Living Green: Multifamily Dwellings

By Claire Swedberg | Mar 15, 2013




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Multifamily residential structures account for more than half of the buildings in the United States and 21 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions, according to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which analyzes electric power consumption nationwide. Such buildings sometimes provide affordable housing options for low- and moderate-income people but also house tenants and unit owners across the income spectrum in metropolitan areas.

So it’s not surprising that builders and developers in the multifamily housing industry are having an impact on green construction in two ways—changes in the construction of new facilities and the installation of a variety of green retrofits. The movement toward developing more efficient housing facilities is pushing building owners to take the task on, from replacing incandescent lamps and buying new generators, to full-scale rebuilds from the studs up. And, in the case of new construction, most new residential construction projects of large facilities include some energy-efficiency aspect.

The pressure is on for energy reduction and not just because of the high cost of energy. Even as building owners seek to reduce their energy consumption, tenant demands on the electrical system are on the rise. Today’s residents of apartment buildings and condominium complexes have a host of devices to power or charge that weren’t around a few decades ago—e.g., wireless devices and computers. Some older facilities struggle to keep up with the power load, while others may meet the energy needs of their tenants but are seeking greater efficiency.

A public health report from the National Center for Healthy Housing found that energy use declined dramatically following green renovations that included geothermal heating and cooling as well as added insulation.

For retrofits, the choices can be complex. There’s been very gradual movement in overall residential building and renovations in recent years, said Michelle Davis, AIA, architect and certified access specialist in California. The industry is still trying to work through a backlog in multifamily dwelling facilities, while condos in the state are still available for less than $100,000. But retrofits may reduce costs for building owners and tenants, and that is raising some interest.

Davis pointed to solar energy as one of the areas of growth in California. Many owners are still making an effort to meet the state’s 2010 green building code, and interest remains in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council, developer of the LEED building rating system, is helping building owners nationwide achieve LEED certification for multifamily homes, including midrise buildings—four to six stories. Kelsey Mullen, director of residential business development for the USGBC, describes midrise buildings as the industry’s “best-kept secret.” Midrise building owners have come to the USGBC in increasing numbers and are returning for multiple projects. The program has been offered for about two years and has grown 20 percent each year.

“Developers are realizing they can be profitable with green construction,” Mullen said. 

He sees residential building owners from across the country—mostly in metropolitan areas—are seeking ways to achieve LEED certification through renovation or new construction. Many renovation projects focus on efficient mechanical systems and tight insulation, but efficient lighting and electrical systems using sensors and some level of automation usually are included. 

LEED certification can also necessitate the use of alternative energy, such as gas microturbines on the roof to generate electricity and heat and daylight harvesting systems, in addition to simple LED lighting. Most renovations involve extensive rebuilding to historic or older buildings.

“Green isn’t necessarily always an additive,” Mullen said, adding that it is rather a solution that incorporates all parts of the building process and can challenge renovations.

Ram Narayanamurthy, EPRI senior project manager of zero energy and smart buildings, said that many multifamily dwellings and complexes are making the effort to replace condensing boilers and chillers. Just a few years ago, they operated at 65 to 70 percent efficiency, while a modern unit could accomplish about 93 percent efficiency.

These kinds of improvements are common across the country as the economy eases out of the recession. Many facility managers simply keep repairing old units until they break down, but Narayanamurthy said that, in some cases, owners are facing a scenario in which the cost of continuing to pay for the energy wasted by the old unit outweighs the cost of installing a new one. To move this trend forward, the Department of Energy has an early retirement program to ease the financial pain of a new installation.

Additionally, some building owners are investing in home energy management systems that provide dashboard displays to raise energy consumption awareness among tenants or condo owners. Statistics have been showing that such dashboards influence a user’s energy consumptive behavior (see Energy Management, page 48, for more).

Furthermore, users can manage their homes’ power with plugload controls, which enable them to turn off specific outlets when not in use. Plugload controls include wirelessly connected mobile devices or remote-controlled thermostats.

Circuit monitors offer a more advanced solution; installers can put multiple contacts on a circuit panel along with a Wi-Fi interface to enable users to adjust a single circuit.

