Can you tell this retirement home is 'eco-friendly?'

From the outside, this retirement community doesn’t look any different than you might expect. But this community is unique; it is certified as environmentally-friendly.

The Atria Tamalpais Creek, in Novato, California, about 30 miles north of San Francisco, is a certified eco-friendly retirement community. In April 2011, it received a LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) recognizing its efforts to make the facility a leader in this field.

“Although the renovations required to become LEED-certified were a significant investment in both time and money, it was a worthwhile investment,” said John Zikmund, the retirement community’s executive director.

The trend of retirement communities becoming eco-friendly retirement communities, or simply “green” homes, as they are often called, is recent.

One factor that has helped propel environmentalism to the forefront of collective consciousness is the increasing public interest in greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade, helped in part by increased media attention on the topic of climate change, and the blockbuster film from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth.

In this documentary, Al Gore repeatedly stresses to viewers that the obligation to address climate change and global warming is a moral and ethical one.

“Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves, “What were our parents thinking? Why didn't they wake up when they had a chance?” We have to hear that question from them, now,” he tells viewers with an impassioned tone.

But according to Nate Kredich of the U.S. Green Building Council, which certifies all environmentally-friendly buildings in the United States, the motivation for most senior living communities is less morally-based, and a lot more practical.

“Logically, our senior citizens are the ones most concerned about the benefits that green homes deliver; namely, saving money from energy efficiency, and living in a healthy home,” he said.

Jeanne Ghiorze, a resident at Tamalpais Creek, said she liked how the environmentally-conscious community she lives in will have a positive impact on future generations.

“Having lived in Marin County for 50 years, I’m excited about Atria’s eco-friendly landscaping and energy efficiency,” Ghiorze said. “It’s nice to know that the beautiful community I enjoy will impact future generations.”

Indeed, the cost of utilities is on the increase, according to the study “Rising Electricity Costs: A Challenge For Consumers, Regulators, And Utilities,” from Lousiana-based Entergy.  According to this report, the average cost of fossil fuels nearly doubled from 2002 to 2005, making the cost of hydro and utilities increase as well.

"Consumers now face a tough reality on electricity," Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America, told USA Today during the 2008 economic crisis, when he explained that more people are finding that simply paying for electricity was stretching their budget.

Zikmund of Atria said their “multi-million dollar renovation” started with replacing 140,000 incandescent light bulbs with high-efficiency alternatives, in all of their Atria communities, as well as their corporate office. He said that as a result of this one action, 37 million kWh of electricity was saved- the emissions-equivalent of taking about six thousand cars off the road.

He said some of the next steps taken to make the Atria Tamalpais Creek community eco-friendly was replacing the carpet and paint with more environmental alternatives, as well as new heating and cooling systems, creating additional green space around the facility, and updating their recycling programs. Zikmund said some of the results of this renovation included a 30 per cent cut in their water usage, as well as re-using hundreds of tons of waste that would have otherwise ended up at a landfill.

Nate Kredich of the U.S. Green Building Council said when a senior living community says it has made a commitment to become environmentally-friendly and hopes to become LEED-certified, everything is verified to ensure that they have met the proper standards.

“LEED requires that each home is individually inspected and tested by a qualified third party who can verify that the green measures were actually incorporated in the home,” Kredich said. “For a resident, it provides a level of trust:  Their home isn’t green because the builder says it is, but because an impartial third party verified it is.”

Dan Austin says he knows firsthand how everything is verified.

Austin, who is General Manager of Haines Assisted Living in Haines, Alaska, says it took six years from predevelopment to becoming LEED certified. But he’s quick to point out that while LEED certification may not be an overnight process, he has increased the quality of life for his residents.

“Our mission was to build the healthiest, most comfortable environment for our residents,” he said.

Austin added that especially in a small town such as Haines, which has a population of less than 2,000, energy savings were also a major reason they decided to pursue LEED certification.

“Alaska has the highest energy costs in the country and the economic viability of a small project like this in an isolated rural area demands the highest energy and maintenance efficiencies over time.”

He added that while most residents do not know most of the details about the certification, or what changes were made to make Haines Assisted Living an environmentally-friendly assisted living community, they do see improvement in the quality of the campus. And while he says becoming environmentally-friendly was easily worth it, Haines Assisted Living remains the only community in Alaska to have gained LEED certification.

“Most developers have yet to realize the long-term benefit to the economic viability of the project,” Austin said. He also said environmentally-friendly initiatives are often marketed to the building developers, but they may not necessarily be the owners who make the financial decisions on a day-to-day basis, or are responsible for major operating costs.

For many communities, a private developer builds the campus, and a non-profit association or a religious organization owns the facility, and is in charge of operations.

Despite the challenges, both Dan Austin and John Zikmund say they don’t regret at all becoming green retirement communities. They both say their residents are happier, they are helping the environment, and they are saving money in the process. And for Atria, the LEED process hasn’t ended yet: they are seeking additional certifications for three existing communities, and one that is under construction.