Forrest Stuart MacCormack

I am considering buying a new car. My current pick: A 2009 MINI Cooper S convertible. I’ve been drooling over all of the bells and whistles with which you can customize the car—burnt orange body paint with custom black bonnet stripes; 18-inch aluminum alloy cross-spoke wheels; black leather interior; 10-speaker hi-fi sound system with built-in iPod adapter; and a GPS-enabled navigation system. Then the practical part of my brain kicks in: There are already anestimated 600 million cars in the world. Wouldn’t I be better off taking a used vehicle off the road and not adding a new one to the roster? Probably, but one look on Craigslist, and I quickly revert to the MINI Web site where I start building my shiny new roadster all over again. Sigh.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a similar mentality emerging when it comes to green building in the multifamily industry. Multifamily real estate owners are tripping over themselves in a mad rush to get the latest green this or that for their new developments. Meanwhile, the major unsung opportunity for greening the planet and saving serious cash lies in the portfolio of existing buildings across the country—and it’s being largely ignored, even dismissed.

“The opportunity for green is not in new construction,” Judi G. Schweitzer, head of Irvine, Calif.-based Schweitzer + Associates, a sustainable development consulting firm, recently told our senior editor, Chris Wood, whose feature on the current state of green building in multifamily begins on page 38. “The vast majority of emissions are from the built environment. But there are no teeth in the building code to go after retrofits.”

Indeed, it seems that most of the recent changes in building codes focus on getting new construction to embrace green ideals. Few movements address the lack of energy efficiency in the built environment. Even ratings agencies have fallen behind in this regard: The U.S. Green Building Council is only now developing a pilot LEED program for existing buildings. And of the 173 current multifamily projects in the National Green Building Standard, only four are remodeling jobs, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Many argue that the reason for this is because new construction brings dollars—after all, lenders prefer to fund what’s shiny and new. But that’s not good enough. “Every single [existing] multifamily building I go into practices catastrophic waste; it’s frightening,” says Andrew Padian, vice president of energy initiatives for New York-based affordable housing lender The Community Preservation Corp. “It’s all the nuts and bolts that everyone is missing.”

Granted, I don’t mean to cast a shadow across all owners. A select few—REITs UDR and AIMCO come to mind—are proactively assessing their existing stock. Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based UDR is addressing inefficiencies in lighting, HVAC systems, and water management. Likewise at AIMCO. “We are focused on rehabbing existing building stock,” says Martin Sprang, group and division director at the Denver-based firm. “It’s not glamorous work, but it has a huge impact on energy consumption for residents and also the environment.”

Amen, Martin. Maybe the point isn’t to go green and spare no expense in creating new sustainable communities but, rather, to address the gross inefficiencies that already plague the nation’s 17.5 million existing apartments. Something tells me that’s probably the right course of action—and the right way to think about going green.

It’s just unfortunate that such sound logic still can’t convince me to buy a used 2004 Volvo.