How Multifamily Design Is Going Evergreen

Incorporating sustainable elements isn’t just a suggestion anymore, but a necessity in the development and design stages.

Green living has become a staple for today’s multifamily residents, placing a greater emphasis on clean air, open spaces and comfort not only in their apartments but in all areas of the community. According to a recent report from the National Association of Home Builders, 36 percent of multifamily developers are building green projects, with that number set to increase to 47 percent by the end of this year.  Eighty percent of that dedicated cohort consider themselves to be green home builders.

Unconventional building options like mass timber, passive house, modular building, and net-zero are growing in interest fast, as more developers and architects are exploring how to create efficient and sustainable projects while saving on costs in the long term. Embodied carbon, which refers to the carbon released during the manufacturing, production, and transportation of building materials, is the latest buzzword in multifamily, with many focusing on how the materials and products used to develop a new community affect both residents and the environment.

According to Architecture 2030, just three materials—concrete, steel, and aluminum—are responsible for 23 percent of total global emissions, most of which are from the built environment, making it incredibly important for embodied carbon reduction in these high-impact materials. The World Green Building Council noted that carbon emissions released before the built asset is used, will be responsible for half of the entire carbon footprint of new construction between now and 2050.

“If we think of this as a full life cycle, half of that carbon is from the creation and construction of the structure,” said Marta Schantz, senior vice president, the ULI Greenprint Center for Building Performance. “The other half is operational—lights, HVAC, water usage—which can all be made more efficient. However, the lifetime emissions are all going toward that embodied carbon upfront, which can’t be changed once it is built.”

Future Proofing

In order to make a sustainable development successful, the process must start in the design phase. Developers and owners could end up spending more if those efforts are neglected upfront.

Some of the basics to think about include Energy Star appliances, smart thermostats and high efficiency washers and dryers. In addition, parks, greenhouses, open community spaces and EV charging stations are all outdoor elements being incorporated more into multifamily developments. Nearly 50 percent of multifamily projects have electric vehicle supply equipment, according to Enel X, which could be in part due to a rise in the number of Right to Charge laws requiring developers to provide EV charging stations for multifamily dwellings.  

“We need to design in order to meet myriad issues,” said Kevin Nasello, sustainability director at CetraRuddy. “Look at your infrastructure and integrate that into your design studies. How will this building respond to the existing environment, and how can we make it so the project will be sustainable over time?”

Future-proofing is not only about the design, but also materials including paints, windows, flooring, lighting, and furnishings, as well as the structural elements that will provide sustainability over time such as water collection, glass façades, and mechanical and electrical systems. One efficient option is investing in variable refrigerant flow (VRF), which provides both heating and cooling through duct work and can be easily integrated into a building without taking up a lot of space.

Material sourcing is challenging, given the supply chain issues facing all industries, but it is equally important. Many of these products are already well established. Examples include paints and flooring with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs); double-pane windows for better temperature flow; and energy-efficient lighting that uses sensors to adjusts its levels according to the user’s location. Although local materials may seem more expensive, lower-cost, timely delivery often helps offset the higher price. Some popular options include recycled or refurbished wood, plastic, and steel.

“Material selection is as important as everything else,” said Peter Bafitis, managing principal, RKTB Architects. “Lighting is critically important, a little bit of green psychologically goes a long way and now there are many alternatives for flooring and color selections that are more sustainable.” Bafitis noted that color selection and graphics are especially important in lobbies and corridors, which the firm uses extensively in its senior housing projects to form clear directional paths for residents.

What’s Ahead

When developers and designers are looking to advance sustainability efforts, there are many new tools that raise the bar. Examples include life-cycle cost analysis, climate-related risk and opportunity assessment.

“These tools help to focus on how we understand and account for the embodied carbon in the supply chain,” said Melissa Burch, executive general manager for New York development at Lendlease. With the help of pre-design analysis, she noted, project teams can address critical questions: “How do we bring data into the early stages of the design process? What are unique risks to the site, climate or environmental? How will the project perform today and will perform over time?”

For 1 Java, an 800-unit community under development on the Brooklyn waterfront, Lendlease’s assessment revealed a higher-than-normal risk from rising tides. During design, the company strengthened the property’s coastal resilience by raising its elevation and adding a living shoreline with local plants.

Technology continues to evolve, and the more data developers and architects have access to before conceptualizing a development, the more room there is for innovation, broadened sustainable initiatives and more success by the time the project is completed.

Other green energy alternatives will continue to expand their multifamily development, such as geothermal, solar installations and all-electric buildings. Geothermal, for example, can be used to harness energy and operate heat pumps and water heaters. It is being implemented slowly, but many experts see that growing over the next decade.

“Ten years ago, these were just concepts but now they are being put into play,” said David Estrada, vice president of ground-up construction, CGI+ Real Estate Investments. Two other innovations he cited as gaining attention: concrete forms and the use of wastewater. These poured concrete walls are insulated with foam on both sides which regulate temperatures and energy use.  

The use of wastewater might be off-putting at first, “taking something no one wants and turning it into energy,” added Estrada, but the concept of this energy harvesting provides another way to save on costs and reuse elements the building already has.

Designing these features into properties not only attracts investors and potential residents but also aids the industry’s efforts to create a healthier environment. Raymond Jimenez, founder & creative director at Raymond Nicolas summed it up this way:

“As a designer, you want people to have that initial feeling of ‘Wow, this place is nice. I would live here!’ There is nothing more satisfying knowing that our design directly impacts how people feel and live.”

Read the May 2022 issue of MHN.

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