During an educational session at the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo last week, several multifamily developers provided their peers with expert advice on how to build green.

Kristine Berg Giornalista, associate director of real estate development for Chicago’s Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit organization that helps people in poverty gain housing, health care, economic security, and legal protection, offered these tips:

  • Public lenders are increasingly rewarding green features, but the features they want to reward may not make sense for your project, so be prepared to justify your choices.

  • Contractors’ lack of knowledge about green construction methods is a problem, so involve general contractors early on; they set the expectations for subs.

  • Pay for energy modeling. “If you are committed to sustainable design, you should do it up-front,” Giornalista said.

  • Don’t neglect central systems. For one project, the developer focused so much attention on each unit’s heating and cooling equipment that the hallway overheats, she said.

  • Minimize “green bling.” Focus on fundamentals, not cool or untested products that occupants might not be able to maintain.

  • If you plan to certify the structure, add products and construction techniques that will provide a cushion of points in case you lose others because of changes along the way.

  • Create an easy-to-use owner’s/renter’s manual.

  • Invest in hands-on training for staff and occupants.

Another presenter, Adam Natenshon, vice president of Brinshore Development in Northbrook, Ill., recommended three green products that he said all multifamily developers should consider: vertical loop geothermal systems, wind turbines, and permeable pavers.

Natenshon said that geothermal can be very attractive in extreme heating and cooling climates, and that despite the long-term payback (he said 10 to 12 years, but other presenters said 8 to 12), they can reduce the building’s operating costs by 40% to 60% annually. For retrofits, the installed cost of geothermal systems can be reduced if the existing structure has ducts for forced air, and vertical loops are ideal for any infill projects, he said.

The developer continued that he loves small 5kW to 10 kW wind turbines, but noted that even though they provide significant utility bill savings, the up-front costs are high.

Finally, permeable pavers are the ultimate green product, he said, because they last 50 to 100 years, and some new pavers eat pollution-causing smog.

Natenshon concluded that despite great strides to erect earth-friendly multifamily dwellings, developers are not putting enough emphasis on greening existing ones. “Are you really doing the right thing by tearing down a building to get a tighter building?” he asked.

Jean Dimeo is Chief Editor of EcoHome Online.