Could you look at a rundown hotel and reimagine it as a senior living community? This was Hawthorne Group’s vision for a 1980s hotel complex in Covington, Virginia. Originally comprised of two lodges and a restaurant, the entire property is now unified as one 72,000-square-foot facility. The transformation exemplifies the sustainability benefits of infusing adaptive reuse with the Passive House standard.
Dr. Ganesan Visvabharathy, founder of Hawthorne Development Corporation, describes the project’s evolution from hotel to home.
BUILDINGS: How did you identify the potential of this former hotel?
Visvabharathy: We’ve rehabilitated many older facilities, such as converting empty offices into residences or upgrading apartments into condos. This hotel opportunity came up because the hospitality market in this region wasn’t strong. So the question became if a hotel cannot survive, what is the next best use? The answer was senior housing, especially as there was nothing in this area for independent or assisted living.
BUILDINGS: What renovations were required to adapt the hotel into a care facility?
Visvabharathy: The independent living section required larger rooms, so we tore down walls to create units that are 700 square feet. All cabinets and countertops were also changed for a modern feel.
Because the memory care and assisted living portions are smaller, they could retain some of the original room footprints. But it was critical to add nurses’ stations and call systems. Security for memory care also necessitated changes; we had to ensure that that residents can’t walk out and no one can enter except staff.
The hotel had a commercial kitchen already, so we connected it to dining halls for each living group as well as a common eating area. It was important to add amenities that would make residents feel at home. That includes creating outdoor spaces. Especially in non-urban settings, you have a wonderful opportunity to create enrichment through hydroponic farming, walking paths, and solariums. Programming is the secret to keeping seniors healthy for a long time.
Amenities for Quality of Life
- Beauty salon
- Exercise room
- Recreation room
- Juice and coffee bar
- Record listening station
- Working garden
- Mechanic’s garage
BUILDINGS: What modifications were necessary to satisfy Passive House?
Visvabharathy: Passive House is focused on carbon neutrality, energy efficiency and envelope tightness. Its emphasis on a continuous flow of fresh air was a natural fit to protect residents from airborne pathogens, especially as this population is vulnerable to COVID, flu and other respiratory illnesses.
MERU’s sustainability and energy improvements included:
- HVAC modified for VRF (variable refrigerant flow), which delivers continuous fresh air
- In-floor units added to heat corridors
- All lighting changed from fluorescent to LED
- Backup power provided by lithium-ion batteries
- Solar covers 100% of energy needs, though the property is still grid connected
- Windows replaced with triple glazing
- Fixtures updated with water-conserving models
In Passive House for new construction, it’s a priority to eliminate thermal bridges. Every nail hole is accounted for, except you can’t do that with an existing building. Continuous insulation was our best retrofit option.
BUILDINGS: What lessons were learned?
Visvabharathy: One of the surprises was the site’s grade change, which was 5 to 6 feet on average. We needed to link the three original buildings with a new one in the center, but you can’t make seniors travel along a corridor with that steep of grade. This type of challenge is why a good building survey is fundamental to understanding what the problems are and finding solutions from the onset. The beauty of Virginia is the mountains, so the challenging topography was something we accepted on this project.
The age of the property was both an advantage and a drawback. At only 35 years, we thankfully didn’t have to worry about asbestos or lead-based paint. But because it’s not a historic site, the only funding mechanism we qualified for was the federal solar tax credit.
Our industry really needs more incentives for adaptive reuse beyond historic buildings—imagine the avoided emissions by not demolishing and rebuilding all the time. It’s one big reason why we focus on reconstruction—so much of the building’s carbon footprint is already embedded.