Almost everyone involved in building or rehabilitating apartment buildings is aware, at some level, of the various green building certification programs available. But many may not be aware of just how important certification is and the value it can add to a multifamily property.
Understanding Certification and Its Benefits
Although green certification programs define green building in slightly different ways, all include the following as either requirements or recommendations: energy efficiency, durability, indoor environmental quality, water efficiency, efficient use of materials and resources, waste reduction, sustainable site development, and walkable communities.
Energy Star, LEED, the National Green Building Standard, and other local and regional programs offer apartment owners many good reasons to certify their properties. For one, green certification provides very tangible benefits for both owners and residents. Owners can save money on construction costs and utilities, as well as maintenance and repairs over the life of the building, while tenants benefit from lower energy and water bills, quieter units, improved comfort, cleaner air, and a healthier indoor environment. Lower utility costs, in turn, can lead to easier tenant acquisition and better retention.
Durability measures included in green building programs can reduce long-term maintenance and repair costs through improved moisture management, which also serves to improve indoor air quality. A combination of installation techniques and materials selection results in less dust, dirt, mold, and mildew within units as well as lower transmission of odors and sound between units.
Careful design and construction also avoids excessive material use and waste. Designing buildings to standard material modules reduces the number of cutoffs needed, for example, while efficient construction techniques provide structural integrity while eliminating nonessential materials, thereby reducing costs and providing more room for insulation.
The process of green certification also assures owners and residents their building meets green standards as verified by a third party. For the owner, third-party verification can serve as an additional quality-assurance measure to confirm that the insulation, water management, HVAC, plumbing, and lighting systems are installed as specified, and that the materials used meet both project and program requirements.
Of course, energy and resource efficiency are another, chief benefit of seeking green certification. Water, for instance, is becoming an increasingly scarce and expensive resource. Water-efficient designs found in green buildings lower owner costs for common and outdoor areas as well as tenant in-unit costs. Similarly, sustainable site-development practices lessen the impact on waterways, limit storm runoff, and lower landscape maintenance and irrigation costs through the use of native and drought-tolerant plants. Avoiding environmentally sensitive environments and creating conservation easements, too, can simplify the permit and entitlement process and allow for higher-density development.
Lastly, green neighborhoods close to public transportation, stores, and other popular venues that residents can walk and bike to can command higher rents and better tenant retention as well as potentially higher resale value. Vibrant, pedestrian- and transit-oriented communities are also safer and can maintain their value even in declining markets.
Why You Should Have Your Buildings Certified
Kelly Vickers, national director of sustainability for Phoenix-based Alliance Residential Co., believes there’s market demand for green buildings from both renters and investors.
“Millennials, a key cohort of the rental market, see value in green apartments and sustainability-focused companies, and green-certified buildingscanhelp attract this key demographic,” Vickers says. “Also important is maintaining a well-educated leasing staff that can effectively communicate the green features and benefits of your community; marketing your certifications; and offering ongoing resident education and awareness events that inform prospective and current renters about your community’s sustainability.”
Vickers has also found that investors and partners increasingly want green-certified buildings in their portfolios. “Having green certifications can enhance your attractiveness [to] investors in terms of both new development and selling existing properties.”
Certifying can also help simplify the code and compliance processes. Regions where green building certification is required or strongly incentivized, for example, make it easier for developers to comply with green requirements and take advantage of utility rebates and tax credits. Energy codes are becoming increasingly more stringent, in some cases even exceeding some green building program requirements. Those companies experienced in constructing green buildings will find it easier to meet these new energy code requirements, with less effort and expense.
Simplifying the Certification Process
Companies that encourage or require certification of their properties have many opportunities to simplify and streamline the process, achieving certification more easily, resulting in better-performing buildings with less effort and cost. One challenge in the effort is failing to consider green concepts, program requirements, and options early on in the design process. When designs are completed without the input of the green building consultant who will be certifying the building, opportunities are missed, often needlessly increasing cost and complexity.
Most green certification programs encourage integrative design, providing credit for holding a full-day design review, or charrette, with the project team and green building consultant. Charrettes provide an opportunity to consider all options and their implications for cost, maintenance, and operational expenses, with the entire team providing recommendations. Along with engineers, architects, designers, and financial consultants, a green building consultant should be involved as early as possible, helping the team make better decisions that save money, improve performance, and streamline the certification process.
Building design analysis and energy modeling can help developers make cost-effective decisions early on. These techniques can reduce construction costs by replacing expensive features that don’t improve building performance with simpler, less expensive measures. These may include adding high-quality insulation; sealing ducts and air leaks; allowing for smaller equipment installations; and carefully locating and shading windows to manage heat gain optimally.
Once a project begins construction, training of installers and managers, and careful management of the entire process, is key to successful certification. Green building techniques, while often as simple as meeting energy codes and manufacturers’ instructions, are frequently not commonly followed on the jobsite. The construction team should review installation techniques for insulation, air sealants, HVAC and moisture management systems, and other work items as early as possible. Using a sample unit to inspect workmanship and make necessary corrections can save time and changes for the remainder of the project. Managers should be trained to inspect workmanship to confirm that it meets program requirements at every step to ensure that third-party inspections proceed smoothly with minimal rework required.
In many cases, the third-party inspections required for green certificationcan substitute for municipal inspections or other required code compliance testing or inspections. In regions where code testing of air leakage and duct leakage and code compliance documentation is required, these services are included in the green certification process, further reducing the cost to achieve a certified building.
Finally, collecting the necessary documentation for certification is a challenge for many project teams. To ensure that the necessary papers are included, developers should include delivery of all submissions for green certification in all contracts and subcontracts. These documents include materials content and origin, mechanical designs, equipment specifications, waste and recycling reports, and commissioning reports. Owners should manage the collection of this information closely and confirm receipt of all required forms before releasing final payments.
In the end, green certification, in many cases, entails little more than following building codes, energy codes, and recommended installation instructions, combined with good design and careful management.
Carl Seville is a green builder, educator, and consultant on sustainability to the building industry. He is a HERS rater and holds the LEED AP Homes and Green Rater designations. During his 25 years as a remodeling contractor, Seville led the development of the EarthCraft Renovation green building certification program and supervised its pilot projects. He certifies single and multifamily buildings under all green programs. Visit his website at http://www.sevilleconsulting.com/.