Grow a Green Multifamily Development

July 25, 2011
Green Multifamily Developments - attract tenants, boost building life, and upgrade your building’s sustainable practices – without going broke along the way.

Multifamily buildings represent a large share of the existing building stock in many metro areas, presenting a prime opportunity to improve sustainability. Capitalize on this opportunity by targeting green projects that will offer the biggest bang for your buck.

You’ll not only do the right thing for the environment, you’ll also earn extra points with potential tenants and increase your building’s service life – all without sacrificing ROI.

Where to Start
Older multifamily structures are particularly vulnerable to inefficient appliances and systems due to their advanced age, says Laura Tam, sustainable development policy director for San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).

In SPUR’s hometown of San Francisco, roughly 75% of housing predates the city’s first energy efficiency codes, which were established in the 1970s. Like the rest of the U.S. and Canada, this aging building stock is almost universally less efficient than newer buildings and presents both challenges and opportunities for owners.

“If we’re serious about reducing our carbon footprint and conserving water and materials that are in short supply, we need to figure out how to retrofit the built environment to be more energy- and water-efficient,” Tam says.

Nine Ways to Green Multifamily Buildings

  1. Water heating offers a major opportunity to save energy in multifamily housing. Strategies include increasing the thermal efficiency of the water heater, installing solar hot water systems, and improving distribution systems.

  2. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). In San Francisco, for example, about 75% of housing stock predates the first energy efficiency codes of the 1970s. Achieve substantial savings by replacing outdated HVAC appliances.

  3. Waste diversion. Mechanized diverters installed in existing waste chutes to sort trash, recyclables, and compost can have a payback period of less than one year by reducing a building’s trash volume, thus requiring fewer collection days.

  4. Appliances. Cooking and refrigeration make up a larger portion of energy use in multifamily housing than in single family housing. Efficient dishwashers and clothes washers save both water and energy.

  5. Common area lighting creates a significant energy load that is unique to multifamily housing. This load can be reduced through photocells or timers (for exterior lights) and occupancy sensors (for garage and laundry areas).

  6. Water fixtures. With a typical payback period of less than 2 years, aerators and high-efficiency faucets and showerheads are some of the easiest ways to conserve water. Audits can help to prioritize improvements.

  7. Toilets. In a typical household, toilets use more water than any other fixture. Those installed before 1994 use over twice as much water as the standard toilet available today.

  8. Weatherization. A multifamily building’s shared walls mean that less heating and cooling is lost to the exterior. However, older buildings can still benefit from new windows, cool roofing, and better insulation.

  9. Small fixtures within individual units — such as programmable thermostats, compact fluorescent lighting, and efficient ceiling fans — can save both electricity and gas.


To develop an initial plan, consider a mix of no-cost, low-cost, and higher-cost fixes that you can implement gradually as funds allow.

No-cost solutions involve educating occupants about how to lower their own consumption of resources with such basic actions as turning off lights in unoccupied rooms and turning the heat down in the winter.

“Make sure the residents are aware and you repeatedly and consistently educate them on conservation,” says Bob Malpasuto, CFO of utility management firm American Utility Management. “Do that with the on-site staff as well. Properties that are efficient have a good, strong operations group and make that a priority.”

Low-cost solutions are relatively inexpensive items with quick payback, such as switching incandescent bulbs with CFLs, installing motion sensors to switch off lights when common areas are empty, or choosing a lower-cost mechanical control system to give you greater control over building systems.

Higher-cost solutions are the big-ticket items that can ultimately result in major savings – replacing old and inefficient chillers, boilers, water heaters, and other expensive items. “Those are items with longer returns, but some of the older equipment might be a lot more inefficient than the equipment today,” Malpasuto advises.

After you’ve assessed what you can afford, start looking at the projects that offer the most bang for your buck. Consider seasonal weather patterns, local utility prices, and other factors that will influence your decisions. Don’t forget to look into assistance from utilities, local organizations, and all levels of government. DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, maintains a massive inventory of financial incentives for a wealth of green projects at www.dsireusa.org.

“There are state programs, utility programs, and increasingly a lot of federal money for weatherization assistance,” Tam says. “Some of the building owners who participated in our report didn’t know about some of the things that were available to them. One owner had a bunch of interns seek out all the rebates she could get, and she was able to pay for all the water projects in her buildings with over $100,000 in rebates. That changes the equation.”

In areas where seasonal temperatures vary widely, requiring frequent heating or cooling, HVAC projects could lead to major savings. It’s prime time to replace aging boilers and other equipment, for instance, especially if you qualify for rebates and other incentives. Utilities may offer free or low-cost audits to help determine which items to replace or upgrade first.

Ventilation upgrades can become especially vital if you’re also planning to upgrade the envelope or take other steps that may change or limit the flow of air. Inadequate ventilation can trap moisture and particulates inside and lead to mold growth.

“When you do a green building, you make it very, very tight, and then you put in exhaust fans to circulate the air,” says George Marks, the architect on Genesis II, a LEED Platinum affordable housing development for veterans and families in Newark, NJ. “You get moisture problems just from people breathing and cooking. What we do now is have special controlled exhaust fans that are very quiet but run constantly, 24/7, to remove air. You didn’t need those 50 years ago. When you retrofit, you’ve got to be really careful.”

Pairing envelope upgrades with high-efficiency HVAC appliances, such as high SEER HVAC units, will both maximize the efficiency of your heating and cooling and ensure that it’s used as little as possible, Marks adds.

The Green Building Toolbox

Individual metering or submetering
Some utilities bill residents for a set portion of the building’s overall usage. If you use meters to track individual use of electricity, gas, and/or water and have utility bills adjusted to reflect each unit’s actual usage, residents are more likely to conserve natural resources.

