Rose Villa CEO: We’re Going Big on Small Homes, Zero-Emissions Pocket Neighborhoods

The small-home senior living and pocket neighborhood trends are alive and well at Rose Villa.

The continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Portland, Oregon, has for years made a name for itself as a forward-thinking senior living operator. The community has also served as a blueprint and inspiration for other senior living projects over the years.

At the heart of the company’s growth philosophy is a commitment to environmentally friendly practices. That has taken many forms over the years, from building a zero-emissions small home neighborhood that quickly leased up to efforts to phase out the use of gas-powered vehicles on campus.


And the community’s environmental focus is not just helping to keep energy bills lower, it is also creating a healthier environment for residents, according to Rose Villa CEO Vassar Byrd.

“The air is much, much cleaner and continuously filtered, we use sustainable products, there’s no off-gassing — it’s really tremendously important for the people that live there,” Byrd said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform.

Beyond the company’s green efforts, Byrd also sees small home senior living designs as a viable option for operators looking to expand their footprint without committing to a massive new build.


Highlights from Byrd’s podcast appearance are included below edited for length and clarity. You can listen to Transform on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.

On Rose Villa’s ESG roots:

We’ve been here literally for over almost 65 years, I have been over the last 15 of those years. And when I arrived, the campus was ripe for redevelopment for us to stay financially viable. And so we’ve been on for the last 10 years a very serious redevelopment journey that has involved three different phases of massive construction on our site, re-envisioning and re-understanding how we are relevant to seniors in our area.

One of the really key components for people in the Pacific Northwest is environmental awareness, environmental consciousness, stewardship of the Earth. And so for us to really understand how the original residents of Rose Villa understood that and they were always doing things that everyone’s family does, recycling, and all of those sorts of things. To take that to the next level. What did that mean?

And so we talked to a lot of folks, we understood some great practices from our local partners. And so we have done so many things over the past years. So some of the things that we’ve done, and the goal is to be as light on the environment as we can possibly be. And to think about it in the real long term, which, frankly, is something that seniors are very good at, they understand they have a legacy and that is important.

Every action we take is important. So at the end of our redevelopment, we can look back and say, we’ve done everything that’s super simple, like removing lawns wherever we can in favor of drought tolerant local, native plants. We’ve retrofitted all of our irrigation systems with more water efficient nozzles, and drip irrigation to conserve water. Last year, we planted 18 trees to increase the tree canopy. And you’re always conscious of mitigating the heat island that you create. And we’ve ripped up concrete left and right and all of our redevelopments and put more green space in.

We’ve earned backyard habitat certification. That’s why you plant native and pollinator plants and yards and common spaces. That’s our Audubon program. That’s truly amazing. And as part of that, we’re taking out invasive plant species. And then how we operate our campus, we’re removing gasoline powered things and replacing them with battery powered things. And even five years ago, the battery powered ground maintenance equipment was terrible, and now it’s really good. So you have to constantly be looking at what you can do. Simple things like paper usage on campus has gone down 20% in the last two years.

One of the coolest programs we’ve had that was a joint effort between residents and staff was a food composting program that we implemented before the municipalities around us did which was really cool. We call it the Red Bucket Brigade. And we have a local farm where they use the compost and it was a really, really awesome experience to grow and harvest our own food. We have a two acre organic community garden. It doesn’t take care of all of our food needs but a lot of stuff I guarantee if you come to Rose Villa in the summer you will only have a Rose Villa grown tomato in your food.

Then we also have an opt-in wind energy surcharge program that we have offered through PGE that a vast majority of our residents have chosen to take advantage of. We’ve installed electronic vehicle and hybrid charging stations for both staff and resident vehicles. And we’re getting ready to reassess that to figure out what the next generation of that looks like.

So that is one of the things is that even when you do something sustainable, the technology changes and things get more efficient or more cost effective. And so you’re constantly looking at what else you can do. And then of course, we built neighborhoods of net zero homes. And so that’s been a big deal also. So there’s lots of things we’re always looking for.

On listening to residents for new projects:

You have to listen to the people that live here. You build a group of insanely passionate people, and that’s both staff and residents. And they are the advancing guard for everything. They are vetting ideas, they’re coming up with crazy thoughts. They’re finding partners who can help us do things. We’ve looked at wind turbines on campus and geothermal. There’s all kinds of things that we looked at. And those are all ideas from residents and staff. So it’s important that you get this huge menu of what you can do. You look at it long term, and then you slot in what you can do when you can do it. 

