Getting older is a fact of life – if we’re lucky – and with increasing numbers of Australians doing so, the retirement residential sector, including independent living villages and aged care facilities is growing. But while gardens, natural light and design that promotes safety are becoming fairly standard, the bigger sustainability picture is still not being prioritised by many developers and operators of villages.

The Retirement Living Council, a division of the Property Council of Australia, is currently undertaking a new census of the sector in partnership with Price Waterhouse Coopers. RLC executive director Mary Woods told The Fifth Estate that sustainability initiatives were not something the census would be asking about.

“Sustainability has not been a strategic priority for the sector to date,” she said. “But perhaps that will change.”

Ms Wood said there was no specific policy imperative to make retirement living villages sustainable developments. Instead, developers and operators were focused on the aspects that would give them a competitive edge and meet market demand. In some cases, this can mean aspects of sustainability are made fundamental, such as landscaping or the development of “vertical village” projects.

How big is the sector?

The census of the sector carried out last year showed there were 2300 retirement villages, including villages comprising duplexes, villas and about 14,000 apartments. The sector houses around 190,000 people. Unlike aged care homes and care facilities, the village sector is not government-funded, and is geared towards independent living, with the degree of care available varying depending on the operator or on the decisions of individual residents.

Some operators partner with care providers including government-subsidised care, others are co-located villages near aged care facilities, and in some villages residents coordinate their own help and assistance arrangements.

“It’s a very diverse sector,” Ms Woods said. Owners and operators range from stock-exchange listed companies to family companies that own and operate a single village, and a substantial number of not-for-profit operators including churches and institutional investors.

“There is a trend towards consolidation, and more interest from institutional investors,” Ms Woods said.

Where’s the sustainability?

Energy efficiency was not high on everyone’s agenda, Ms Wood said, although some operators were “at the forefront”, such as Stockland’s 5 Star Green Star Selandra Rise retirement village and Village Green on the Mornington Peninsula, which generates an income stream from exporting solar power to the grid

Any energy efficiency initiative was part of reducing recurrent costs for residents, Ms Wood said. And with around 80 per cent of village residents Australia-wide on pensions, making recurrent cost reduction is an important issue.

“Some of the bigger companies also have sustainability inbuilt into their business model, such as Stockland.

“But it is not something we have been hearing about much [more broadly in the sector].”

One element of sustainability common across the sector was the visual green of gardens and landscaping.

“That is an important part of marketing [for villages]. But energy efficiency is not,” Ms Wood said.

Natural light and fresh air ventilation were also high on the agenda in design terms, again because it related to the marketability of villages.

“Because it is a competitive sector, design and appearance are critical.”

Affordability was also a major concern. She said most of the villages were delivering affordable housing, because people buying into them were generally selling a family home to do so, and wanted to have some surplus left from the sale to bolster their retirement savings.

“[The villages] are generally cheaper than apartments and villas in the same area,” she said.

Obsolete stock revived as vertical villages

One of the challenges the sector is facing is the issue of “old and obsolete” stock. Many of these older units are simply “not attractive”, poorly oriented and not energy-efficient compared to more recent constructions.

To refurbish or redevelop these units is expensive, and Ms Wood said many of the redevelopments were now trending towards the “vertical village” model, particularly in middle ring suburbs, where village developers were competing against residential apartment developers and the price of land precluded the traditional horizontal village model.

One of the upsides of the vertical model is there is less infrastructure required in terms of paving, roading, stormwater systems and exterior lighting. It also allows developers to include the common facilities such as cafes, activity spaces, pools and other community-building and socialising spaces within the site footprint more easily. These types of spaces are a stronger feature of retirement villages that they are of standard residential apartment projects.

Ms Wood said many developers were aiming to reduce parking, as in many cases residents were not two-car households, and some have stopped driving altogether.

However, she said developers sometimes found it frustrating when local councils made it a consent condition for parking to be increased, even when the developer’s due diligence into market needs had shown it would not be needed.

Liveable Housing Guidelines

One of the issues highlighted in the recent Housing Affordability Inquiry was the need for more residential developers to take up and implement Liveable Housing Guidelines and Universal Design principles, so as to meet the needs of the population as the proportion of older persons grows.

Ms Wood said a lot of the retirement communities are already using universal design principles, as the market is seeking those elements such as no stairs, gentle inclines, safe bathrooms and ramp accesses.

“It’s a demand-driven product [retirement living], and people are moving into villages to extend their independence, so universal design elements are part of the features they are looking for.

“Villages are clearly needing to design spaces for people with limited mobility.”

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  1. Interesting article, I just returned from a travelling scolarship to Europe visiting innovative buildings for the aged (see other Vth Estate article and found there was generally a much more proactive approach to sustainability there, perhaps because it is colder, but more to the point there were more sustainable affordable options as well including shared equity models and intergenerational community housing. There was also a unique development tha used the space under the seats of a stadium to house a retirement village. We could do all those things here just need to be more creative in our thinking!