Vassar Byrd has had a long-running personal fascination with both accessory dwellings and the small house movement.
The tiny house concept, however, never seemed like a good fit for Rose Villa, the Portland senior living facility where Byrd is CEO. Then, she attended a presentation by a local firm called Green Hammer about a project called Ankeny Row.
The feature of Ankeny Row that caught Byrd's attention was the fact that the residential units are net-zero, meaning they produce as much — or more — energy than they use.
Byrd wondered if the approach could be used for one of four new communities that Rose Villa was planning to build on its 22-acre campus on Southeast River Road. Figuring she had nothing to lose, Byrd approached the presenter from Green Hammer.
"I said, 'You guys could make a whole community for us.' He looked at me like I was a little bit crazy."
But Byrd isn't one to be easily swayed from an idea until she's examined it thoroughly. Lucky for her, Stephen Aiguier the founder and president of Green Hammer, and his staff are just as passionate when it comes to pushing the green envelope for net-zero projects.
On Feb. 12, Rose Villa opened the doors to The Oaks, its first net-zero community. Designed and built by Green Hammer, the units, which range from 1,100 to 1,200 square feet, boast highly efficient energy systems and promise an air quality far superior to residential spaces built to more conventional standards. While the units cost more to move into than Rose Villa's more traditional cottage and apartment home communities, they also promise to save tenants money on energy bills in the long run.
Byrd hasn't run a check of every senior living facility in the country, but she believes Rose Villa may have been one of the first — if not the first — to have made a commitment to providing housing for tenants that is net zero while also meeting standards for energy efficiency and materials sustainability outlined in The Living Building Challenge, one of the most stringent sustainable building programs in the world.
"I haven't looked at every state, but I'm pretty dang sure we are the only one right now," she said.
Taking a chance
Green Hammer's initial tentativeness when first approached by Byrd was understandable. The Portland firm has made a national name for itself designing and building some of the first single-family residences to earn platinum ratings in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It's also earned a reputation for creating the first office building in the U.S. to earn a Living Building Challenge designation.
In addition, Green Hammer served as the designer and builder for an aging-in-place project in Portland's Buckman neighborhood called Ankeny Row. For that project, Green Hammer worked with six couples who were looking to build a series of townhomes centered around a common courtyard that would allow them to minimize their living expenses while also reducing their environmental footprints. Key to achieving those goals was installing systems to make the project net zero.
That was the same concept Byrd wanted to use for the Rose Villa project — which would come to be called The Oaks — but with one big difference. While The Ankeny Row project was built for the people who would be living in it, Rose Villa would have to go find seniors who might be interested in living in Craftsman-style net-zero units. One of the biggest initial hurdles, while net-zero homes can save money on energy bills down the road, the initial cost to build them can be higher than standard structures.
"I was concerned it might be too expensive for our market," Byrd said.
Byrd was convinced that if the project could be made to pencil out, Green Hammer was the firm to could make it happen. So, they began working together to determine the cost for six and nine units. However, in the end, the team determined that building a total of 12 units would be the most cost-effective option. Byrd and her staff and Green Hammer's team were encouraged, but still apprehensive. While they all believed net-zero was the right approach, there was no guarantee that potential tenants would be willing to pay as much as 20 percent more to live in The Oaks' units, even if it meant saving up to 22 percent more on energy bills in the future.
"Our instinct was telling us, 'Yes, this is going to work.' But we had no data to prove that," Aiguier said.
Once the Rose Villa team began marketing The Oaks community, however, that concern evaporated. Out of four communities that Rose Villa planned to build around the same time, The Oaks development was the first to sell out all of its units. Even some people who originally had planned to move into the other three developments switched to The Oaks once they learned about the net-zero approach, according to Byrd.
"We asked people,' Why did you choose (The Oaks)?'" she said. "They told us, 'It's an opportunity to live my values.'"
Unlike traditional living spaces, net-zero accommodations require more of tenants than just carrying in boxes, unpacking them and finding the right place for books, knickknacks and dishes.
There's an educational component for both tenants and the Rose Villa employees tasked with maintaining the units and their systems. As the Rose Villa team began pitching The Oaks to prospective tenants, Byrd worried the they might not really understand what they were getting into with a net-zero lifestyle.
"Your whole lifestyle has to change," Byrd said. "You can't just move into this house and just plug into the same old stuff."
Something as simple as setting the temperature in a room in a conventional unit, for example, takes on a new level of complexity for a net-zero space. At The Oaks, units have a constant flow of fresh air entering through bedrooms and living areas while exhausted air continually exits through bathrooms and kitchens. The two flows of air pass each other in a heat recovery ventilator system, while allows for an exchange of heat until the air entering the unit hits the right temperature. Because the system keeps air in rooms a constant temperature, thermostats must be set differently and that can take some getting used to, according to Byrd and Aiguier.
As it turned out, though, the future residents at The Oaks were already well-versed in what to expect.
"Our residents were way ahead of me," Byrd said.
Even so, all tenants at The Oaks will still be required to take part in an orientation at the beginning of March that will teach them a range of new concepts, from how the solar arrays that generate the units' energy operates to how each tenant's energy use will be tracked on a panel display positioned in a common area where everyone can see it.
The building management staff at Rose Villa has already gone through an even more in-depth training to learn how to monitor and track systems to ensure they're operating as efficiently as possible.
"Our techs are pretty excited about learning this stuff," Byrd said. "They've got a whole professional component to their jobs now that they didn't have before."
Leading the way
Byrd says she can imagine a day when all of the communities at Rose Villa will be net-zero. In the meantime, the experience of working on The Oaks with Green Hammer has changed the way she and her team look at even the most conventional projects.
For The Oaks, Green Hammer offered Byrd and her staff options for building materials that were sourced locally to reduce their impact on the environment as well as those that offered greater health benefits, such as low volatile compounds.
"Our whole company got an education on materials and where they come from, how they're made," Byrd said. "We won't ever build the same way again, even if it's for standard construction."
It's quite possible that The Oaks project may also change the way senior facility across the country build communities in the future. Byrd has already held conversations with colleagues about The Oaks project and several visited Portland to look at the project as it took shape. She'll also be speaking with Green Hammer about the net-zero project during a green building conference in Chicago.
For Byrd, the change to save energy and reduce carbon footprints in the world of senior living facilities for can't come soon enough.
"We're hoping that (The Oaks) will just be the first one and the other people will copy (the idea)" she said.
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