To Your Good Health
A new community in Fort Collins puts ‘lifelong home’ principles to the test.
Most homes are not built with an aging population in mind. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 4 Americans will be 65 years or older by the year 2060. And as the average age of Coloradans and Americans goes up, the need for housing that promotes healthy and independent living for aging homeowners will only increase.
The Sonders Learning Center, complete with outdoor recreation and indoor education options, is one way in which the development prioritizes the overall wellness of its residents. Courtesy Thrive Home Builders
Colorado State University (CSU)’s Institute for the Built Environment (IBE) has been searching for solutions to this problem for the past few years. IBE recognizes that for older adults to age in place, their physical environment “must be accommodating, health promoting, and affordable.” In response, the institute has developed the Colorado Lifelong Homes Certification Program, which is intended to educate and incentivize home builders who may be positioned to build more “lifelong homes.”
The institute’s 2019 white paper outlines the market barriers that have limited the number of aging-friendly homes that have been built thus far. It also details five focus areas that would contribute to lifelong homes: Walkability & Community, Visitability, Universal Design, Safety & Fall Prevention, and Affordability & Maintenance.
The Sonders Ideas Studio, part of the Sonders Learning Center, will feature a variety of lectures, presentations, and informal discussions. Courtesy Thrive Home Builders
A key part of IBE’s research has come through a partnership with Sonders Fort Collins in Fort Collins, Colorado. This age-targeted community, currently in its initial building stages, promotes healthy living at all levels. The homes at Sonders and the community as a whole were designed with IBE’s target areas at the forefront of their planning.
Sonders Fort Collins includes built-in opportunities for residents to recreate, learn, and build connections with one another. The Sonders Learning Center includes a main building, as well as three additional studio spaces built for independent and collaborative learning: the Arts Studio, the Body Studio, and the Ideas Studio. Sonders residents will have access to a variety of classes and presentations, including some held by CSU faculty.
The community also features an extensive trail system that weaves through residential areas and connects to a number of parks and green spaces, and will eventually connect to trails and sidewalks outside of the community.
The developers of Sonders were intentional about maximizing the amount of green space throughout the community. They prioritized shared spaces, such as their community garden and putting green, over large private yards that can be more difficult for homeowners to maintain.
“Those little nuances are going to be really fun within the community, because they allow the residents to gather in a lot of different places and ways,” says Dan Nickless, a partner at Sonders developer Actual Communities Inc.
“They build new friendships and really can start creating bonds within the community—which is what really makes a great community.” That last point is key, Nickless adds. “You know the houses are all nice and the trees are nice,” he notes, “but what makes a great community is when you have neighbors that actually like to get together once in a while and spend some time with each other.”
Residents will be able to weight train, do yoga, or engage in a variety of other physical activities at the Sonders Body Studio. Courtesy Thrive Home Builders
The “lifelong home” principles are also found throughout Sonders. Thrive Home Builders is constructing roughly 220 of the project’s homes. Those dwellings combine the IBE’s vision of lifelong homes with Thrive’s tested strategies for building houses that prioritize residents’ health.
Making homes accessible and accommodating to aging homeowners is a key to enabling them to live independently as long as possible.
All of the homes built by Thrive are single-level with open concept floor plans, and two of the three models include living spaces that can be customized to accommodate a variety of living circumstances, such as the arrival of a family member or live-in caretaker. Wider hallways, easily accessible outlets, and other features standard for age-targeted homes are included in their design.
In addition to designing to meet the needs of aging residents, Thrive used non-toxic building materials, incorporated features that promote clean air indoors, and installed appliances that lower the home’s carbon footprint.
In the building world, Thrive has long been recognized as an indoor air quality leader. In addition to being a 2022 EPA Indoor airPLUS Leader Award winner, every Thrive home is part of the EPA’s Indoor airPLUS program and is LEED certified.
Thrive specifically chooses building materials, including paint, carpet, and wood products, that are low in formaldehyde and other harsh chemicals.
Because of radon occurring naturally in the soil, Coloradans are also at a higher risk of radon exposure than the average homeowner, and about half the homes in Colorado have radon levels higher than the EPA’s recommended action level of 4 picocuries per liter. Therefore, each Thrive home is also outfitted with an active radon ventilation system.
The Sonders Learning Center Arts Studio offers a chance for residents to put their imaginations to work and let their intelligence have fun. Courtesy Thrive Home Builders
Gene Myers, the founder and former CEO of Thrive, says that high efficiency ventilation systems are critical to maintaining a home’s long-term air quality. Keeping fresh, clean air flowing through homes is necessary to combat the toxins homeowners encounter in their everyday lives.
