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Rehabbing older affordable housing projects isn’t sexy. Where the Via Verdes of the world inspire, older HUD properties typically underwhelm. That said, affordable housing owners have a responsibility to improve their entire portfolio, and for most operators there is room to improve.
Funding is typically tight and tied to quantifiable energy improvements. Some money is available for accessibility improvements, but it is usually modest. Marketability can be an issue if a property feels old and unloved, but no entity will provide money solely for aesthetic improvements. Since energy use and health are the lenses by which most of these improvements are measured, we must find synergies between energy reduction, resident comfort and aesthetics.
Currently we’re evaluating the scope of work for an occupied rehab of an older HUD property in rural Vermont. Attic insulation averages r20, and the slab edge insulation is deteriorating. The fuel oil boilers are old and inefficient and the aluminum slider windows are 30 years old and failing. Lighting is older and inefficient. Toilets use 3.6 gallons per flush. There is a lot of room to improve!
Thankfully there are quite a few synergies between energy saving measures and resident health. Senior housing needs more care and attention paid to resident comfort for a variety of reasons, below are six key areas we look to achieve a triple bottom line: energy savings, resident satisfaction and aesthetics.
1) Thermal envelope
The vast majority of older projects have insufficient insulation. Increasing the insulative value of the floors, walls and roof will save you energy. They will also help the mechanical system to maintain a consistent temperature, increasing resident comfort. This is key for seniors who benefit from more stable temperatures. If one goes the extra mile and fattens the wall with continuous foam insulation, one can replace vinyl siding with a more attractive product like cement board.
2) Window replacement
Windows are really part of the thermal envelope, but they are so important that they deserve their own category. Older windows are typically drafty, difficult to operate, and (leaving aside historic wood windows) ugly. Window manufacturing has come a long way since 1985, and we can specify attractive and affordable windows that eliminate drafts and open easily. Ease of operation is of particular importance for older residents.
Presbyopia is the medical term for aging eyes. It is characterized by a decreased ability to see in dim light, sensitivity to glare, and difficulty focusing on small objects. To alleviate these normal changes, we try to provide higher levels of lighting with careful attention to minimizing potential glare. When doing an energy retrofit, lighting is often one of the low hanging fruit. Swapping out light fixtures provides us with an opportunity to improve energy efficiency and resident health.
Saving water means saving energy. Replacing fixtures offers the opportunity to cut the water bills and replace with more accessible faucets and showerheads. Architects were not as savvy about the accessibility of plumbing fixtures 30 years ago as we are today. A taller toilet with grab bars can mean the difference between aging in place and moving. Same can be said for a tub or shower – the design can either enable or disable.
Mechanical systems in older affordable housing projects are typically inefficient as compared to newer technology. In Vermont we focus on heating, in a climate like Houston, one would need to consider cooling as well. Replacing old pumps with a VFD pump which can speed up or slow down as needed can cut energy consumption considerably. They have the added benefit of lasting longer. Selecting a fuel for your building is complicated, and requires some guesswork when it comes to future fuel pricing. Fossil fuel boilers are dependable, being a product of a 100 years of improvements. Wood pellet boilers offer a potentially more sustainable fuel source, but at this time are not as reliable as fossil fuel. Projects in Vermont that are specifying pellet boilers are also specifying oil backups in the event of a pellet malfunction. Heat pumps, which run off of electricity, can be paired with renewable energy like photovoltaics to get close to a net zero solution, though this requires significantly more capital. Ultimately mechanical systems are complicated – hiring a thoughtful engineer who will work through the different possibilities is critical.
Indoor air quality is important for all, but especially seniors who may have a diminished lung capacity. Older lungs are less able to clear particulates that are inhaled and less able to fight off infection. This makes ventilation more important in senior housing than general occupancy dwellings. Unfortunately, there isn’t a consensus on the amount of fresh air we should be providing to occupants. Based on the needs of seniors, we tend to err on the side of over ventilating. This makes specifying an efficient ventilation system with heat recovery essential. We also attempt to control sources of indoor pollutants through tenant education.
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