Retrofitting: How Older Facilities Can be Updated and Improved

The recession has left in its wake many empty hotels, shopping centers, churches, malls, and other buildings. While the situation can look bleak, it is in fact an opportunity for senior housing developers, who often see the abandonment of such properties as a chance to retrofit, reuse, and adapt them into retirement communities, senior apartments, or assisted living facilities.

In Bangor, Maine, for instance, the nonprofit group Community Housing of Maine converted an old student dormitory at the Bangor Theological Seminary into a 28-unit senior housing facility. The $6 million renovation project used federal tax credits and stimulus funds and now offers affordable housing to seniors.

Similarly, a historic luxury hotel built in 1927 in Southern Pines, N.C. called Knollwood was converted into an apartment complex now dubbed the Overlook, which is at St. Joseph of the Pines’ Pine Knoll campus and features 20 retirement living apartments.

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Repurposing buildings into senior housing can be an appealing alternative to new construction, since it can cost less money than building from scratch. There are some important considerations to take into account before starting on such a project, however. Deciding when and where to retrofit or adapt older buildings into senior housing depends on many factors, such as cost, location, availability of transportation, local and state building codes and nearby resources.

Joe Langworthy, president of Langworthy Company, which offers senior housing consulting, said that it’s especially important when considering retrofitting a hotel into senior housing to do a thorough evaluation of the hotel’s location and other factors.

“A market feasibility study needs to conclude that the hotel is in an attractive area for seniors, and that there’s sufficient demand from seniors,” said Langworthy.  “If you’re right next to an exit, is that someplace Mom or Dad would want to live?”

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He said that converting an old hotel or other building into independent living senior apartments can be less expensive and more realistic than creating an assisted living or skilled nursing facility, since fewer changes or updates need to be made.

“Independent living requirements are about the same as any apartment building,” he said. “For assisted living, though, you need to make sure you have ADA compliant bathrooms and other features, and it might be an expensive conversion.”

In some cases, retrofitting or repurposing older buildings might qualify under the Green Refinance Plus program initiated earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This program provides funding for refinancing, preserving, and retrofitting older affordable multifamily housing properties so they are more energy-efficient. If the retrofitting or repurposing project makes the hotel, school or other building greener, it may qualify for funding.

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The Environmental Protection Agency is also working with HUD and the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide support in the form of information dissemination, Smart Growth grants, and other funding to communities and nonprofit organizations seeking to repurpose buildings, neighborhoods, and entire downtown areas.

As it says in a report titled Smart Growth and Sustainable Preservation of Existing and Historic Buildings, “rehabilitating historic properties can … be a critical part of promoting energy efficiency by preserving the energy already represented by existing buildings (known as ’embodied energy’), rather than expending additional energy for new construction.”

Written By Vivian Wagner