The ecosystem for all these solutions is growing and becoming more diverse. Many different kinds of entities—such as security, HVAC, and energy management companies—offer solutions. Even Internet service providers, such as Comcast, are jumping on the train, and electrical contractors can get on board as well. With all the players in the market, Narayanamurthy said, product pricing is becoming more competitive, which in turn increases the number of installations.

Still, there are financial concerns for any retrofit or renovation. Who pays for the improvements—the landlord or tenant? There has been a recent focus on having one party pay for the installation, then spread the incentive to pay the cost over time.

“It’s still all very nascent,” Narayanamurthy said.

Most renovation projects that green construction consulting company Performance Path Solutions has overseen include installation of fluorescent lights, Energy Star fixtures and use of motion detectors, said company cofounder John Barrows. As the cost of LED fixtures drops, those easy retrofits are becoming more commonplace.

“You’re seeing not only municipalities mandating green renovations and construction, you’re seeing incentive programs,” Barrows said, adding that there are electrical contractors with a clear understanding of distributed wiring from a green aspect, and those are the kind of contractor with whom he typically works.

New construction and new opportunities

Steinberg Design Collaborative (SDC) Architects in Houston has witnessed a major shift in apartment building design with almost all new construction focused on meeting national green building standards and with a goal of at least LEED silver qualifications.

“We’re not doing a lot of renovation,” he said, adding that it is because the older buildings face potentially expensive problems related to renovation. If the cost of a renovation equals 50 percent of the value of the property, the owners must meet current building codes with the project, including the energy code, which can carry a high price tag. For that reason, many facilities are choosing to close the doors permanently when the time comes, rather than renovate to current codes.

With that in mind, new construction will continue to be a major source of green building focus in the coming years, predicted Sanford Steinberg, architect and SDC company owner.

“Everything we’re doing now is green,” he said. 

The drive is coming from the building owners and also from prospective tenants who understand LEED certification and want to see it before making a decision on where they live.

Among ECs who now specialize in green residential installations, Mullen said, the adopters have become very comfortable with the LEED process. Anyone with experience in Energy Star installations will find similarities to LEED projects, he said. 

Many homes already are being built under the Energy Star standard, he said. 

Steinberg said the ECs he works with are well educated in green installations. The one area that has required reworking has been the height of switches and plugs, he said, which must be reinstalled if ECs build in switches too high or the plugs too low. That, he said, has been less of a problem recently. 

At one time, subcontractors—including ECs—who heard that a project was seeking LEED status raised their bids, simply because they were entering an unfamiliar area. 

“We’re not seeing that anymore,” Mullen said.

“The biggest thing we’re seeing is how strict the national energy code is getting,” Sanford said. 

New codes are expected to be issued in 2014, and they will come with more lighting and HVAC requirements. In some cases, it will just mean constructing facilities with fewer lighting fixtures per unit.

Beyond simple retrofits, or new energy-efficient constructions, electrical contractors can expect to be installing more electric vehicle sites at residential locations and can also expect to create a greater load for residents’ plugload devices—e.g., iPads, iPods and smartphones. Charging electronic devices may eventually overtake the consumption by lighting, heating and cooling.

Other players

Utility companies are getting involved in the residential market for green building as well. Phoenix-based utility company Arizona Public Service is one of more than a dozen utilities with programs designed to provide incentives and assistance in energy retrofitting at multifamily dwellings. The APS Multifamily Energy Efficiency Program (MEEP) provides outreach to property managers, free retrofits, energy assessments, new construction and major renovation, and energy design incentives.

MEEP manager Chris Baggett said that one of four APS customers lives in multidwelling housing, but it could be a challenging market because the person paying the utility bill is not typically the person doing the maintenance. The retrofit solutions involve simply providing compact florescent lamp installation and consulting services.

However, the MEEP program also oversees major construction and renovation programs for which local ECs are employed. Thus far, the program has saved the company about 10,000 megawatt-hours in the residential market per month.

People will continue to purchase, rent or live in multifamily buildings for various reasons, and green construction strategies help keep the housing costs down. ECs have some work to do. 

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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