A Growing Trend: Energy Efficiency & Multifamily Housing

Admit it. When you think of energy efficient construction or building to green standards, you usually think of businesses or single-family homes. It’s OK, I’m used to it. The reality, though, is that multifamily housing is quickly becoming a much bigger player when it comes to building performance. That should make sense, because those large residential buildings offer opportunity for improvement that can have a huge impact!

SEM began work on our first multifamily project in 2007; since then, we have completed Energy Star certifications on 48 projects, one of which also earned the EarthCraft label and another was LEED for Homes.  We aren’t showing signs of slowing down either, because right now we’re also working on 10 projects going for green certifications and will add NAHBGreen and Enterprise Green Communities standards to the SEM portfolio, as well.

Even though we’re certifying large buildings through the various programs, the certification is actually applied to each individual unit — every one is held to the same standards of efficiency as single family rated homes.  That means they can also also take advantage of the same benefits of reduced utility use and potential rate discounts from utilities; there are even programs like the Progress Energy Home Advantage rebate which offers Energy Star qualified homes an incentive for upgrading the HVAC equipment.

Multifamily buildings are inherently more efficient than a typical single family detached home because the units are usually smaller and have fewer windows. That’s why meeting the increase in efficiency required by Energy Star and green programs can be difficult for all members of the project team; we can certainly do it, but there are challenges when making improvements. For example, upgrading the efficiency of the HVAC equipment used in multifamily units is difficult due to the simple fact that standard multifamily heating and cooling equipment with increased efficiencies are too big to fit into the same closet space.

One great benefit of multifamily construction is that when good practices are adopted early, the rest of the project go much smoother.  Spending time in the beginning to create a good roadmap for how to get every unit done properly goes a long way. Conversely, though, if something is not installed properly the first time around it could need to be fixed 60 or 100 times, depending on the size of the project. So it certainly behooves the builder to take my advice early on!

Fire separation walls add another opportunity for increased efficiency in multifamily buildings if builders seal the gaps along the top (seen here with orange foam).

What might surprise some people is that these types of improvements work with both market rate and affordable multifamily projects receiving funding through low income housing agencies. While it’s fun to work on certifying all projects, as a triple bottom line company we really find it rewarding to help those buildings designed for low income families.

Like I said, this type of building performance testing is becoming more common — but it’s still evolving. Until recently, we could only do these certifications for buildings up to five stories tall. Now, though, the National Green Building Standard has no limit on the number of stories need to qualify and other programs are creating entire categories to address even the tallest high rises.

Increased efficiency and attention to indoor air quality can have big impact for lots of people. Studies show that more and more people are moving into multifamily housing instead of single family homes, so even though many people might not associate green building or efficiency with this type construction, it’s something that deserves our attention!

Laurie Colwander is a Building Science Technician at Southern Energy Management. Read more about her here.

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One Response to “A Growing Trend: Energy Efficiency & Multifamily Housing”

  1. MikeNo Gravatar says:


    Stay alert on the upcoming review of the National Green Building Standard (ICC-700). I’m hearing rumors it’s being watered down, which would match the state-level tactics being used by some of the HBAs on building codes.

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