Based on dozens of interviews with developers, engineers, and investors, here are Affordable Housing Finance's top 10 practical green building tips. They might not seem flashy, but these ideas will save new construction and rehabilitation projects energy, money, and time.
"Things like ground-source heat pumps and solar panels always get in the newspapers, but it's the ordinary things that really make a difference," said Steven Winter, an architect and the founder of Steven Winter Associates, a green consulting firm based in New York City.
1. Start Early
Green developers should bring as much of their team together as possible, from architects to contractors, at the beginning of the design process. Gathered around a table, they can work out how each green modification will change the rest of the project. For example, extra insulation can make it possible to install a smaller, less expensive heating and cooling system.
Developers that go green late in the development process often miss opportunities like these. They also have less time to negotiate and must often accept whatever price their contractors decide to charge for unfamiliar techniques and materials.
2. Pick Energy-Efficient Windows and Insulation
To cut the cost to heat or cool a property, start with energy-efficient windows with a federal Energy Star rating. These top-rated windows sell for as little as 50 cents per square foot more than standard models, and they can be as much as 40 percent better at insulating an apartment.
Green experts also choose to use improved insulation and to seal the tiny gaps and holes that let cold air (and pests) travel between apartments. Drafty units will fail the "blower door test" required by many green building standards, which measures how much air is leaking in.
3. Fight Mold With Fresh Air
However, it's not safe to live in a totally airtight apartment, any more than it's safe to put a plastic bag over your head. Green builders allow a limited amount of fresh air to enter their apartments, flow through all of the living spaces, and leave.
Fresh air from outdoors can enter through a building's hallways, passing under the doors or through tiny vents in the window treatments. Stale air is often pulled out of the apartment by the bathroom fan.
Good ventilation keeps mold from growing and allergens and chemical fumes from collecting. When possible, avoid wall-to-wall carpets, which trap dust, and paints or plywoods, which emit formaldehyde and other noxious gases. Gas stoves should have range hoods that vent carbon monoxide fumes directly outdoors.
4. Energy-Efficient Equipment
Efficient machines like boilers and furnaces often pay for themselves quickly. At existing buildings, when a water heater or an elevator motor nears the end of its useful life, replace it with a more efficient one. Find product information, ratings, and guidelines at www.energystar.gov. For help with pumps and motors, download the Department of Energy's MotorMaster program at www1.eere.energy.gov/industry/bestpractices/software.html.
5. Switch to Eenergy-Efficient Light Bulbs
Switching to energy-efficient light bulbs is probably the quickest and easiest green upgrade. Efficient bulbs use less than a quarter of the electricity used by conventional bulbs. Vendors like 1000bulbs.com now list compact fluorescent bulbs for less than $2 apiece. That's three times the cost of incandescent bulbs, but because compact fluorescents last much longer, the price is roughly equivalent over time. Many affordable bulbs now fit standard light fixtures.
However, be sure to try the bulbs out before ordering hundreds for your building.
6. Green Fixtures Save Water
Showerheads and faucets that conserve water will make an immediate dent in your utility bills, often at no extra cost upfront. However, test the hardware in your own home before subjecting residents to it.
To choose low-flow toilets that work, read Maximum Performance Testing of Popular Toilet Models, a report available at www.cwwa.ca.
Water-saving ideas also extend outdoors. Landscaping with droughtresistant plants need less water. Save even more by diverting rainwater to feed your plants.
7. Shade Trees and Skylights
Skylights and shade trees can help buildings conserve a tremendous amount of electricity. For example, three trees strategically placed will cut a home's airconditioning costs up to 30 percent, according to the city of Sacramento. The national average is 10 percent. Overhanging roofs also provide shade in the summer and let sunlight in when the winter sun is low in the sky. Also, skylights and windows that let daylight into a building's common areas will cut lighting expenses.
8. Re-Use a Building
The greenest thing a developer can do is recycle an old building, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. That's good news for affordable housing developers with old buildings to fix up-they can cast themselves as green builders and rehabilitate what they have.
9. Build Near Transit, Save on Parking
Save money and conserve resources by building your next project near transit and amenities, so that residents are less likely to rely on cars to get around. Local officials will also be much less likely to require the usual 2.5 parking spaces per apartment. Communities near transit often get away with 1.5 spaces or less. The hard construction cost of a parking space starts at $30,000, not including the cost of land.
10. Find Grants for Flashy Technology
Solar panels, green roofs, wind power turbines: The first green building ideas many people think of are often the last items to consider for affordable housing communities. Many expensive green technologies are a long way from being cost effective without subsidies. Clever developers line up their grant dollars before placing an order for solar panels.
This article originally appeared in Affordable Housing Finance.
Check out other articles from this series:
Green Building Saves Affordable Housing Developers Money
More Money for Green Properties
Guest Commentary: Getting Serious About Energy Efficiency in Affordable Rental Housing