Traction


For those of you who have never been stuck in a vehicle, whether in mud or, more likely in snow, this concept may be a little hard to grasp. However, anyone who has been through this experience will recognize that astonishingly satisfying moment when your wheels finally grip something with a bit more bite than whatever mush you’ve been digging through, and do the expected job of propelling you forward.

I had an indelible traction moment this week, and it has to do with one of my pet interests: the “greening” of multifamily residential projects. This is the same week that the combined NAHB/NMHC (finally) released their National Green Building Standards. We in the multifamily industry have been waiting for this code for a long time. Let the celebration begin! In short, the prescriptive document tilts somewhat in the favor of multifamily projects when it comes to achieving a noteworthy score of bronze, silver, gold, or “emerald,” the highest honor bestowed upon a development by the NGBS.

But the traction I sensed doesn’t really have to do with the NGBS, though it is a welcome addition to the toolbox. No, the traction I’m thinking of has to do with what I call “Sustainability 2.0”, that is, the pursuit of higher performance buildings (a term I prefer to “sustainable”—but that’s for another post) for the sake of the bottom line. Saving money, I have asserted previously and will undoubtedly do again, must be the real catalyst for developers to “drink the KoolAid” of new green standards for dense development.

In this week’s case, it comes down to renewable energy generated on site. Yes, folks, I’m referring to photo-voltaic panels employed to generate a certain amount of a project’s power demands. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m coming from the perspective of a true believer AND an early adapter. Just over two years ago, I flipped the switch to a 4.3 KW PV system on my roof and began generating about 85% of my annual electricity usage. (BTW, I’d like to thank those of you who contributed to the cause, as I received both state and federal tax credits for this effort, in addition to a generous rebate from the California Energy Commission.) Also, for those of you who are keeping track, I’m saving about a half ton of GHG emissions every month—anyone looking to purchase carbon offsets should contact me.

But back to the point. I’ve been trying to encourage my clients to incorporate PV into their multifamily structures to offset the house loads—that’s it. This is not generally attractive to the developers of for-sale product, but to those who build and HOLD assets, often for 25 years or more, this is a big deal. When I bought my system for my house, I did so as much to bring credence to my passion as to contribute to my household’s bottom line. It is substantially easier to have a discussion about the benefits of site-generated energy when I’m doing it myself. Anyway, at today’s prices, with rebates, incentives, and tax credits all rolled in, a multifamily developer might rationally expect to re-coup the costs of a PV system in somewhere between 6 and 10 years. That, my friends, computes to money in the bank. But better than that, if the cost advantages lead to a proliferation of these systems on multifamily projects, the benefits to our environment will begin to accrue at what will soon become an estimable rate.

At this very moment, one of my clients is seriously considering PV systems, both for their existing properties, as well as a new one I’m designing. That we are seriously engaging in the discussion and exploration is nearly a point of euphoria for me, as it portends a greater trend in the industry—to seek out high performance solutions because they make sense.

Notice how I haven’t even mentioned the points that might be achieved on a “green” scorecard? That’s because, at the end of the day, the scorecards have served a mostly pedagogical intention: to demonstrate what might be achieved for the good of everyone through the foresight and conviction of a select few. But let’s move on to the next phase—greening for “green” ($), just like my mother (God rest her soul) taught me.

Over the next few years, as we climb out of this funk, we will build more apartments, and they will be snapped up due to the demand that is building even as you read this post. We will re-double our efforts as designers to unearth every high performance strategy at our disposal to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, provide healthier environments for our residents, craft better urban environments, nurture more cohesive communities, and do all of this with an eye to the bottom line—because at the end of the day, we do know which side the bread is buttered on.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects)