Apartment Building Associations Promoting Energy Inefficiency?

07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the path toward a prosperous, climate-friendly future, efficiency (along with conservation) should be #1, #2, and #3 on the table. Those struggling to delay action to turn the tides on Global Warming's rising seas come from many angles and bring to the table many truthiness-laden arguments.

The National Multi Housing Council and the National Apartment Association have put out an "appeal" calling for letters to Congress against instituting national building standards for energy efficiency that would move the nation on a path toward sensible building infrastructure. This misleading, deceptive, and wrong-headed appeal seeks to add more voices toward those seeking to sabotage efforts to move the nation forward toward a prosperous, energy smart future.

But, NMHC/NAA see these measures to improve energy efficiency for their tenants as potentially undercutting their profits. One might read their objections, in fact, as 'the slum lords whine' considering their concerns.

Let's take a look at the NMHC backgrounder.

A sweeping energy and climate change bill is currently working its way through the House of Representatives that includes an onerous building codes section (Title 2 of H.R. 2594, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009). Comparable legislation is also being marked up in the Senate.

Well, sigh, the bill is not nearly "sweeping" enough. The Amercian Council for an Energy Efficient Economy just released a study showing that that the House bill's energy efficiency will save American households $100s ... and is actually leaving huge savings on the table. If anything, the energy efficiency measures in these bills, while laudable, are inadequate.

And, rather than "onerous", Title 2 is one of the best sections of the legislation, offering real opportunities for improving the built structure, affordability of homes and apartments, and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions rapidly.

NMHC/NAA are asking members to contact their Representative in the House and both of their Senators to oppose the entire building codes section as it is currently crafted.

Got it. Let's fight to delay action, to inhibit moving forward, to protect our current interests rather than helping create new value.

The House bill requires the Secretary of Energy to establish a new National Energy Efficiency Building Code that is 30 percent more efficient than existing codes by 2010 and 50 percent more efficient by 2014. If states do not enforce the strict federal standards, the House bill creates a new federal building code enforcement program.

Contemplate "strict" ... Do you realize how energy inefficient the average new home and building is? For a variety of reasons, almost all buildings are built to the lowest common denominator (the local building code) which leaves tremendous energy efficiency options off the table, items that have often just a few years' payback in terms of reduced energy costs. Hitting that 30 percent greater efficiency will have payback periods of, according to the best analysis, under four years. (Think about this, a ROI of 18 percent when home loans are running at about 5 percent. Hmmm, would you borrow money at a tax-deductible 5 percent for an assured after-tax income of over 15 percent?)

The Senate measure requires comparable building code goals but does not include the federal enforcement provisions. The codes would apply to all buildings built or substantially rehabilitated after the enactment of the legislation.

Yes, a code would be put into place and would apply to building activities after the codes are law.

Under this approach, owners could be severely penalized if they sold a building built or substantially rehabilitated after the legislation went into effect that was, for example, only 20 percent or 25 percent more efficient than a model building code rather than the required 30 percent.


(1) To be penalized for failing to live up to legal requirements (in other words, for breaking the law) seems the sort of thing that should occur in civilized society.

(2) Again, that "severely penalized" ... note that this is "could be" and not currently outlined in the legislation. It seems likely that failing to meet targets (code) would be penalized, but it seems likely that implementing regulations would take account of a renovation that sought (achieved) significant energy efficiency improvements even if not reaching 100% of the new code requirements. This is, to say the least, scare-mongering rather than suggesting any desire to engage in making legislation stronger to address this potential problem. And, the actual legislation actually has many words along the lines of "best effective" while "cost effective through life-cycle cost".

So why should we fight this? Why are NMHC/NAA simply seeking to "Say No" to progress on building efficiency?

NMHC/NAA are vigorously opposing these measures on several grounds. First, the measures unravel the existing process for developing and adopting building energy codes and undermine the regional flexibility of the current code system.

This sounds like "states' rights" or such language, doesn't it? What are they really suggesting? 'We really like the ability to manipulate building codes through local planning boards around the country, where many of the board members might come from our associations and where they don't have staff or time to challenge our misleading analysis arguing against any actions in the interest of renters over apartment building owners.'

More importantly, according to NMHC/NAA-commissioned research, the targeted energy savings are unachievable in some climate zones with current technology and so expensive in others that they are fiscally unsustainable.

If this issue weren't so serious, we'd be calling this absurdly laughable. The referenced report is almost certainly the CONSOL Achieving 30% and 50% over ASHRAE 90.1-2004 in a Low-Rise Office Building. To be polite, this "study" was stacked against the potential for finding energy efficiency. Architecture 2030's Ed Mazria called the developers' report "disinformation."

"They contracted with ConSol, an energy-modeling firm, and asked them to analyze five (yes, only five) efficiency measures for an imaginary, square-shaped, four-story office building with completely sealed windows and an equal amount of un-shaded glass on all four sides of the building. In other words, analyze an energy hog.

They conducted the analysis for different cities and climates -- Newport Beach, Chicago and Baltimore -- without changing the design to respond to these very different climates.

They did not study changing the shape of the building, its orientation or form, or redistributing windows or using different windows to take advantage of natural light for daylighting or sunlight for heating (office buildings are day-use facilities). They did not study shading the glass in summertime to reduce the need for air-conditioning, using operable windows for ventilation (not even in Newport Beach with its beautiful year-round climate), using landscaping to reduce micro-climatic impacts, employing cost-effective solar hot water heating systems, employing an energy management control system or even study the impact of using inexpensive energy-saving occupancy sensors in rooms to turn off lights. In other words, NAIOP intentionally kept out of the analysis all the readily available low-cost, no-cost and cost-saving options to reduce a building's energy consumption."

Even so, even with choosing a highly inefficient structure and not allowing the most basic paths toward energy efficiency, the study found high value payback at 15 percent efficiency improvements. Thus, even with stacking the game, they could only get a partial 'win' in the game.

Back to the industry 'backgrounder' ...

Moreover, using building codes to achieve conservation goals is a flawed policy in the residential sector because most energy used in apartments falls outside the scope of these codes. Building codes primarily cover the building envelope and HVAC systems, meaning energy performance improvements achieved through lighting, hot water heating and other appliances are not counted toward the 30 percent and 50 percent savings.

By excluding these items, the code targets put extreme pressure on building owners to invest in expensive upgrades that will not significantly improve overall building energy performance.

Again, this is screaming "NO", arguing that there is a problem but without coming to the table with a solution. Accepting, for sake of argument, the statement about relative energy use, perhaps this suggests that there should be appliance and efficiency requirements for the apartments on top of the building codes.

This assertion, however, is that the building envelopes of old apartment buildings aren't really an issue ... which is at odds with the experiences of being in an old apartment building, by leaky single-paned windows, in the middle of winter.

Contemplating this creates an impression, potentially mistaken but certainly an impression created, that this letter mobilization effort could be called "slum lords appealing for the right to not have to upgrade decrepit apartments when flipping for exorbitant profits".

Finally, the federal enforcement measures in the House bill are a drastic departure from existing law and construction practice and would have a chilling effect on the development and transfer of properties across the real estate spectrum.

Yes, again, this would create a path for sharing knowledge and lessons across the nation. It would undercut the ability of these organizations to manipulate local planning boards to their advantage, advantage gained at the cost of weakening the common good.

Yes, this is a change from "existing ... practice", practice that has led us down on a path to energy inefficient buildings across most of America. We face serious energy, economic, and environmental challenges and opportunities. In the face of these pressing challenges and opportunities, business as usual (BAU) simply isn't good enough anymore.