“The solution to pollution is dilution,” Myers says. “What we’re doing by bringing fresh air into the house is to dilute whatever contaminants are in the house.”
A prospective homeowner may wonder how, if the home is built with so many great materials, contaminants get inside. “They come into the house anytime you go to the store,” Myers says. “One trip can just about undo everything we did.”
Thrive homes also address the IBE lifelong homes principle of Affordability & Maintenance. Thrive has learned that systems put in place to protect air quality often decrease in effectiveness over the years due to a lack of maintenance. To solve this, Thrive created Dwell.
The app, which will be provided to every Thrive homeowner at Sonders, keeps track of any maintenance that needs to be performed, and reminds homeowners of when it needs to be done. Homeowners will also have the option to have a year’s worth of supplies delivered to them at once.
Once the Sonders project has been well established, IBE will document and publish the results as a case study to measure the success of the strategies utilized. The Sonders project will be a key component in the future development of the Colorado Lifelong Homes Certification Program.
Overall, Thrive’s homes at Sonders are designed to promote the health of their owners while also being easy to maintain, particularly for older residents. Like IBE, the developers of Sonders Fort Collins and Thrive hope that the innovative features in these homes will ultimately become standard practice in newly built homes.
Looking Beyond the Horizon
Thrive Home Builders utilizes partnerships with like-minded manufacturers to look beyond carbon neutrality.
Carbon neutrality is not a new goal for Thrive Home Builders. In fact, at this point, Thrive Home Builders CEO Stephen Myers says it’s the low-hanging fruit.
“That’s what’s achievable now,” Myers says. “The next level is to address the carbon footprint embedded in the house itself.”
By this, Myers is referring to everything that goes into the materials and processes involved in building a home in the first place—from the energy that went into manufacturing the doorknobs, to the fuel that was used to ship the lumber. To begin addressing these hurdles, Thrive Home Builders utilizes partnerships with sustainably focused manufacturers that are also committed to making their end of the homebuilding process more sustainable.
Myers says that the average home builder isn’t well set up to commit to the complex research and development needed for making the individual components of homes more sustainable. However, most manufacturers are.
“Just because the builders like us aren’t necessarily spending a ton on R&D, it doesn’t mean that nobody is,” Myers says. “But it does mean that you have to make connections with them.”
Two manufacturers partnering with Thrive Home Builders on the Sonders project are Panasonic and Whirlpool. Panasonic, whose fixtures will be used for the Sonders homes, plans to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions entirely by 2050 and has already achieved two zero-carbon factories.
Sonders will also be using a variety of Whirlpool appliances in the homes, the majority of which are ENERGY STAR® certified and designed to use a minimal amount of energy.
As Thrive continues the search for new and innovative ways to continually lower the carbon footprint of their homes, the company hopes to pave the way for other homebuilders to make similar efforts.
Thrive partners with manufacturers, such as Whirlpool, that are using strategies or products—such as power- and water-saving dishwashers—to promote use of clean energy. Courtesy Whirlpool Corporation
With its homes at Sonders Fort Collins, Thrive put the majority of these principles into practice. IBE and Thrive intend to use these homes as a template that can, ideally, be replicated to create more-accessible housing nationwide.
What’s a “Life-Long” Home?
Sonders Fort Collins utilizes the five focus areas of accessible homes outlined by the Institute for the Built Environment.
As it seeks to identify barriers and solutions to the current lack of suitable housing for Colorado’s aging population, Colorado State University’s Institute for the Built Environment (IBE) identified these five focus areas, as well as strategies for accomplishing them, that make up the qualities of “lifelong homes”:
- Walkability & Community. Homeowners need access to natural space, accessible sidewalks, public transportation, and access to socializing and services.
- Visitability. Accessible homes should have stepless entry, generous hall and door width, accessible guest restrooms, and parking accessibility.
- Universal Design. The design of lifelong homes should be inclusive, welcoming, adaptable, and flexible.
- Safety & Fall Prevention. Interior finishes of homes may include slip-resistant flooring, accessible bathrooms, and adequate interior lighting, and be clutter-free.
- Affordability & Maintenance. Homes that are energy efficient, have affordable mortgage or rent, have low-maintenance landscaping, and include accessory dwelling units are better suited for aging in place.