Ranging from nearly 100-year-old rehabbed buildings to modern high-rises, the first 17 existing properties to receive the EPA’s Energy Star certification for multifamily, previously available only for new construction, are modeling the way forward in efficiency.

Using the Energy Star 1 to 100 score, the certification recognizes that these buildings are more energy efficient than 75 percent of similar properties nationwide. The score is based on nationally representative survey data provided by Fannie Mae and will be integrated into other green building certification programs, including the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system.

Demand Was the Driver
The impetus for developing the certification for existing buildings came largely from demand within the industry itself, says Mike Zatz, manager, Energy Star commercial buildings. Many commercial real estate companies that relied on the benchmarking program for other buildings in their portfolio wanted something similar they could use for their multifamily properties.

While the multifamily sector has traditionally faced a barrier to energy efficiency due to the split incentive, that is beginning to change, Zatz says. More executives are realizing the benefits of improving their efficiency: a higher asset value, decreased operating costs for common and exterior areas, and lower utility bills for residents.

“There’s just a massive potential out there for everyone to gain, in terms of energy savings, cost savings, potentially being able to attract new residents, and, more importantly, being able to retain residents that you have there—of course, all of this while helping to protect the environment and reducing greenhouse gases,” Zatz says.

In addition, the increased interest in green building in general and the practice among some cities to require annual benchmarking for commercial and multifamily properties have helped drive interest, especially in cities where benchmarking information is publicly disclosed, says Zatz.

This is reflected in the newly certified properties, with 16 of them located in major metros that are making a deliberate effort to reduce energy consumption.

Profiles of the buildings also show that renovations can be a significantly effective efficiency driver. Only four of the properties were constructed after 2000, and seven were built before 1950. Some of the most common improvements include HVAC and plumbing upgrades, automated control systems, LED lighting, new windows, and water-saving fixtures.

Behavioral Change Is Part of the Equation
The biggest thing the properties have in common, however, is that their managers look holistically at energy efficiency, Zatz says, focusing not only on new equipment and products, but on behavioral changes, as well. “Technology alone is not really enough to make the building efficient. You have to operate and maintain it properly [too].”

A major part of that behavioral change arises from communicating with residents about the benefits of energy conservation, he adds. “Residents account for a vast majority of the energy use in the building, and just upgrading technologies is not going to be enough. The managers are going to need to engage the residents to really get the full potential out of the building.”

Resident engagement tools and communications materials are one of the many resources that Energy Star can offer to property owners and managers, Zatz says, emphasizing that beyond benchmarking and certification, the program has a full array of tools to assist property executives in implementing energy-efficiency initiatives.

“We certainly would encourage any multifamily owner or manager who’s interested in this to get in touch with us, and we look forward to supporting their efforts,” he says. “Having these 17 buildings certified so quickly was fantastic, and we’re looking forward to having lots more in the near future.”