10 Ways to Make Multi-Family Housing More Eco-Friendly


In recent years, the multi-family real estate market has experienced a significant upsurge across the U.S. As more people gravitate toward metropolitan centers, the demand for apartments, condominiums, duplexes and similar residential units continually increases. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that construction began on 351,000 multi-family complexes, nationwide, in 2014 — a 14% growth from 2013.

Overall, this trend has made urban living more accessible, affordable and convenient. However, in several multi-family buildings, the large occupancy rate and utility usage causes a negative environmental impact. In response, developers and tenants alike are making strides toward sustainability. As this multi-family movement goes “green,” carbon footprints will diminish throughout various cities, and residents can save money on electrical bills.

By implementing these strategies, more multi-family units will be equipped to promote energy efficiency in their surrounding communities.

Obtain a Green Building Certification

Complexes that effectively demonstrate consistent water and electricity conservation are eligible to receive accreditation from the following boards — U.S. Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), EPA Energy Star, and OMB Energy & Sustainability Scorecard. In addition, some mortgage companies — such as Fannie Mae — provide these financing options to certified multi-family residences:

  • 10 bps off Green Rewards loans
  • 10 bps off Green Preservation Plus loans
  • 10 bps off any Green Building Certification property loan
  • Up to 5% more in loan proceeds for Green Rewards & Green Preservation Plus loans

Install Energy Star Approved Utilities

High performance appliances, ceiling fans, light fixtures and double-glazed windows will burn less generated power, on average, than their standard-issue counterparts. Whole-unit systems are viable alternatives that allow tenants to conserve energy usage whenever they’re not home. In addition, Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs reduce electricity waste by 75%, saving about $30 over the course of their lifetime.

Develop a Water Saving Plan

Roof-mounted close-coupled thermosiphon solar water heater

Photo from Wikipedia: A Roof-Mounted Solar Water Heating Unit

Opting for low-flow faucets, high-efficiency toilets, timed irrigation systems, and tankless or solar water heaters will significantly prevent overuse. In addition, families or the property’s housing board can organize Water Monitoring Programs to track monthly conservation efforts.

Structure a Recycling Schedule

Ensure that each unit is supplied with a recycling container, as converting waste products into expendable energy can positively influence the environment, reduce utility costs and help the entire building become more self-sustainable. Consider these statistics and how regular recycling initiatives can help off-set the potential consequences:

Keeping tenants informed of local recycling drives and events is a valuable way to enable recycling of items that are not included in a typical recycling program, such as cell phones, batteries, remote controls, computers and more. Donate the Dead E-waste Drive, a Campus Crest and corporate recycling initiative, collected nearly 1,000 items on the first annual drive. The co-founder of Campus Crest Communities, Ted Rollins, said, “From a social perspective, we want to inform residents about the importance of electronics recycling and tangible ways to properly dispose of these items at the end of their useful life.” Inform tenants of tangible ways they can be involved in recycling – be that local voice for your community!

Weatherize Individual Units

This process includes caulking and weatherstripping the existing windows, installing new storm-proof windows, wrapping the pipes in all outdoor and carport areas, weatherstripping the exterior doors, and insulating the attic, walls and crawlspaces.

According to Passive House Institute, a $60M multi-family complex — “Second & Delaware” — in Kansas City, Missouri, is being constructed as the nation’s largest apartment building to implement these weatherized features:

Make the Rooftop Sustainable

rooftop garden

Photo by Christopher Porter

Provide a community garden space for residents to grow their own fruits, vegetables and herbs. For example, a recent survey reported that over 1.2 million square feet of “green roofing” has been developed throughout Washington D.C. — the highest prevalence in North America. This accomplishment is attributed to the Riversmart Rooftop Program which offers tax incentives to building owners who employ these gardening initiatives.

In addition, install solar panels on the roof as an environmentally safe and cost-effective means of harnessing power from natural, renewable sunlight. This will decrease the building’s dependency on harmful fossil fuel sources.

Mandate Green Leases

By signing this document, a tenant will agree to adopt an eco-friendly lifestyle so that both residents and landlords can make joint strides toward saving money, conserving resources, and ensuring the efficient operation of all amenities. Here are some practical ways that tenants can help with this process:

  • Opt for non-toxic materials when painting or remodeling a unit
  • Participate in recycling programs on a consistent basis
  • Unplug appliances that are not in use — if a device is turned off but still plugged in, it will continue drawing power from the outlet.

Any property managers who require assistance drafting a green lease (i.e. what content should be included, what initiatives will tenants respond favorably to, etc.), can find resources through the Green Lease Library. In addition, the model utilized by Boston’s Allston neighborhood — among the city’s greenest residential districts — offers several energy efficient pointers:

  • The Edge, a “LEED platinum” loft-style complex, features highly reflective roof solar panels, floor-to-ceiling windows, electric car charging stations, on-site zip cars and bicycle storage areas.
  • In the Boston Green District, each unit is equipped with an HVAC system which enables the tenants to carefully monitor their energy usage.
  • Tenants agree, in writing, to follow sustainable routines such as recycling, composting and choosing public transit.

Encourage Alternate Transportation

chattanooga bike rental

Photo by Nate Clicks

Minimize the average person’s reliance on fossil fuel-burning vehicles by establishing pedestrian or cyclist paths, providing bicycle storage racks, giving residents access to zip cars and electric charging stations, and even implementing a bike transit system — like Chattanooga, Tennessee, currently offers.

Convert Kitchen Waste Into Fertilizer

If all tenants regularly compost their edible and paper-related garbage (e.g. tea bags, toilet paper rolls, cereal boxes, egg shells, etc.) into designated bins, this waste can be repurposed into fertilizer for a rooftop garden. When food compost is transported to a landfill, air cannot filter through the organic waste which creates harmful greenhouse gases. However, when this food compost is utilized above ground, the garbage naturally decomposes into the atmosphere. After about 9-12 months of decomposition, these waste products will become organic fertilizer.

  • Note: avoid saving cooked meat.

Designate Spaces to Hang Clothes

Approximately 2-3 kg of carbon emissions are produced every hour from laundry dryers. So, instead of relying on these machines, section off a common area for people to hang their clothing to air-dry. Give this space a community feel by adding lawn chairs for residents to read, relax and socialize while they wait.

Why Live in an LEED Certified Apartment?

If an urban location and multi-family dwelling suits your lifestyle preference, then make a smart investment for both the planet and your utility bill — join the “green” movement. Developers of LEED certified complexes create less impact on natural disasters than those building traditional units by responsibly conserving resources. In fact, the increasing demand for LEED apartments prompts other developers to pursue certification. These properties also expend minimal water or energy which stimulates long-term environmental and economical benefits.

In 2011, President Obama launched a Better Buildings Challenge, targeted at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). This program encourages commercial and industrial building owners to make their properties 20% more energy efficient by 2020. Moreover, in 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Living partnered with the DOE to expand this initiative into the multi-family sector. Challenge participants are thereby committed to reducing utility expenditures by 20% over these next 5 years, while sharing their cost-cutting data and eco-friendly tactics with one another to promote widespread conservation efforts.

Throughout metropolitan centers, multi-family structures have long been considered a financially viable option, and thanks to collaboration between renters, owners and even government organizations, this housing model has made significant headway to reduce its carbon footprint.


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