Greening Our Cities

7 min read

Future legislation is likely to change the way the multifamily industry operates

The greening of American cities is increasingly altering ways multifamily owners, operators and developers do business. Legislation in cities large and small has ushered in an era of mandated energy use disclosures, alternative financing and the acceleration of green permits.

For property management firms, however, one thing’s for certain. Much of the rationale for embracing green initiatives comes down to preserving that other green—the type designed to slip easily into a billfold or wallet.

Definitions of what constitutes green, and cities cited as such, vary often. Lucia Athens, senior sustainable futures strategist at Seattle-based CollinsWoerman Architecture Planning and Interior Design, identifies Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago and New York as the greenest U.S. cities. Seattle has been a leader in green building, says Athens, author of Building an Emerald City: A Guide to Creating Green Building Policies and Programs. Portland leads in neighborhood revitalization, while Chicago has blazed trails in green roofs and integrating soft infrastructure into the urban fabric.

The list is differently constituted by Andy Padian, vice president for energy initiatives with New York’s Community Preservation Corporation (CPC). “I see green as energy use and efficiency per capita. So when you do that, New York comes in number one,” he says. “Chicago comes in second and Boston third, because these cities are so mass transit-able.”

Washington D.C. would certainly be higher on the green cities list were it not for its high air-conditioning load, says Padian, the self-proclaimed “energy geek” at CPC. And, he says, “Minneapolis is probably there. The smartest people doing energy work in the country seem to be centered in Minneapolis.”

One step being taken by green cities such as Seattle is mandatory disclosure of buildings’ energy use. If the disclosure indicates energy waste, the building undergoes a retro-commissioning, and may be mandated to make energy efficiency upgrades.

Padian takes note of the same movement. “The legislation sweeping the country is cities telling people you have to be transparent about energy use,” he reports. “You have to [note] every year how much oil, electricity, gas and water you use.”

The mandatory reporting in New York has resulted in considerable discontent among building owners, he adds. “No one likes change. But once they start doing it, they find it’s not hard to benchmark their buildings. They find out if they are an ‘A’ or an ’F,’ and if it’s the latter, it’s sucking money out of their pockets. They find the real green is cash.”

Another municipal measure impacting multifamily owners centers on alternative financing models, Athens says. In San Francisco, for example, if a retro-commissioning reveals a need for upgrades, a building owner can opt into a tax district that provides a financing mechanism, allowing the owner to pay the upfront costs of the upgrades. The debt is then repaid over the life of the financing through the owner’s tax bills.

Green permitting is another concept being explored. Developers of multifamily buildings slated to be green can be moved to the front of the permitting process line. Termed “Green Lights for Green Permits,” the concept can be highly advantageous for eco-minded developers, since sustainable projects can face slow permitting processes due to their very innovativeness, Athens says.

Another tool now being advanced is the STAR Community Index, a national system to help cities develop sustainability indicators. Sort of a LEED for cities, it is the result of a U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and International Council for Local Environmental Issues (ICLEI) collaboration. “That’s going to be the go-to standard for the greening of cities,” Athens predicts.

Operating in green cities

Archstone is among many property management firms doing business in green cities. Senior Vice President of Development Rob Seldin reports a number of these cities have enacted requirements for lower-impact electrical usage, the use of more environmentally friendly chemicals and the preservation of local stream quality by preventing runoff during construction.

“Green rules and regulations vary widely from one city to another. Many are still trying to define for themselves what being green means,” he says.

Issues Archstone’s residents are concerned about, including lowering utility costs through low-E windows and ensuring paints and carpets are low-VOC, are not necessarily mandated by the municipalities in which Archstone operates. “Our hope would be for a clear set of guidelines in jurisdictions in which we work that would be tied to specific objectives,” Seldin says.

“That way, we would know, before we began looking for sites, what the requirements would be for any specific location. In the planning stage, that helps you formulate what your budgets will be, which in turn allows you to better understand the potential economics of any transaction.”

Despite advances in creating green communities, considerable dishonesty continues to exist, Padian says. “I think a lot of the incentives in big and little towns are ‘greenwashing’ incentives,” he says, noting that green roofs and solar panels garner more play than they should. “I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we make the building more efficient through better insulation, upgrading the central heating system and air sealing the building?’” he relates. “And [clients are] like, ‘No, no! That’s too expensive!’ It’s not glitzy enough for them. People want glitz.”

This tendency to embrace trendiness rather than solutions that generate results is why Padian argues it might be best the term “green” be blackballed.

“Don’t tell me it’s green; tell me it’s a high-performance building,” he says, referring to buildings with safe levels of efficient lighting, lights controlled by motion sensors and high levels of construction material reuse.

“The owner who jumps on the high-performance bandwagon is getting more profitable,” he says. “I don’t understand why owners of buildings don’t want to look at this. It’s money in their pockets. It’s cash flow.”

Untapped opportunities for energy efficiency

In designing thousands of residential high-rise units, CollinsWoerman has learned that dense multifamily urban projects face serious hurdles in becoming significantly green, says Arlan Collins, the firm’s co-founder. But at the same time, bountiful opportunities to increase energy efficiency are going untapped.

For instance, most multifamily projects use electric-resistance heating. While cheap to install, it’s an energy hog, Collins says. But front-end affordability rather than long-term energy efficiency is what stakeholders, from developers to builders and renters, focus on, he adds.

“There’s tremendous opportunity in making renters aware, on the front-end, what their energy bill will be down the line,” Collins says. “If customers are educated about energy bills and rent costs together, they will be interested in the lowest cost that takes into account both energy and rent, not just rent.”

Another opportunity to radically reduce buildings’ energy use is to embrace a model in which buildings draw their heating and cooling from a source supplying numerous buildings. “When you have scale, up to the city block or multiple city block level, you can achieve efficiencies you would never be able to attain in a single building,” Athens argues.

Hydronic water systems would be part of this plan. “Hot and cold water are just exponentially more efficient in heating and cooling buildings than is electricity,” Collins says. “More technology is available to increase the efficiency of hydronic systems than to increase efficiency of electrical systems.”

Similarly, the vast potential in diverting construction waste from landfills hasn’t been fully leveraged. That potential was on display in the construction of the CollinsWoerman-designed student housing at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., where 97 percent of all construction debris was recyclable and diverted from landfills.

Seattle and Portland are two cities with sophisticated means of waste diversion, but others haven’t reached that level. “Portland doesn’t have a mandate to recycle waste, but has mandatory reporting on construction demolition recycling,” Athens says. “And just because of that mandate to report, they have increased their recycling rates for projects.”

It’s only a matter of time before legislation mandating green initiatives comes to all cities, not just today’s green vanguard, Padian says, adding that building owners and operators would be well-served to get a jump on those laws.

“Find your least-efficient buildings and fix them,” he advises. “Or, at the least, begin mitigating the inefficiency step by step. Interview successful building owners and managers who know energy usage in their buildings. The best owners and managers are still the best sustainability experts.”

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