Zero Net Energy Buildings Becoming Commonplace in Multifamily


As building owners and property management companies strive to be energy efficient and reduce costs, reaching for LEED and ENERGY STAR certifications may be more akin to just keeping up with the Joneses than getting a leg up on the competition. Harnessing renewable energy and zeroing out consumption will be among the top 10 megatrends in the commercial building industry – and possibly for multifamily – for 2013.

Zero Net Energy Buildings: Practical Options for Multifamily

LEED green building consultant Jerry Yudelson predicts zero net energy buildings will be increasingly commonplace in both multifamily and commercial sectors this year as developers move to gain marketplace advantage with new designs. All eyes are upon Seattle’s Bullitt Center, a 50,000-square-foot zero net energy building touted to be the greenest in the world, expected to open in April. The building is expected to achieve Living Building Challenge status, which requires self-sufficiency for energy and water for at least 12 continuous months, as well as meeting rigorous standards for green materials and for the quality of its indoor environment.

Apartment community with solar panels. Image via: Wakeland Housing & Development Corporation

Even though the commercial sector is taking center stage, multifamily owners can get in the game. Because apartment buildings are usually no more than three or four stories and have plenty of open roof space, a zero net energy plan utilizing solar could make sense. Working with third-party energy providers could enable properties to avoid costly upfront equipment expenditures and reduce the need for other traditional energy upgrade spends.

“It’s really quite possible in most multifamily [buildings], which is flat-roofed and doesn’t have the kind of equipment you typically find in the commercial office like big air handlers, chillers and so forth on the roof,” says Yudelson, who has authored more than a dozen books on green building. “You’ve got room to run, and in the hotter parts of the country, like Arizona and Texas, you’ve got carports and other things that can also support solar panels.”

Green with HVAC: Green Buildings Gain Popularity

A zero net energy building is one that harvests energy, usually wind or solar, on site and has no net annual energy consumption and zero carbon emissions. Zero net energy buildings typically first reduce the overall demand for energy with efficiencies in HVAC and lighting technologies.

Third-party providers backed by federal funding are popping up everywhere in hopes of capitalizing on what could be the next big energy wave. While zero-net-energy is in its infancy, steps are being made to utilize the technology in single-family, multi-family, mixed-use, government and commercial sectors.

Last year, the New Buildings Institute (NBI) and the Zero Energy Commercial Building Consortium (CBC) identified 99 buildings that are either zero energy, zero energy-capable or zero energy buildings currently under construction or completed in most U.S. climate zones. The study found that most ZEBs are small but trends pointed to applying the technology to larger buildings, including office buildings and schools.

Also, efforts are under way on the East Coast to encourage zero net energy buildings. The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association offers a $10,000 prize each year to an owner that best meets the criteria for green building construction or renovation of a property.

Zero Net Energy Buildings Make More Green with Higher Rents

Earlier this year, Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, made the move to self-sufficiency in electricity and water by outfitting 34 housing units, including eight four-plexes and two single-family homes, with solar panels. In the next three years, 4,400 homes at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range will get solar panels.

Many existing homes and buildings will get the panels, and, when finished, the project will be the largest in the world.

Also, the University of California-Davis’s West Village is the largest planned zero net energy student housing community in the country. The $280 million project is being funded by private and public money and projects to reduce energy demand by about 50 percent compared to current building code requirements. Renewable energy will meet the remaining energy needs on an annual basis.

Image of UC Davis West Village Apartments

Image: UC Davis West Village Apartments


Such environments and those like the 23-story mixed-use building in Portland, Ore., that has wind turbines perched at the top, ultimately carries a certain aura that attracts tenants and save property management companies money, Yudelson says.

In 2009, Twelve West, which has upscale high-rise apartments, grabbed attention from the community by installing four 45-foot-tall wind turbines. Beyond the surface, a number of other green and sustainable applications were incorporated to reduce energy and water savings by 50 percent. In 2012, the 525,000 square-foot building was awarded double LEED Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

“That place gets the highest rent in town, because it’s the most iconic building,” Yudelson says. “Why not put solar on the roof, have it financed by a third-party and have something iconic to offer and give people some bragging rights to their friends?”

Property Management Companies Can Rebrand with Zero Net Energy

To effectively generate energy, buildings typically need to start out as low energy consumers. Some older buildings probably won’t be good candidates, but those built in recent years are. Newer homes and buildings are more energy conservation friendly to begin with and a zero net energy installation is more practical.

“That home is going to be quieter and more comfortable than a home that uses a lot more energy because you have done a better job on the insulation, the windows, etc.,” Yudelson said. “What I find is that people want comfortable, quiet, healthy homes. I really feel like a quiet, comfortable, healthy home is the best marketing tactic, particularly at the high end where you can afford to do some of this.”

Net-zero-energy installations also offer property management companies an opportunity to reduce operating costs by selling back unused energy to the utility provider in some cases. Excess energy generated in the sunnier months, for example, often must be purchased by the utility company (and at retail rates), depending on the state. In essence, property owners are running the meter backwards.

Most of all, zero net energy can make a statement.

“It’s a whole rebranding thing, so you can take an older property that may not be as competitive with brand new green buildings that are LEED branded and make it equal,” Yudelson said. “It’s not only a way to upgrade a facility and reduce operating costs, it’s a way to fight the competitive battle with newer properties.”


Top Image: Bullitt Center



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John Lis is the president of Velocity, RealPage’s advanced utility solutions management system for the rental housing industry, where he is responsible for the strategic direction and overall management of the division. A graduate of Arizona State University with a degree in political science, Lis has more than 24 years of experience in management, sales and marketing, and utility billing and bill processing in the multifamily housing industry.

One response to “Zero Net Energy Buildings Becoming Commonplace in Multifamily”

  1. Great article, John! Since 2011, our firm -Momentum Bay and GREEN POWER 4TEXAS – has seen Texas, Florida & Louisiana mulifamily owners – from low-income to luxury – move to Net Zero Energy, Water & even Food, converting communities to All Bills Paid, since grid parity has reached even low energy cost states. Water, food & health have now surpassed energy as the key issues.

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