Utility companies, manufacturers, and local governments may offer rebates to defray the cost of many green building improvements, from insulation to washing machines.

Utilities and third-party companies evaluate the building to assess resource use, accessibility of waste and recycling receptacles, and other features, and then develop and prioritize green improvements. Free online tools can help building owners or tenants perform their own audits.

Direct install programs
Some utilities offer water or energy audits with free or low-cost installation of resource-conserving equipment. Sometimes the equipment is also free; if not, some utilities allow gradual payback in the form of an extra fee added to utility bills.

Tenants share all or part of the cost of green building improvements through an extra fee tacked on to their monthly rent. In return, they benefit from the improvements through reduced utility bills (once the improvement is paid off) or improved comfort.

Tenant outreach can do a world of good for any size of building. Whether it’s increased awareness or technical assistance, involve tenants in green improvements and teach them how to take care of the building by recycling more, turning off lights to reduce energy demand, etc.

Tenant feedback
Whether it’s a survey or another method, determining your tenants’ wants will help you prioritize green projects.

Utilities sometimes give away or subsidize small technologies, like CFL bulbs or low-flow showerheads, to promote their use. If you plan to replace all of the showerheads in your building, for example, the savings from a giveaway or subsidy add up quickly.

Labels and certifications
Buildings that bear green labels or awards, such as a LEED certification plaque, can serve as a great marketing tool to interest potential tenants.

Building standards
These may be imposed by mandatory building codes in your area. If not, participation in a voluntary certification program will demonstrate your commitment to green buildings. Standards can be performance-based, which specify target efficiency levels without telling you how to reach them, or prescriptive, which specify the type of technology you must use.

Energy and Water Conservation
Regions paying a premium for certain utilities – for example, water in the southwest U.S. – will reap rewards from retrofits that cut down on resource consumption.

The most minor changes can provide a great launching pad to bigger and better green projects. Simple things, like making the switch to CFLs or even LEDs, will provide noticeable savings without requiring a major infusion of cash up front.

“LED lighting has become more prolific in common areas, where the owners are taking out the existing lighting and converting to an LED system,” says Angelo Del Russo, CEO of Del-Sano, a general contractor whose multifamily housing experience includes the Genesis II mid-rise Marks worked on.

Programmable thermostats offer another energy-cutting option. Aerators for sinks and showers are fairly simple to install and will cut down on water usage, Tam says. In a few hours, a toilet can be replaced with a more efficient low-flow version that uses half as much water as a toilet that’s 15-20 years old.

“There are a lot of fixtures that are small and cheap to replace that don’t require a tenant moving out,” Tam explains. “Just a simple upgrade results in savings, often to the tenant as well as the landlord. It makes the units more marketable.”

Efficient Envelopes
The most efficient boilers and chillers won’t do much good if the outside temperature constantly infiltrates the building. Tighten up the building with tweaks to the envelope, such as improving the insulation, that will cut down on leaks and other energy-sucking flaws. Spray foam insulation in particular can be useful, as it fills in cracks around roof penetrations and other vulnerable spaces.

Insulated metal panels, crafted from a foam core flanked by metal, are also retrofit-friendly and can add a layer of thermal protection to walls and roofs. The aluminum and steel are lightweight and easily recyclable, offering an extra green aspect on top of the value of insulating your building.

“Windows and walls are typically the major culprits for the envelope,” says Greg Lusty, foam product manager for CENTRIA, a metal building product manufacturer. “Look at how those different facets of the envelope interact with each other. How does a window interact with a wall system?”

Recycling Made Easier
Facilitating a building-wide recycling program won’t do much to lower your costs, but won’t cost much to implement either – and it also serves as a visible representation of your commitment to sustainability, which can make your facility more attractive to potential tenants.

Setting up such a program can be as easy as putting a clearly marked recycling bin in a communal trash room, Tam says. “There are all kinds of technologies to develop,” she adds. “You can put a mechanical diverter on the garbage chute so they press a button to say ‘This should go to recycling.’ You can provide recycling and composting bins on the floor near the waste chute. You can help by providing space in the basement.”

Increasing interest in green technology has led to a proliferation of manufacturers throwing their hats in the ring, and this competition has naturally led to lower prices, says Del Russo. Greening a multifamily structure today is much less expensive than it would have been a decade ago.

“There is a financial challenge, but sustainable building products are coming closer in cost,” Del Russo explains. “Early on, when the products were new and manufacturers didn’t have a high demand, the cost was up there. Now there are more sustainable products and product lines we could tap into.”

Janelle Penny ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

When to Upgrade

These trigger points are opportunities for different types of green upgrades. The scope of upgrades will depend on factors such as the age and condition of the building, type of occupancy, and whether the building is an affordable or market-rate property.

Trigger event Scope of upgrade
Ongoing maintenance of mechanical equipment or lower-cost, easier-to-implement measures that spruce up a property at time of sale or purchase, such as servicing mechanical equipment, repainting common areas, or making landscape and irrigation improvements.
Replacement Unit-specific improvements made when occupants vacate. Upon vacancy, it is common practice to paint units, replace carpets, address moisture intrusion and other minor repairs, replace appliances, and make accessibility improvements.
Unit turnover Unit-specific improvements made when occupants vacate. Upon vacancy, it is common practice to paint units, replace carpets, address moisture intrusion and other minor repairs, replace appliances, and make accessibility improvements.
Retrofit Usually more limited in scope than a whole-building rehab, retrofits typically consist of a package of coordinated improvements designed to achieve a specific goal, such as a seismic safety or energy efficiency.
Rehab Building-wide overhaul may include remodeling common areas, upgrading structural elements, installing new electrical, plumbing, and mechanical equipment, and more.
About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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