World's Greenest Senior Living Community Breaks Ground in Seattle

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Aegis Living's Lake Union is a model of how we should be building everything. (Photo: Aegis Living Lake Union)

Many say the baby boomers don't care about the climate crisis because they'll be dead when the worst hits the fan, but that's not true; as we wrote earlier, Baby boomers will be among the hardest hit by climate change. Many people hitting 65 today are still going to be around in 2050, and at an age where they're least able to cope. They're also going to want to be in buildings that are resilient, healthy, don't run on fossil fuels and don't need much fresh water.

That's why I was so intrigued by what's being called the world's greenest senior living community, Lake Union built by Aegis Living, which broke ground today in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle. It's being designed by Ankrom Moisan for Living Building Challenge certification, and it's part of Seattle's Living Building Pilot project.

The Living Building Challenge is one of the toughest building standards in the world; The Bullitt Center, also in Seattle, is built to it and is considered by many to be the world's greenest building. When I first saw the press release I thought, Wow! A seniors residence with composting toilets? Drinking rainwater? Generating all of its own power? Can they actually do this?

petals of LBC
The building is going for three of the seven petals of the Living Building Challenge. (Photo: Aegis Living Early Design Guidance)

Actually, no. The Living Building Challenge has seven petals, and the building is only getting certified in three of them, at least according to the information filed with the city for the approvals. As you can see in the snapshot above, they're going for Place, Materials and Beauty petals. The Water petal is extremely difficult to accomplish and not really sensible in Seattle which has good, clean water from the mountains. I wrote after touring the Bullitt Center:

Water is a public service, carefully monitored and cleaner than bottled water. If you're part of a larger community with a safe municipal water supply, you should use it. There are some things that we do better together.

However they're planning to use non-potable water (rainwater and grey water) for non-potable uses, possibly flushing toilets or landscape, which will significantly reduce demand for the fresh stuff.

This is the Bullitt Center's solar hat — sorry for my terrible exposure, but you get the idea. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The Electrical petal is also really hard to do in a multi-story building; that's why the Bullitt Center has that big solar canopy that hangs out over the public street. There's also probably more energy consumed in a building for seniors, which is running all those big TVs and mini-kitchens, and where most people are there most of the time. That's more power than they can get out of a rooftop array, so their plan is to use 25% less power than a comparable building. "The community will save approximately 320,000 kilowatt-hours annually – equivalent to planting more than 12,000 trees each year. Another 1.7 million kilowatt hours will be generated between the solar array and offsite energy farm."

Aegis Living notes:

Assisted living communities are behind the green building curve largely due to the challenge of residents spending approximately 95 percent of their days on the premises, more than any other building occupancy type. This constant use of resources makes it more difficult to mitigate demand with green building mechanisms. "Navigating how we would offset our building’s total energy demand with fulltime resident use has been a challenging, yet rewarding process," said Walter Braun, senior vice president of development.

They're going for the Materials petal, which was really hard to do when the Bullitt Center was built because some materials like PVC are banned under the Red List but are in wiring, and neoprene is in most gaskets. But in the last five years, a lot of companies have responded to this growing market, and these types of materials are a lot easier to get, though still more expensive.

The other two petals are for Beauty and Place, which are important but not the heavy lift. I don't know why they didn't go for the Health + Happiness petal, which I would think would be the most desirable one for a seniors building:

The intent of the Health + Happiness Petal is to focus on the most important environmental conditions that must be present to create robust, healthy spaces, rather than to address all of the potential ways that an interior environment could be compromised. Many developments provide substandard conditions for health and productivity, and human potential is greatly diminished in these places. By focusing attention on the major pathways of health, we create environments designed to optimize our well-being.

It seems to me that it should at least be like the World Series, where you have to win four out of seven. And while we're talking sports, let's talk rowing, because there really is a connection. According to the press release:

Modeled after a modern shell house, the building design will pay tribute to the 1936 University of Washington men's rowing team that took gold at the Berlin Olympics.
visions of rowing shells
Visions of rowing clubs and shell houses inspired the design. (Photo: Aegis Living Early Design Guidance)

They make a big deal about this in their project vision statement, saying "The project will be an example of craftsmanship, lightness, and community, merging the philosophy of Aegis Living and the imperatives of the Living Building Challenge with the story and design concept of the rowing team and shell house."

Aegis Lake Union
Lake Union doesn't look like a shell house to me. (Photo: Aegis Living)

Now I must say, I'm a senior rower and have seen a lot of shell houses around the world, and I don't see the connection. I'm also an architect, so I do recognize that cantilevered roof, but it's still a stretch. But I do hope they do add seniors' rowing to their list of activities; when I used to race, I was routinely beaten by athletes in their eighties.

Besides, this is a minor quibble. The key point is that any new building today should be built this way. The climate is changing, snowpack from the Cascades may not be supplying all that fresh water and the Columbia River may not be producing as much electricity. Cooling loads might go way up, which is why those triple-glazed windows and insulation are so necessary.

We can't build new residences that "lock-in" inefficiency and waste. We're going to need a lot of these kinds of assisted living buildings in a decade or so; this is how to do it.