How Sustainable Design Is Elevating Multifamily Living Spaces

Architects and developers are enhancing resident well-being and paving the way for a greener future in housing.

Chapter at Madison
Chapter at Madison will include numerous green design elements, such as green roofs, energy-saving appliances and EV-ready parking. Rendering courtesy of CRG/Lamar Johnson Collaborative

From city centers to suburban communities, developers are rethinking living spaces to minimize environmental impact and enhance resident well-being. Integrating environmentally friendly features into buildings helps to create spaces that are not only energy- and water-efficient but also promote occupant health.

Current key initiatives include integrating LED lighting and occupancy sensors for energy savings, employing smart thermostats for precise temperature control, and enhancing building enclosure and insulation for improved energy efficiency, according to Alison Mills, vice president of design and development at investment firm CRG.

READ ALSO: Green Buildings Need More Than Sustainable Construction Practices

Water conservation measures involve installing low-flow plumbing fixtures and smart irrigation systems, while prioritizing low-VOC materials contributes to indoor air quality. Additionally, the growing popularity of electric vehicle charging systems and “EV-ready” parking spaces reflects a commitment to sustainable transportation options.

Uncovering sustainable design principles

Incorporating green design principles into multifamily housing developments that simultaneously promote sustainability and eco-friendliness while enhancing the resident experience is a core architectural principle for Optima, a design-driven real estate development firm rooted in the modernist tradition. 

“Optima’s vertical landscaping system allows plants to cascade down the facades of our buildings. The exterior greenery enhances the aesthetic appeal of a community and provides numerous environmental and biophilic benefits such as improved air quality, mitigating the heat island effect, solar shading and resident privacy,” said David Hovey president & COO of Optima.

The firm’s proprietary exterior landscape system was first developed for Optima’s Arizona properties but recently made its Midwest debut at Optima Verdana, a 100-unit luxury rental community that opened in 2023 in Wilmette, Ill., on Chicago’s North Shore. The building’s exterior planters were designed with species that stay green year-round and provide opportunities for residents to connect with nature from within their homes. 

CRG’s upcoming student housing project, Chapter at Madison, near the University of Wisconsin, is embracing biophilic design principles by incorporating visible green roofs instead of traditional white TPO rooftops. These roofs will showcase lush local plantings year-round, enhancing aesthetics while serving multiple environmental purposes. They mitigate climate change effects by reducing stormwater runoff, countering the heat island effect, saving energy and fostering biodiversity.

sustainable design green design multifamily
Optima Verdana’s exterior planters were designed with species that stay green year-round. Image courtesy of Optima/Michael Duerinckx

Chapter at Madison also prioritizes sustainability through LEED Silver certification efforts, leveraging water source heat pumps to exceed energy efficiency standards and reduce utility bills for residents. Recyclables are conveniently stored on-site, encouraging active participation in waste reduction, while ample bicycle facilities promote eco-friendly transportation alternatives.

In Chicago, CRG is committed to sustainable construction practices, aiming for an 80 percent diversion of construction waste to minimize landfill use, prevent soil contamination and reduce water pollution.

Optima McDowell Mountain, which is currently under construction in North Scottsdale, Ariz., will have a significant measurable positive impact on its surrounding environment. When complete, the community will feature the largest private rainwater harvesting site in the U.S. Hovey noted.

The residences are expected to use half as much water as the average Scottsdale multifamily residence and a quarter as much water as the average Scottsdale single-family home. The community will be the first project in Arizona to be built under both the new International Energy Conservation Code and International Green Construction Code. 

“Integrating green and sustainable design principles into multifamily housing is not only a win-win for both the environment and the people who call these spaces home, but it also aligns with ESG priorities of investors and lenders,” Mills noted. “These stakeholders are placing growing importance on environmentally friendly business practices, which in turn safeguards the long-term value of the asset,” Mills noted.

