The “2030 Challenge,” outlined in 2006 by Architecture 2030, a nonprofit organization focused on climate change (Santa Fe, N.M.), calls for a ramp down to carbon-neutral buildings through the use of more sustainable building materials and practices.

Specifically, the program set goals to 60 percent of what the 2003 commercial building energy consumption survey was by 2010, followed by reduction targets for 2015 and 2020, eventually making the way to carbon neutral by 2030, Jay Weingarten, an architect at RGD Planning & Design (Des Moines, Iowa), said on a webinar, “Designing to the 2030 Sustainability Challenge and Beyond,” hosted by SAGE.

Weingarten was one of four design and building speakers on the webinar, including architect Brent Wollenburg also of RGD; mechanical engineer Chris Reed of Morrissey Engineering (Omaha, Neb.); and Joe Ewert, president of nonprofit consultancy ARI (Lawrence, Kan.).

The speakers discussed how project thinking in senior living design has shifted more to sustainability.

Addressing EUI and building performance

The 2030 Challenge focuses on site energy. Forty percent of global carbon dioxide emissions come from the built environment, and of that, 11 percent comes from embodied carbon—the emissions attributed to materials extraction, supply, and the manufacture of equipment for building and maintaining of a senior living community.

One of the metrics for figuring out the size of a building’s carbon impact is energy use intensity (EUI), or the energy consumed per square foot of a building per year.

During the webinar, Weingarten said that a “good EUI” target for a senior living community can vary quite a bit because of the different building types that are in the sector.

For example, independent living senior apartments should be targeting an EUI that’s less than 10, he said. An EUI of 10 equals 10,000 BTUs, or British thermal units, per square foot per year.

To measure the carbon impact of a building, project teams can use energy modeling, which analyzes a building’s energy systems and consumption, focusing on the windows, walls, and roofs, as well as the interior mechanical systems. “In short, it helps us to understand what will and, just as importantly, won’t help improve performance,” Wollenburg said.

Energy modeling is also a great way to look at projects and think about alternative uses of the materials, he said, adding that small changes can add up to a measurable difference.

For example, most senior living construction utilizes concrete and steel materials, which hold a lot of embodied carbon. But incorporating, where possible, some mass timber—a natural, structural wood—can help to offset that carbon.

“Mass timber is a great one to consider for a lot of projects, but again, like most things, it does require a team being committed and understanding the costs and benefits” in helping to reduce that carbon footprint, Wollenburg said.

Investing in energy-efficient HVAC systems

A big investment that can have an equally big impact on EUI is an alternative-energy heating, venting, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

ARI’s Ewert gave an example of a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in the Colorado Rockies that installed solar panels on the roof that power an all-electric water tank heat pump system.

“The engineering models projected that they’d save between $5,000 and $12,000 a year in energy. So about 2.5 to 6 percent of their total estimated energy consumption could be picked up by this solar field. When we applied $10,000 per year in depreciation, the system’s producing about $7,900 per year in savings,” he said, noting that for this client, that made the investment worthwhile.

As architects, designers, and builders increasingly are considering these strategies—and making the case to developers, investors, and providers that spending more now will save more money in the long run—Morrissey’s Reed said goal setting is an important step.

“If you’re strictly focusing on the lowest, first cost of a project, you may miss some opportunity,” he said. “I always say that the mechanical systems and the envelope of the building, that’s the gift that keeps on giving because you’re paying the energy bill forever. You may save some money on day one building a building that’s less expensive, but you’re going to pay for it by the additional energy you use down the road.”

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Robert McCune is senior editor at Environments for Aging and can be reached at