The Multifamily Challenge: Sustainability and Certification

Approximately one in four Americans lives in a multifamily building. And of those buildings, 60% were constructed prior to 1980. When it comes to greening—and certifying—our building stock, existing, multifamily buildings offer at once great opportunities and terrific challenges.

And the bigger the better. Large multifamily buildings typically have centralized mechanical systems that are inherently cheaper and more efficient to upgrade than in individual units. Recouping energy savings in the multifamily sector not only benefits the environment, but also increases tenant comfort and energy affordability while providing lowered operating costs and good returns on investment for building owners.

PT1That said, there are a number of challenges ahead of any multifamily high-rise wanting to be more sustainable. When residents are metered individually, the building owner has little incentive to make efficiency upgrades. Conversely, when utility costs are structured into the rent, tenants may not be motivated to conserve energy. Energy efficiency upgrades can also have high initial costs and owners might lack the necessary capital funds.

But not all multifamily buildings are created equally. Establishing sustainability upgrades will still make environmental and financial sense, but it may be hard to achieve certification for those changes. “For example, if you have through-the-wall PTACs [packaged terminal air conditioners], typically you’re not going to meet the energy prerequisite,” said Lela Cirjakovic, Senior Vice President of Operations for Waterton Residential. Waterton recently completed a renovation of the iconic Presidential Towers in the West Loop and earned LEED-EB Silver this past summer.

However, only two of the towers in the complex were awarded certification. The other two are connected to mechanical systems shared by commercial uses at the building’s base. This is a great example of how difficult it can be to certify sustainability measures in the multifamily market. Even in a relatively self-contained environment, only a portion of the property was able to clear the pre-requisites. “Which is so frustrating,” Cirjakovic said. “Not to say we won’t try again.”

PT2After taking over ownership of Presidential Towers in 2007, Waterton did a long overdue lighting retrofit as incandescent bulbs were still in place in common areas. Once they made the decision to go further with their sustainable measures, they had to look closely at the building operations and how they would factor into the LEED credit system. “The first thing that we did was to review with our consultant the prerequisites,” said Cirjakovic, “and before committing too many resources, understand if the opportunity actually existed.”

Aside from the lighting retrofit which Waterton had implemented prior to considering certification, they applied few capital improvements to obtain LEED Silver. “It was about just looking at all of our systems and policies to make sure we were doing what was required to ensure the efficiency of our equipment,” said Cirjakovic. “That’s most of what LEED-EB is about: structuring your operations in a way that is sustainable.”

Even though two of the four towers weren’t certified, residents in every unit are able to take advantage of the efficiency changes that Waterton made. “They’re still employing sustainable processes across the whole complex,” said Helee Lev, Executive Vice President at Goby, LLC, who acted as sustainability consultant for Waterton and aided in the LEED certification process. “Things like green cleaning, replacing air filters, sustainable purchasing, sustainable pest management or recycling, they’re still doing that throughout the whole complex, regardless of whether those two towers met the calculations.”

Ensuring that the products and practices employed by third-party providers were healthy for the environment was important as well, according to Cirjakovic. “We literally had our associates go with our trash removal company,” she said, “and watch them and how they sort.”

Waterton’s main challenge with the LEED certification process was energy benchmarking a multifamily building and getting comparable data from analogous, residential structures. “The issue at the time we were doing this was there was no real track record for multifamily communities like Presidential Towers,” said Cirjakovic. “So it was trying to work with [the Green Building Certification Institute] to help us figure out what bucket we could fall in.”

PT3There is no multifamily high-rise track for LEED the way there are for other niches like single-family homes, schools, warehouses and neighborhoods. “If it’s a ground-up multifamily, it would go under new construction, which would be the same for an office building, the same for a prison,” said Lev. “But because the requirements were written around offices, it’s been very hard, historically, for multifamily to get LEED because they don’t meet some of the prerequisites.”

While a multifamily high-rise may be superficially similar to an office tower, the two act much differently. Unlike in a commercial environment, there are people in a multifamily building all day every day, with no weekends off. Elevators run much more often and tenants have control over their individual temperature, which a facility manager could optimize in an office building.

“If I’m in my apartment and I want to crank up my heat to 75 degrees, the building has no control over that,” Lev said. “Whereas in an office building it’s more regulated and often the building shuts down completely on the weekend so you’re not running any air, or very minimal air.”

While indoor air quality is an important component of any building, it is more so in large, multifamily structures where hundreds of people spend the majority of their time. As a result, Waterton used low-VOC paints during their renovations. They also implemented a non-smoking policy throughout the property, including in each unit. “I think it was daunting at first,” said Cirjakovic, “but we did a survey and, overwhelmingly, our residents supported the idea.”

PT4That sort of tenant engagement is another difference between commercial and residential structures. If the building management in an office tower wants to educate tenants about energy use, for example, they can hold lunchtime seminars and engage representatives from each floor, division or organization, who can bring the message back to their peers. “With residents, first of all it’s their home, so sometimes they feel invaded and don’t want to be told what to do,” said Lev. “It can be a bit like herding cats.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently created a multifamily certification for its ENERGY STAR program. Already, 17 apartment and condo buildings nationwide have been certified, including three in Chicago.

“Communities, renters and businesses all benefit when multifamily properties operate more efficiently,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “When these buildings use less energy, they also prevent greenhouse gas emissions, increase comfort, and lower costs for renters, making it a win-win for the environment, public health and the economy.”

Those buildings that received the new ENERGY STAR multifamily certification took a variety of approaches to save energy, from capital improvements like retrofitted lighting, to changes in operations. The EPA is working with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the USGBC to improve the energy efficiency of the nation’s multifamily housing. This may lead to multifamily benchmarking in other certifications like LEED. “Waterton is interested in ENERGY STAR for multifamily,” Lev said, “and they’re evaluating their portfolio to see which buildings would be a good place to start.”

Images: Darris Lee Harris

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