becomes unavailable due to wildfire, hurricanes, tornados, or heat waves.

By combining these systems with traditional generator technology, senior communities can run more of their heating and cooling systems and life-saving equipment on emergency power. This allows them to weather these disruptive events for longer periods of time.

As our national infrastructure is tested to greater degrees every year, it becomes more imperative that vulnerable seniors live in communities that are prepared to keep them safe if help is delayed or unavailable for days or even weeks at a time.

At first blush, these systems may seem inaccessible or too expensive. However, the federal government is currently incentivizing investment in electric infrastructure via various tax credit and grant programs through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 that results in operational payback on the initial investment relatively quickly.

While there are mechanisms to access reimbursement for many of these systems, many existing communities may not have access to the capital required to pursue these solutions without help. But these new credits and incentives provide an economically sustainable path forward.

An electrified future for senior living

As state and national policy mandates continue to expand, decarbonizing building stock should be a priority for senior living communities.

Understanding the options and solutions that are available is vital to forging this new and increasingly required path to electrification for all multiresident facilities.

Achieving an electrified future will take a collective effort requiring sustained governmental support at the federal and state levels. Developers, owners, and operators will also need to entertain alternatives to business as usual.

The outcomes offer a more sustainable, resilient, and humane life for our elders in senior living now as well as those in the future.

 

Alexis Burck, AIA, is a principal, architect, and senior living studio leader at SmithGroup (San Francisco). She can be reached at alexis.burck@smithgroup.com. Stet Sanborn, AIA, CPHD, is a vice president and mechanical engineering discipline leader at SmithGroup (San Francisco). He can be reached at stet.sanborn@smithgroup.com.