It's still not as ubiquitous as WiFi or resident portals, but green technology is beginning to power more multifamily buildings. "We're at the beginning of an upswing when it comes to green building technology and multifamily applications," believes Paula Cino, a senior legislative analyst at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C., where she focuses on energy and environmental issues. "A lot of people thought [green technology] was out of reach before, but now they're trying it and realizing they can make it work."

High-performance, high-rise buildings are still on the forefront of green technology. But lower-slung buildings with fewer unit counts are also starting to find ways to implement green technologies and save energy. With a little creative financial footwork, they're doing so without wading into the red–at least not too deeply–while giving themselves a marketing advantage with potential residents. "People are getting educated very quickly on this issue," says Cino. "We're starting to see a market expectation for green features."

Credit: Photo Illustration: Susan Morrison; Photos: Jupiter Images

Windy Concept

Located in Atlanta's up-and-coming Chamblee neighborhood, Eco Lofts, developed by Atlanta-based 3400 Partners, is billed as the city's first eco-friendly condo development. Elements on the four-story, 125-unit project include ultra-thick, heat-retaining windowpanes; on-demand water heaters; cellulose insulation; and plenty of bike racks. Prices for the condos range from $200,000 to $500,000.

But Eco Lofts' biggest claim to green fame is its power source, which is 100 percent renewable wind energy. How does it work? The developer, 3400 Partners, purchased two years' worth of renewable energy credits for Eco Lofts–one year to power construction and one year to cover the building's needs once residents move in.

At first glance, it looks like an expensive extra. Those who live in the building will pay more (a 5 percent premium) for their energy. Yet, even with those higher energy costs, Eco Lofts residents are likely to break even on their actual power bills because of lower energy usage in their units, due to the building's increased efficiency and insulation.

But Atlanta's rolling topography is more likely to produce kudzu than wind, so Eco Lofts won't be installing a sleek silver wind farm on its roof. Instead, the energy to power Eco Lofts comes from wind harvested elsewhere, such as the flat plains of Minnesota or the howling chutes of California's Altamont Pass.

"There's no direct pipeline from the windmills to the property," explains Alex Perkins, assistant manager at 3400 Partners. "We're buying wind energy output to displace energy on the grid that would have to be generated by coal, oil, or nuclear technology."

The total cost of the initiative has been less than $10,000, Perkins says, and the firm's been able to use the ploy to its marketing advantage at Eco Lofts: the firm has sold more than half of phase one's 60 units, with move-in expected in April 2007. "A lot of people come to our building without knowing anything about renewable energy," Perkins says. "But once they learn something about it, they get excited, and they want to come live in our building."

Earthly Idea

Across town at the 28-acre, 350-unit, mixed-use development of Glenwood Park, Atlanta's Green Street Properties has gone subterranean in search of its energy savings at the brownfield site. In addition to green roofs, irrigation units that recycle storm water, and tight building envelopes, Green Street is using 300-foot deep geothermal wells to save energy in one of its nine-unit, garden-style condominium buildings. Because temperatures below ground remain at a fairly constant 55 degrees–an ideal "swing" temperature for heat transfer in summer, and heat gain in winter–the system circulates liquid through pipes that run down into the wells, and then loop back into the building.

"The system is monstrously more efficient than a conventional unit," says Walter Brown, vice president at Green Street. "We're showing at least 50 percent savings."

Brown says the system cost 30 percent more than a traditional heating and cooling system, but that the firm was able to recover $1,800 per unit through Energy Star tax credits. Combined with the savings of not having to design a roof capable of carrying the load of a traditional heating and cooling plant and the space savings of building a pool patio over the geothermal wells themselves, Brown says the firm has nearly gotten back to its baseline on the investment. He estimates the system will pay for itself within five years.

"There are definitely some unique mathematics that made the project more palatable for us," Brown says. "But we certainly love the fact that we can deliver very energy-efficient units to people. That's the bottom line that our [condo buyers] will get."

Soak Up the Sun

The Octagon has gotten its share of accolades for the adaptive reuse of its structure. This building, now a 500-unit rental community on New York's Roosevelt Island, housed the New York Pauper Lunatic Asylum in the 1830s. (For more on the property, see "Perfect Shape," August 2006, page 41, or visit www.multifamilyexecutive.com.)

But the property's green aspects are equally noteworthy. For one, the $120 million Octagon takes heat-exchange technology to a new level. It uses the exhaust from both kitchen and bath fans to pre-warm heating air for units in the winter and circulates water from the swimming pool into the air conditioning system to help cool the building in the summer. Heating coils wrapped around drains pre-heat the next user's hot water with warmth gained from the most recent resident shower.

But the Octagon's standout green technology is the photovoltaic solar array on the roof. With 250 panels covering 5,000 square feet, the $500,000 solar power source is capable of generating as much as 50 kilowatts of electricity at any given time. That's enough juice to power the building's elevators, hallways, stairwells, and 30,000-square-foot clubhouse simultaneously. Bruce Becker, president of Fairfield, Conn.-based Becker + Becker Associates, the project's developer, says the firm recouped half its cost through New York State Energy Research and Development Authority grants. With those grants, payback will come in 15 to 20 years.

The sun-loving system is smart, too. Through an Internet-enabled interface, the building can pull performance stats for the solar array. Using a power-line carrier network developed by Germantown, Md.-based Telkonet, which enables broadband Internet deployment through a building's electrical outlets, the Octagon can literally "plug in" to the system, discover real-time variations in its solar output, and display the data on a Web page. That kind of data is crucial when applying for state grants, Becker says. "The interface tracks wind speed, the weather, and temperature, so we can see how the photovoltaics perform over the course of the day, the month, and seasonally," Becker says.

The system is also capable of letting Octagon residents monitor and control their own thermostats and energy usage. For instance, someone leaving the office at 5 p.m. could log onto a Web page to preheat her unit by the time she arrived home. "Part of energy conservation is about education, and having users be aware of how much energy they're using is critical," Becker says, noting that the average power bill for a 500-square-foot studio is coming in at just $20 a month. "The electric bills are often a third less than they would be elsewhere," Becker says. "Our tenants are thrilled."

–Joe Bousquin is a freelance writer in Newcastle, Calif.

Action Items

How to turn your building green

1– Start small. You don't have to spend a ton of money to go green, but if you're interested, do something, even if it's just installing compact fluorescent bulbs in common areas. "Keep trying," urges Walter Brown of Green Street Properties. "Someone will care that you did."

2– Don't be scared off by the concepts; green technology doesn't have to mean pie-in-the-sky initiatives. Energy-efficient building strategies "end up being called green, but a lot of it is really just good construction practices," says Andy Padian, a consultant at Steven Winter Associates in New York.

3– Sell the benefits. With increased awareness of environmental issues, residents are interested in green features. "We definitely use it as a selling point," says Alex Perkins of 3400 Partners. "People are pretty responsive to it."