Space optimization techniques

Marquette’s approach with The Sylvan near Houston exemplifies how sustainable design can elevate resident experiences in multifamily housing.

sustainable design multifamily
Instead of leveling the land to build The Sylvan outside Houston, Marquette Cos. decided to preserve the existing topography and natural features, which includes rolling hills, old-growth trees and lush vegetation. Image courtesy of Marquette Cos.

The Sylvan’s design is deeply rooted in preserving the natural topography of its surroundings. Marquette’s decision to retain three majestic live oaks, each over a century old, not only pays homage to the area’s rich history but also serves as a testament to their dedication to sustainability. These trees are not merely preserved but ingeniously incorporated into the fabric of the community, serving as focal points for outdoor seating areas, fire pits, fountains and dining spaces complete with outdoor smokers.

“In other cases where trees were unable to be saved, Marquette is partnering with craftsmen at Helmwood—a Houston-based custom woodworking artisan firm—to harvest, process and convert the trees into furniture, bar tops and other artistic pieces for use throughout the community,” said Chris Yuko, managing director of development at Marquette Cos.

READ ALSO: Multifamily Gets Its Hands Dirty for Earth Day

Mills suggested several strategies that balance design aesthetics with functionality. Green roofs that are visible from within residences not only add visual appeal but also contribute to energy efficiency, she said. In addition, green roofs provide natural insulation, reducing heat transfer and energy consumption for heating and cooling.

Incorporating canopies and sunshades around windows serves a dual purpose, Mills noted. Architecturally, they add visual interest and depth to the building façade. Functionally, they minimize direct sunlight and heat gain into units, reducing the need for excessive air conditioning.

And, she said, energy modeling studies is essential to ensure that the building’s massing and façade design react responsively to the local climate. By analyzing factors such as solar orientation, wind patterns and thermal performance, architects can optimize the building’s design to maximize natural light, ventilation and solar heat gain during winter while minimizing heat gain in summer. This approach reduces reliance on artificial lighting, heating and cooling systems, leading to significant energy savings over time.

Overcoming the challenges of sustainable living

Implementing environmentally friendly features in existing multifamily buildings poses several common challenges. Cost is a major hurdle, as retrofitting older buildings or integrating sustainability measures into new developments can be expensive. Upgrades to HVAC systems, insulation, lighting, and other elements incur significant upfront expenses, dissuading property owners from pursuing green initiatives.

Mills believes structural limitations in existing buildings also pose obstacles, as older structures may lack the necessary infrastructure for technologies like energy-efficient HVAC systems or smart controls. In new developments, cost remains a significant barrier, with substantial initial investments required for sustainable design elements such as energy-efficient materials, renewable energy systems, and water-saving fixtures.

Optima Verdana features an indoor retractable pool. Image courtesy of Optima/Michael Duerinckx
Optima Verdana features an indoor pool with retractable glass walls. Image courtesy of Optima/Michael Duerinckx

”The good news is that many jurisdictions are offering incentives to developers to help alleviate some of these challenges. For instance, providing additional height or density allowances in exchange for meeting specific environmental criteria can make sustainable development more financially viable,” said Mills.

Looking ahead, sustainable design and eco-friendly initiatives will remain integral to multifamily housing developments. Residents, experts say, increasingly appreciate the environmental and health benefits of green design, guiding developers like Hovey’s team to incorporate feedback into their projects. For instance, induction cooktops, well-received in recent Optima projects, will become standard in future communities.

A notable trend is the shift towards cleaner, energy-efficient practices, with some areas adopting all-electric regulations to reduce indoor gas combustion in new construction. This change will promote electric appliances like induction cooktops and electric heating, decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and cutting carbon emissions.

Renewable energy integration, particularly solar, will expand through pilot programs and policies, lessening dependency on grid-based electricity, Mills noted. Smart building technologies will also see wider use, optimizing energy usage, monitoring air quality, and managing water efficiently.

“These technologies, along with improved data analytics and automation, will enable buildings to operate more intelligently and sustainably, adjusting resource usage in real time based on occupancy patterns and environmental conditions,” Mills forecasted.

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