March 17, 2005

Green multifamily? Here's how to get started

  • Residential builders face an array of green standards

    So you want to build sustainable multifamily housing.

    You're convinced the demand exists, and you know it's the right thing to do. But you're just not sure how to go about it.

    There are all kinds of green resources and products available. There are programs like SeaGreen, Built Green and LEED. There are definitions and experts galore. How do you navigate this sea of possibility?

    We have been involved in numerous multifamily housing projects pursuing sustainable goals. With each project, we review the available programs to determine which one is most appropriate.

    Though there remains a great deal of confusion over the different rating systems and how they apply to housing, one thing they have in common is that each provides a valid framework of measurement of what a green building is. None of the systems includes everything, but the consistent use of any rating system helps measure progress over time.


    Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is the only national program among those discussed here, and the most rigorous and broadly applicable set of benchmark standards for rating green buildings.

    This point-based program, which offers a range of achievement from "certified" to "platinum," has been growing fast and has gained enormous popularity. Since the first pilot was released by the U.S. Green Building Council in 1998, there have been several updated versions and new programs developed.

    Each program is referred to by an extra pair of initials, and they currently include the following: LEED-NC for new construction, LEED-EB for existing buildings, LEED-CI for commercial interiors and LEED-CS for core and shell.

    But in each case, a series of definitive goals with associated point scores are laid out in a variety of categories. With the documented achievement of each goal, points are awarded to achieve an aggregate score.

    LEED is designed for commercial and institutional buildings but has also been applied to many other building types, including residential. While LEED does not exclude building types, its appropriateness for residential buildings, especially low-rise (less than 4 stories) is questionable. The program for new construction is the most relevant to multifamily work.

    A residential building can obtain a LEED certification, but many of the available points are geared toward more sophisticated mechanical and electrical systems than required for multifamily projects in our mild climate.

    In addition, there are elements that LEED does not consider that could make a significant contribution to the performance of a residential building. For instance, improvements to enhance the effectiveness of the somewhat rudimentary ventilation systems in residential buildings would not meet the requirements of LEED. Desirable though they may be, LEED does not reward these seemingly minimal measures.

    Two other LEED programs under development, LEED-Homes for low-rise residential and LEED-ND for neighborhood development, offer some hope that the confusion over the residential rating systems will eventually be resolved. The U.S. Green Building Council has taken a different approach to these programs by establishing relationships with existing green building programs that acknowledge regional expertise.

    Built Green

    The other system that is widely used in the Northwest is the Built Green program, developed by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties in partnership with King County and Snohomish counties and other state agencies.

    This program, like LEED, has expanded since its first version was released. It now consists of four programs: Built Green Homebuilder and Built Green Remodeler for single-family homes, Built Green Multi-Family for apartments and condominiums, and Built Green Communities for neighborhood master planning.

    Designed for builders, Built Green began with a one-, two- and three-star self-certification rating system with a three-star rating being roughly equivalent to a LEED certified level. No third party was required to certify that the builder had taken specific actions. While lack of verification eliminated the expense of documentation, it also failed to foster accountability.

    The new 2004 version of Built Green Homebuilder now offers four- and five-star ratings. To achieve either of these rankings third-party verification, and therefore documentation, is required. Each rating requires progressively higher point scores and identifies additional measures that must be taken. So far, the Multi-Family program does not offer these additional levels.

    These programs are created specifically for residential development. They are structured in categories similar to LEED, but the action items are in much smaller, more understandable bites. They are valuable tools for educating clients, and the menu of items is varied enough that all builders should be able to find easy and affordable ways to improve their products.

    However, the lengthy checklist is cumbersome and the items are narrow and prescriptive. The vast number of options encourages users to pick and choose, rather than select a goal-oriented course of improvements. The new verified ratings are a welcome step toward the rigor of LEED's documentation requirements.

    For people who are interested in measuring and improving performance, data collection is a crucial part of the process. Much of what we push for in green building is unproven. We need the long-term collection of information to be able to understand what works and what does not, and to communicate that understanding to owners, designers, builders and consumers. The feedback loop is vital to the learning process.


    In 2002, the Seattle Office of Housing developed SeaGreen, a program to promote a sustainable approach to building and managing affordable housing. The format closely follows Portland's Green Guide, but the action items are tied directly to Built Green.

    Funded by the city of Seattle, this program allows the city to set a minimum standard without supplanting the existing program.

    The minimum requirements, which are called "essential," are not especially demanding and result in a one-star Built Green rating. However, funding for affordable housing is awarded competitively, and a higher Built Green rating is encouraged and looked on favorably.

    This brings us to the question of which system is right for you. It comes down to how you are going to use the tool. If there is a market advantage to national recognition or if you want better quality control and measurable performance, LEED is the system you should use. If you are interested in incremental improvement project after project, and brand recognition is not important, then the Built Green program is a great tool.

    Sustainable design is a process. Programs like LEED, Built Green and SeaGreen help to establish consistent standards and broaden our mutual understanding of terms and techniques. Ultimately, their greatest value lies not in their individual merits but in their collective ability to transform our expectations for building performance.

    Nancy Henderson, a LEED-accredited senior associate at GGLO, co-chairs its Sustainable Design Group.

    Other Stories:

    Copyright ©2009 Seattle Daily Journal and DJC.COM.
    Comments? Questions? Contact us.