Green building remains a top priority for the multifamily industry. But with the numerous green building programs that have emerged in recent years, apartment owners and operators can have an understandably hard time separating fact from fiction. Let’s take a look at a few helpful distinctions between myth and reality when it comes to meeting conservation and efficiency goals. FACT:Multifamily Is “Green by Nature.” Many apartment firms have adopted green building goals and are making meaningful improvements to their buildings’ environmental performance. But even without the addition of green building features, multifamily is intrinsically sustainable compared with other forms of housing. Compact development, small unit size, and shared community services, along with shared building elements that limit exterior exposure, create considerable energy, water, and material efficiencies in multifamily buildings.
A recent study, “Location Efficiency and Housing Type—Boiling It Down to BTUs,” details the environmental benefits of multifamily housing and concludes that housing type and location play a tremendous role in household energy use. Funded by the EPA and completed by the Jonathan Rose Cos., the report shows that an apartment in a conventional neighborhood consumes 50 percent less energy than a similarly situated single-family house. Moreover, a traditional apartment uses 38 percent less energy annually than even a green single-family house. In the most extreme example, a household moving from a single-family house in a conventional suburban community to a green multifamily building in a transit-oriented area saves a whopping 72 percent in energy consumption.
The study shows that the lessons learned from typical apartment development can help inform successful sustainable building strategies in other building sectors, as well. Moreover, the report suggests that removing barriers to apartment development and encouraging its success can greatly improve the sustainability of the nation’s housing stock.
FICTION: Green Buildings Always Cost Less to Operate. Reduced utility operating costs is often cited as a green benefit; however, green certification doesn’t guarantee that such savings will materialize. Green building programs address a broad range of environmental benefits, not just energy savings. Some fundamental green building elements, such as sustainable-materials selection and careful site development, produce little or no quantifiable operational savings. In addition, most green building programs evaluate building features “as designed,” without considering actual building performance. In fact, a federal lawsuit filed last year, Gifford v. USGBC, targets the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for promoting “the false promise of energy efficiency” through its LEED certification program. The plaintiffs assert that LEED certification doesn’t ensure energy savings and that some LEED-certified projects actually perform worse than their conventionally built counterparts.
This lawsuit highlights a legitimate concern: Green building certification doesn’t guarantee specific energy, water, or other building performance results. Instead, it’s important to discuss specific operational goals at a project’s outset. The suit further underscores the critical role of proper operations and maintenance in ensuring that building efficiency features perform as designed.
FICTION: LEED Is Certain to Become the Green Baseline for Buildings. The immense popularity of the LEED rating systems, and their creep into sustainability policy efforts, has led many to assume that LEED would be the new baseline for green building mandates, incentives, and private-sector initiatives. But increasingly, jurisdictions are turning to code-based green building metrics rather than LEED for legislative requirements and incentive-based programs. The U.S. Army, with nearly 1 billion square feet of real estate holdings, recently adopted for all its new-construction projects worldwide ASHRAE Standard 189.1, a code-compatible national standard that provides green building requirements for commercial buildings, including apartments, over three stories high. The Army previously required new projects to satisfy LEED Silver criteria.
Similarly, the city of Los Angeles has replaced its existing LEED requirements with CALGreen—a California-created green code. Finally, numerous state and local legislatures are considering the adoption of the International Green Construction Code, a new code currently being developed by the International Code Council (ICC). It’s unclear what effect this policy shift will have in defining green building moving forward. However, the shift suggests a recalibration of the green building baseline at the jurisdictional level and indicates that LEED will return to its founding intent; namely, as a voluntary program for the very highest green performers rather than as a baseline for green building mandates.
FACT: Green Building Programs Are Increasingly Accessible for Multifamily Projects. Multifamily firms interested in green building have long been presented with programs geared toward commercial development or single-family houses. Today, however, many programs offer comprehensive, multifamily-specific guidance. The National Green Building Standard, established in 2007 by the National Association of Home Builders and the ICC, is the only code-based green building program for all residential construction. The program reached a major milestone this year when it surpassed 2,000 project certifications nationwide. That included 21 multifamily certifications, totaling more than 1,200 apartments, with an additional 67 multifamily properties in the certification pipeline. Moreover, the USGBC late last year developed its LEED for Homes Multifamily Mid-rise Guidance program, which provides specific guidance for multifamily buildings four to six stories high.
Coupled with numerous advances in other green building programs, multifamily efficiency and broader environmental performance goals are now more attainable than ever—and that’s a fact.
PAULA CINO is director of energy and environmental policy at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C.