Net-zero carbon in later living

Later living and the climate crisis: The architectural response

March 15th, 2021 Posted by All, Senior Living

There is often a misconception that climate change concern and care for the environment is the realm of the young, perhaps perpetuated by the media’s recent focus on school climate strikes and high-profile youth activists such as Greta Thunberg. However, older people – many of whom were the original climate activists of the 1960s and 70s – are increasingly finding their voice, as exemplified recently by the number of senior citizens taking part in protests with climate activists Extinction Rebellion.

According to a 2020 national survey by Opinium, it is the baby boomers, rather than the millennials, who are most likely to act in support of green issues, and that includes the choices they make when investing their money and where they choose to live. Unsurprisingly, increased interest in environmental and ethical issues amongst older people is starting to exert its influence on the later living market as developers and operators look to green their estates and appeal to seniors who are actively seeking out low or zero-carbon housing options.

Not only are there consumer expectations being brought to bear on the market, but legal necessity, too – following the Paris Agreement, the UK Government has a legally binding target of Net Zero Carbon by 2050 fast approaching. Buildings are currently responsible for approximately one-third of global energy consumption, 30 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions and 20 percent of total CO2 emissions. In the UK, approximately 27 percent of our carbon emissions come from heating our homes, and that is why it is so important to start getting our housing design right sooner, rather than later. The Government’s climate advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change agrees, and wants to see all new builds operating at net-zero carbon by at least 2030.

Several developers in the later living sector have already made an important start. Earlier this year, for example, Retirement Villages Group (RVG), which operates 16 retirement communities around the UK, set out a target to achieve net-zero carbon on its operations by 2030. This follows the announcement last year by Legal & General that it is to make all of its new housing stock operational net-zero carbon enabled by 2030, including its later living businesses which comprise Guild Living and Inspired Villages. Millfield Green Retirement Community, located in the village of Caddington, Bedfordshire, will be the UK’s first net-zero retirement community delivered by Inspired Villages.

Aside from legislative pressure, there are other reasons why sustainability is important to the later living sector. In 2019, a study by Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany found that residential energy consumption intensifies in people over the age of 65; this can partly be explained by older people’s ability to feel heat and cold more easily, as well as their tendency to spend more of their time indoors, consuming electricity through lighting, heating and air conditioning. Such power consumption is not only expensive, but also poses a significant challenge to our limited energy resources and efforts to mitigate climate change.

The path to zero carbon: challenges and opportunities

The common recourse for developers, operators and estate managers is to source green power from a renewable energy supplier, or to invest in on-site renewable energy technologies. However, the limited quantity of renewables currently available in the UK poses an energy security risk, whilst on-site renewables are not practical in many locations due to site constraints and building configuration.

That’s not to say that renewables can’t play their part in producing energy, however it is far better to take a ‘fabric first’ approach to building design and maximise the performance of the materials that make up the building fabric itself, before considering renewable energy generation. This can help reduce capital and operational costs, improve energy efficiency and reduce embodied carbon emissions, as well as reduce the need for maintenance during the building’s life.

When we consider that residential – and retirement living buildings in particular – consume most of their energy from heating, cooling and lighting, it brings into sharp focus how important simple design solutions such as the right orientation, simple and compact built form, window type and sizes can impact the thermal efficiency of a building, as well as influence energy consumption and demand.

The greatest opportunity for impact on embodied carbon and energy efficiency comes at the design stage. It is therefore imperative that we start thinking about sustainable and energy-efficient design strategies at the outset of any project before inefficiencies get built in and are difficult to retrospectively fix. For example, a greater percentage of embodied carbon is found in the foundations and superstructures of a building and very little in the external works and finishes. If opportunities are not taken at this early stage, the embodied carbon savings are lost for the entire lifetime of the building.

Early involvement, collaboration and responsibility

However, architects and designers should be considering sustainability and energy efficiency at all stages of design from site considerations, design and masterplan, construction and all the way to its operation.

Early involvement and collaboration with energy specialists and contractors is key and can help in reviewing early design decisions and maximising the energy efficiency of the building. This can also help to reduce any potential performance gap that would have existed if the numbers had not been reviewed earlier on. It is also a great opportunity to brainstorm ideas and think about all the elements of the building, highlight issues that might spring up later on in the project and devise solutions for every potential eventuality.

Of course, designing buildings to be sustainable and energy efficient at the concept/feasibility stage is not without its difficulties. A lack of post occupancy studies/evaluation or case studies of later living and retirement properties make it difficult to get a full understanding of the performance of buildings in the sector. Going forward, it would benefit if lessons learnt are published and past policies and outcomes are peer reviewed so we can continually evolve our approaches and do things more efficiently in the future. Greater transparency and knowledge sharing could also increase uptake and allow for greater marketability.

In conclusion, it is clear that both societal and legislative pressures will continue to influence the move towards low or zero-carbon real estate. With an ageing population and a growing body of evidence that climate change will disproportionately impact older people, there is arguably also a moral responsibility for built-environment professionals working in the later living sector to consider the built form holistically and to help design strategies that can reduce the carbon footprint of development, whilst also protecting older people from environmental change.

Anjana Suresh | Architectural Assistant