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Today's Focus On Green In The Multifamily Housing Industry

Kelly VickersToday's multifamily housing owners and operators are looking for innovative and cost-effective approaches to sustainability that will "green" their communities. Among the strategies being embraced are daily utility monitoring, installing smart irrigation controllers, and featuring electric vehicle charging stations on site. Some have even implemented companywide sustainability programs. One such firm is Arizona-based Alliance Residential Co., whose Focus Green program has been spearheaded by National Director of Sustainability Kelly Vickers. She recently sat down with us to discuss the evolution of sustainability in the apartment sector and how Alliance is leading the charge.

NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

KELLY VICKERS: I am the National Director of Sustainability at Alliance Residential Co. and have been in the multifamily industry for over 15 years. I started my career working onsite as a leasing consultant and worked my way up. Back in 2009, I decided to pursue an MBA that was focused on sustainability. While in the program, I continued working with Alliance in my then role as Regional Training Director for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest regions. We started having conversations internally about what I was going to school for, and Alliance saw the value of sustainability and creating a job around it. From out of this partnership, I began to formulate our sustainability program as part of my grad school education. When I finished, we announced it as an actual position and launched it formally.

NAA: And this lead to the company's Focus Green program?

KV: Yes, we launched that about two and a half years ago now, and my role so far has been developing it from the ground up. This has included developing our sustainability policy, our sustainability metrics, the tracking and reporting processes that we have, implementing companywide campaigns that are focused around sustainability, etc.

NAA: In these past three years, what has been the evolution of green and sustainable practices at your company and throughout the multifamily housing industry?

KV: Looking at the industry as a whole first, I would say it's become more mainstream. I think it was once viewed more as a trend. Now, it's obviously here to stay. It's not a trend. Whether you like it or not, we need to move in that direction. Increasing legislation, consumer demand, utility costs, and increasingly severe weather swings have all played a part in "green" becoming more mainstream in multifamily housing. For Alliance, we realize that it isn't just about getting rid of your incandescent bulbs or things like that. It's really about making your buildings more resilient to climate change, mitigating the risks associated with climate change and utility price volatility, and making your buildings healthier and more vibrant places to live. At Alliance, it has definitely become much more of a focus. On the development side, we're really looking at those urban core markets and adaptive reuse types of projects and pursuing more green certifications. We see the value in it because it's just a better building altogether. It performs better, it has more value for our partners, and there can be significantly lower operating costs.

NAA: With regards to residents, are you seeing green buildings more as a "must-have" in their search for a place to live or are they just considering it a really cool bonus or amenity?

KV: Although the awareness about green buildings and the desire to live in them has increased, I think the level of that awareness and desire still does vary market by market. Regardless of the residents' awareness, I don't think it diminishes the importance of pursuing a greener real estate portfolio. We have definitely found where we have certain markets where green is pretty much the expectation. You think about the West Coast and markets like Seattle and Portland and San Francisco. It's an expectation. It's not really sold as an amenity. But then we have markets where it might not be an expectation, and selling the value of it really varies. With some residents, it's not that they don't care. It's just that it's not really a top priority. For us, we have to continually look for creative ways to share that story to our renters so that it does create value for them.

NAA: What remains the biggest challenge to implementing sustainable measures and green changes in our industry?

KV: Attitudes, budgetary concerns, the logistics. All of the above! For Alliance specifically, we are primarily a fee-managed company. That means we work with a lot of different stakeholders. That can make implementing sustainability measures really challenging, because we're not the sole decision makers. There are some companies that own their whole portfolio, and you can make a decision and implement it across the board in a much more linear fashion. That's not the case when you are primarily fee-managed because you have a variety of different ownership groups that you work with and varying types of communities. Every budget is different, and every community is different. Then you layer in different points of view and different agendas. You have to constantly be flexible, adaptable, and innovative in how you try and reach your goals every day. For me, I feel like it is a constant learning process.

NAA: What are some easy, cost-effective measures that an owner or manager reading this can implement right now to get them started on the path to sustainability?

KV: Probably the most cost-effective measure is still your common-area lighting. It's such a great opportunity to save. I think with the cost of LEDs really coming down, fewer communities are being prevented from doing big lighting retrofits. We're seeing a lot of great returns and quick paybacks for common-area lighting. You'll see a huge deduction in your utility expenses there. I think the other key thing is, with water rates on the rise and also increasing droughts like the severe one we're having here in California, the opportunity for water savings is key also. Landscaping is a big one. Making sure your systems are performing correctly and installing smart irrigation controllers makes the watering of your plants a lot more smart and precise. Also, look for ways to remove turf and replace it with things like native plantings and drip irrigation. There are so many communities out there with huge amounts of turf that suck up water. Leaks are also a huge source of water waste. You should make sure your staff is really focused on leak prevention.

NAA: Do you have a specific anecdotal story of how green or sustainability measures have improved a property -- one that you are especially proud of that you took from Point A to Point B to Point C?

KV: The very first two properties that we installed the Weather Track system at were in the Seattle market. You think, traditionally, that market is really rainy and you're not going to see great savings up there for irrigation and watering. We've actually seen quite the opposite! The actual savings have exceeded what the projected estimated savings were -- upwards of 50 percent to 60 percent savings in water. In a rainy climate, it's hard to see that you have pooling and over-spraying because it's wet everywhere anyway. So, you're not able to tell what is malfunctioning or what's not working correctly. You can see those signs really quickly in a dryer climate. It just goes to show that it's not always in a dry, warm climate where you need to conserve water. There are a lot of opportunities out there.

NAA: Is there an innovation on the horizon that hasn't quite hit yet that you has you excited?

KV: One thing I would love to see more of is the use of reclaimed water and gray water in multifamily communities. It can be very cost-prohibitive, but it would be a big game changer. It's difficult in multifamily, because you have so many homes, and the infrastructure associated with reusing and recycling this water can be very expensive. There are so many markets across the country where there are drought conditions, and that's not going to change. Water rates are going through the roof in a lot of places. So, looking for innovative ways to reuse water and to save water is critical. Can we use some of the air-conditioning condensate as irrigation water? Yes, but for an existing community, it's not cheap. Thinking about these things during the construction phase presents opportunity to use water more wisely and more effectively.

NAA: You are going to be participating in the 2014 NAA Education Conference & Exposition in a session titled, "Adding Value With Innovative Green Products." Can you give our previews a little preview?

KV: Certainly! The panel will be covering various green projects that add value to multifamily housing. We're going to cover a lot of different items that will range from reclaimed water and smart irrigation controllers to electric vehicle charging stations and green certifications like LEED. We'll talk about how these projects have added value to our communities both from the renter's perspective and, in terms of financial, energy, and water savings.

By Teddy Durgin

Operations Insights