New senior living communities are proving to be leaders in the building electrification movement.

Regardless of political or philosophical point of views, we can all agree that we still only have one planet Earth to call home. It also seems to be clear that it is being increasingly threatened by greenhouse gas emissions, environmental pollution and a finite quantity of natural resources. Many prominent environmental conservation organizations are hoping for greater political will to act on their message of a warming climate, rising sea levels and risks to mankind and all of the world’s plants and animals. Whether the “majority” view really represents 51% or 90% of us, the time to provide meaningful action over slogans and good intentions is upon us.

Fossil Fuels vs. Electricity
There are those who argue that we must eliminate the use of all fossil fuels to achieve those goals. They see electricity as the magic savior because when you plug in a motor or a machine, it does not produce a detrimental byproduct such as smoke or carbon monoxide like a burned fuel does. This article does not debate the economics of that position, nor the idea of how much electricity will need to be produced to offset the massive amount of energy currently supplied by fossil fuels.

One of the largest consumption sectors for fossil fuels is the buildings we live and work in. Natural gas is the primary fuel for our furnaces and boilers to provide warmth in colder months, for our restaurant and kitchen ovens to feed us and for the hot water we use to bathe and clean. Multiple studies have determined that approximately 40% of greenhouse gas emissions come from these sources.

VRF Going Mainstream
Seniors have more choices than ever of the types of places where they want to live in retirement. Many of their options include newly constructed communities. In some of the newest buildings that AG Architecture has designed, the mechanical systems include Variable Refrigerant Flow heat pumps. Five years ago, these systems were discussed in a Tech Talk article where I predicted it would become the design standard for senior living. As of 2021, VRF has become much more mainstream in the US. VRF heat pumps still have an initial cost premium compared to other baseline systems, such as packaged or unitary heating and cooling equipment. While these are still functional, they are not as efficient as they could be.

The upcoming 2021 building and energy code adoption cycle appears to be repeating the 2015 cycle. In that previous time, we were emerging from an extended financial crisis. Governments were looking to stimulate the economy and jump start construction spending as a part of that initiative. The progressive minded officials of that time tied much of the incentive to updating and implementing tighter energy efficiency regulations. The world is in a somewhat similar position now, where the excuse and opportunity for politicians to spend is there, regardless of true need. Current leaders, such as proponents of the Green New Deal, see this as a chance to drastically change the way buildings are powered to improve the planet’s climate.

The multifamily sector has not embraced this technology due to incredibly tight price competition between developers, but there are no barriers beyond cost to doing so. The senior living sector, on the other hand, has seen the value of being able to control individual temperatures in multiple small spaces under one roof. Building and health care codes have had recent modifications that define more of the senior living housing options as Institutional versus Residential buildings. This has helped widen the gap between market rate apartments and true, licensed facilities across the spectrum of senior care. When development and construction of new communities evolves beyond the home-builder mindset, VRF and other heat pump solutions become a more readily accepted option.

Heat Pump System Benefits:

  • Size Options: Units are available in sizes tailored to resident spaces, from small memory support rooms to three-bedroom Independent Living apartments.
  • Energy Efficiency: Operating costs are comparable to, or exceed, high efficiency gas furnace/ condensing unit split systems.
  • Quiet Operation: The only noise within the occupied space is an efficient fan motor. Noisy compressors are located outdoors.
  • Design Impact: Residents don’t have to notice the difference in the design and appearance of their space as it is concealed as a conventional furnace system with ductwork.
  • Retrofitting: Options are available for gas furnace buildings to use air-to-air heat pumps and eliminate their natural gas load.
The goal of a greener, healthier planet is appealing to all of us. Developers and builders have tried and true materials and methods to maintain their profit margins. The architectural and engineering communities have a responsibility to be leading this energy revolution by proactively designing more efficient buildings, rather than being dragged along by lawyers, politicians and activists. Change for the better is not something to be afraid of. AG’s engineers have numerous successful VRF and heat pump projects under our belt, so contact us to discuss your next opportunity to improve the place we all call home…our clean and healthy planet!