I think that many people feel overwhelmed by the idea that we have to completely redo the campus or solar as the answer to everything. And it’s not necessarily a big project. Small things add up tremendously. I mean, the paper recycling thing, that’s just about as old school as you can get. And that’s huge. It saves money, it saves resources, people are proud of it every day you get to do it. I think it’s really a big deal. So, for us, listening to the voice of the residents, making sure that we’ve empowered those folks. And for us going forward, this folds into a bigger resiliency action plan that we’re working on. That’s a multi-year capital intensive project. And it is taking all these things we’ve done to the next level and how do we make our campus more resilient, because most of the things you’re doing for energy efficiency also helps you with climate change problems, wildfires, energy disruption, all of those things, it all fits together.

On how and why Rose Villa decided to pursue and develop a zero-emissions small home community:

The Oaks opened in 2019. And then the second one, Trillium Townhomes, is just opening in the next month or so. I was very nervous about the first net zero energy neighborhood because it is more expensive to build. But initially being out there in the front was a little more expensive. And I just wasn’t sure that it would be a draw for people to pay more money. And so we took the leap, and what turned out to be the case is that the neighborhood was the first one to sell out. And our phase two offerings, we had four different neighborhoods in phase two. So I asked those residents why did you do that? And they said, Well, it’s the only chance we have to really live our values, because we can never afford to build an entire net zero energy home. But this is a way that we can actually make a difference and live the values that are important to us, and make a difference.

And so I think that is what we thought we asked a lot of people but when you actually wrote the check to and said this is that important, that gave us the confidence to go to another zero energy neighborhood.

I think there will be more and more people who believe that that is one way they can make a difference on the planet. And I will say for us listening to all of that and going through that process with a really good partner who knows everything about net zero energy that’s Green Hammer, that educated us about where materials are sourced and how they are finished and all of those kinds of information, all that kind of information changed how we did our standard construction as well.

So even the standard construction is more energy efficient and lighter on the planet than it would have been 10 years ago. So it all informs the other. So I think, I think we listen to the residents, their commitment to the environment, we took a little leap of faith. And then they did too, by buying into that promise of making a difference in the future.

On how Rose Villa’s residents feel about green projects:

I have always thought that seniors are the most radical and responsible group of people on the planet. And so I believe that, that people who are really thinking of the future and understanding all of the benefits and the blessings they have received in their long lives, they are in a unique position to understand how important it is that we protect and preserve for the future,

I think every person who lives here feels that way 100 times over. So the other part about net zero neighborhoods is they’re not just energy efficient, they’re healthier. And so there’s an immediate benefit to the residents, the air is much, much cleaner and continuously filtered. We use sustainable products, there’s no off-gassing. It’s really tremendously important for the people that live there.

And, of course, it takes our reliance on that traditional power grid. It definitely lessens that. So all of those things really help sell it. And part of our resiliency action plan is figuring out how we can even leverage that even more because we are able to sell back our excess energy. So we can sell it back to the grid, or we can store it with our own batteries, backup supplies. So trying to figure out what is the most reasonable thing to do next is really exciting. So everyone likes it and feels very proactive. We’re really taking the future in our hands in a way rather than just receiving it.

Well as you know with any group of 300 people, it’s a Bell Curve. I would say the middle of the bell curve absolutely agrees that we need to do this while you have some folks that think we are not doing enough and are upset by even having any gasoline-powered vehicles on campus. I think that’s coming in the future, by the way.

Part of it is not getting too far ahead. You want to go a little ahead of what the demand is so that you don’t go out of business and then on the other side of the curve you have some folks who really don’t care. We’re trying to do this all in such an economic way that we are financially careful so that bills aren’t going up 20% because we’re energy efficient.

There’s really no impact on our operating expenses because of the measures that we are taking because we are planning ahead. We’re trying to be thoughtful and it’s not all at once. I think the vast majority of people very much support it and they are proud of it. It’s something to talk to their kids and grandkids about. It’s cool to have the next generation engaged with our residents.

Pursuing growth through development:

Future growth is tricky, especially in our environment right now with the labor and supply constraints we are facing along with inflation. No matter what you do it’s going to be tough. In terms of environmentally sustainable practices, that’s about long-term planning. It’s the longest term plan you can make and you’re trying to save the planet and your company.

