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.
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.
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.”
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.|