I feel that all these things will pay off in the future in incredible ways. I think you have to be smart about using your partners and understanding your alternatives. We don’t know everything, we need friends that are experts in the areas you aren’t.

We’re doing a good job of that so they bring alternatives to us and different ways to do things with multiple paths leading to success. I also think people tend to focus too narrowly on return on investment in some of these development efforts. Part of your return on that investment is on the health of your residents and staff. It’s hard to quantify that but it’s certainly as important as any ROI that you would ever see on a spreadsheet. You’re investing in the lifestyle and health of everyone who is part of Rose Villa.

How to maintain sustainability while managing costs:

When you are being environmentally conscious you are being proactive. You are doing something positive and that is a good feeling and I think that’s very helpful for people to get their arms around that. We have to be smart operators. There’s no question we are doing more with less and we are trying to make staff as flexible as possible so that multiple people can do multiple things.

We’re looking at how we can leverage resident manpower and how they can help do some of the things on campus and they want to be part of it. You have to always be thinking about resilience and back up planning on that with the changing health status of our residents.

The other part is making sure that you are communicating with residents about what’s most important. We need everyone to know what the options are. The surest way to be positive is by hitting the mark and not spending money on things that we don’t really need.

How how other operators can undertake their own sustainable projects:y:

I would say start small. Don’t feel like this is too big because it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Providers are taxed after the last two years. They are tired. Sometimes new programs are too much. But start small and build from that small thing into something larger. Start with a group that includes both staff and residents and those people who are passionate about it.

It’s even also about thinking of ways you can improve on existing programs like recycling. What ways can you get municipal or local recognition for your efforts? Getting that positive feedback is good and it feels good. Everyone can say that’s a marker of how successful we were.

What’s the next thing you need to do? Forming an Audubon society is another great place because of that backyard certification that’s something every resident can be part of. Starting small is key and I think listening to the residents and staff is really important.

On small home concepts:

We would not have been able to do a zero energy project if we had to start with 60 homes. That would have been too much. You can do anything you want with a neighborhood of six to 12 homes and check it out and see if the market wants it. It’s about taking small risks because small risks are good risks and we ‘ve proved out those neighborhoods and we can build more going forward because we know it works.

You’re asking the resident to partner with you in a very specific way. A zero energy home isn’t just buying a new appliance. It’s changing your lifestyle. The more people realize they don’t need 3,000 square foot homes which is mostly wasted space. So why are you spending money to build an extra 200 square-feet?

We’re building homes that face each other across a green space and that builds a sense of social connection. So while it’s energy efficient, it’s also socially enriching as well which is key for the community and that gives you the motor to do all these innovative things.

The reality is that the future group of seniors coming down the pipe are not as wealthy as their parents were so they can’t afford the same kind of luxury and nor do they want that kind of luxury environment. I think small home living is more affordable for folks and I think that it resonates tremendously with our focus on climate change and environmental responsibility because you’re using fewer materials.

A small home living lifestyle is more connected with each other. It’s designed to enforce and create human connection. That’s a really big deal.

I think we are seeing these things take hold in the Pacific Northwest especially but you have more providers who are designing to Passive House standards and they’re using energy efficiency standards that make sense for their development and there’s a market to draw seniors like that.

Five or six years ago, people would come up to me at conferences and say oh you know the emphasis on the environment will change. But I told them people really do care. I think we are going to see more and more locations that will take similar approaches.

There are ways you can market it differently, too. Maybe in Texas you could say you don’t have to be reliant on a power grid. It makes sense in more than just a good way. It makes real sense to design that way.

On new development:

I think the biggest deal is land prices for us right now. These projects are land intensive and that’s the single most important thing for us to watch right now. Then I keep thinking about are there any ways to reuse existing spaces. There’s so much abandoned commercial space. Is there a way we can repurpose that into a small home environment and save money from building from scratch.

I think there will be an increasing emphasis on building something that’s unique and speaks to the people of a particular area. We’ve talked to people about helping providers figure out their story and what’s important to the people in their area. And then how do we build something that speaks directly to them and not a corporate idea of senior living?

That goes in-hand with building smarter, more sustainable homes. I think the use of technology in buildings is going to facilitate that change. I think we have to meet that demand. It’s up to us to be creative in how we interpret that.

Companies featured in this article: