Green Building, Resilience and Health


This brief provides guidance and resources on the interrelated issues of green building, resilience, and health in the preservation of small to medium multifamily (“SMMF”) properties. While each of these terms does have a distinct meaning, in the context of housing development and preservation, they are inextricably linked concerns - focusing on one will inevitably lead to consideration for the other two. It is therefore prudent for owners and developers to consider these three ideas in tandem when considering the preservation and operation of SMMF properties.

Resilience means “the capacity of individuals, communities, housing, infrastructure, institutions and businesses within a community to survive, adapt and grow as they confront a variety of extreme and chronic stresses.”We know that the frequency and severity of natural disaster events have already increased across the United States and are expected to continue increasing as our climate changes. Resilience is therefore not only key to maintaining the fabric of our communities but is also a smart financial investment which can potentially save property owners money by promoting efficiencies, eliminating physical deficiencies and potentially reducing insurance premiums.

The term green building is commonly associated with efforts to improve energy, water and building material efficiency. But green building actually encompasses a more comprehensive set of sustainable building standards and practices that include an explicit focus on health, conservation, land use and resilience to natural disasters. Further, through improving resource efficiency and land use, adopting green building practices also means contributing to our collective resilience.

Finally, health represents a state of physical, mental, and social wellbeing and can be heavily influenced by the built environment. Housing can directly impact a person's exposure to toxins or carcinogens, safety and ability to get around, chronic disease development and management, respiratory health, and mental health. These factors are often closely tied to green and resilience-related practices. This includes both the impacts housing design, materials and programming can have on health directly (e.g., exposure to lead or particulates from gas-burning appliances, location of more affordable housing options near higher pollution areas), as well as the health implications of mitigating the risks posed by natural disasters.

Enterprise Community Partners (“Enterprise”) is an established leader in green building, health and resilience practices for affordable housing development and preservation, including SMMF properties. In 2004, Enterprise launched the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, a green building certification and support program specifically targeted to affordable housing development that includes a focus on both health and disaster resilience. Starting in 2020, as a result of this dedication to health within the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, all affordable housing developments certified to the 2020 Enterprise Green Communities Criteria will also be certified to the WELL Building Standard through the International WELL Building Institute. In addition, Enterprise’s Resilience program has developed a suite of tools and resources to help multifamily building owners and developers understand risks and how to mitigate them.

[i] Definition adapted from 100 Resilient Cities.

[ii] The United States is experiencing a significant trending increase in the number and severity of disaster events across the country as a result of increased exposure, vulnerability and extreme weather caused by a changing climate. In 2018 alone, the United States experienced 14 separate billion-dollar disaster events. The average number of billion-dollar disasters over the past three years was double that of the country’s long-term average.These risks include extreme flooding, wind and heat, all of which can have significant impacts on housing structures, electrical and mechanical systems and can lead to loss of units, increased expense and loss of income. Knowing that these trends are projected to continue, it is imperative that we protect housing and communities through investments in disaster resilience and mitigation.Moreover, investing in resilience before disaster strikes is one of the most cost-effective ways to protect residents and property while strengthening their ability to weather the increasingly severe storms ahead.

[iii] A national study conducted by FEMA noted that each dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation leads to an average of $4 in savings from avoided damages. These investments can also help lower energy use, reduce operational expenses, and lower insurance premiums.

The Case for Integrating Green Building, Resilience, and Health Practices

There are many compelling reasons owners and developers choose to integrate green building, resilience and health-oriented practices into their preservation activities.

First, these practices can carry substantial economic benefits. Many who are new to these practices expect them to be too costly or infeasible to implement in preserving SMMF properties. However, most green building practices are simple, practical and cost effective. Some are cost neutral. Others may have larger upfront costs but are offset by long-term cost savings and gains through improved operating efficiency. This includes the potential for cost savings through lower electricity and water usage, lower insurance costs, lower maintenance costs, and longer material lifespans that reduce long-term replacement costs.,, Reducing these operating and utility costs can improve the operating efficiency of the property, particularly for older buildings, which is a clear benefit to the owner/operator. That said, even with these long-term benefits, high upfront costs and deferred maintenance needs of the property can still be major barriers for some owners to realize these financial benefits. Residents also directly benefit from lower utility bills and reduced utility cost burdens, which creates housing that is more affordable.,

The mitigation of economic risks created by disasters for both owners and residents is yet another type of economic benefit, however this involves a different type of cost/benefit tradeoff to the type of operational efficiency discussed above. Improvements designed to increase building resilience, such as retrofitting for seismic resilience in an area at risk of earthquakes, may indeed increase upfront costs substantially without offsetting reductions in operating costs. In these cases, the owner or developer must weigh the cost of the resilience intervention against the risk of damage to the property and the negative impacts on the residents living there. They may also be required by updated building or zoning codes and, therefore, mandatory. Research suggests that risk mitigation improvements can be a good use of resources, resulting in an average of a 4-fold return on investment when taking avoided damages into account. Assessing and mitigating disaster risk is discussed in more detail in the final section of this brief.

Similarly, healthy building practices can decrease emergency room use and improve chronic disease management, for example. The high cost of health care and time spent managing health conditions can create financial instability in a household. For example, respiratory issues are a leading cause of emergency room use among children and can be mitigated through healthy homes strategies like integrated pest management or removing carpeting. Similarly, falls are a major risk for costly hospital stays for older adults and can be mitigated through a variety of low-cost Aging-in-Place features. Many healthy homes strategies are low or no cost and just require upfront planning and integration into the rehabilitation scope. Providing your residents with a healthy and safe home to live in can improve their financial stability through decreased medical costs and a decrease in days of work or school missed due to health needs.

Green building and resilience practices also carry significant and important environmental benefits that contribute to the sustainability of our planet, our way of life and that of future generations. This includes reducing CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change and therefore the frequency of natural disasters; conserving important water, land and other natural resources; improving stormwater management; and reducing material waste and the use of hazardous materials that can cause environmental harm.

As noted in the introduction to this brief, green building and resilience can also carry positive health benefits in providing an environment that mitigates direct risks to health, such as those posed by natural disasters or toxins, or promotes health, such as active design. Residents and other community members from children through older adults can experience benefits related to mental health, safety, accessibility, cardiovascular and respiratory health, a healthier lifestyle, reduced exposure to toxins, and reduced susceptibility to natural disasters.,,,

Green, resilience, and healthy building practices can also help owners and developers improve racial and economic equity through their activities. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are more likely to live in unhealthy homes that lack access to transit and other resources. BIPOC communities also face a greater risk of living near brownfields and other toxic spaces and industries. Healthy, resilient, green affordable homes are key to advancing racial equity and to achieving economic and environmental justice. The next sections present guidance on how to go about integrating these important components of SMMF property preservation.

Finally, these practices can have substantial organizational and reputational benefits. Given the widespread public awareness of the need for higher quality housing, reducing our collective environmental impact, and improving racial and economic equity, owners and developers who adopt green building practices can more easily demonstrate the alignment of their activities with the community’s goals. This can assist with public approval processes and help to garner community support for preservation activities. Similarly, developers who prioritize health have seen increased interest from healthcare organizations to support their efforts through funding or partnership.

Where to Start

A great place to start incorporating green building, resilience, and health into your development is the Integrative Design Project Priorities Survey from the 2020 Enterprise Green Communities Criteria. This tool will walk you through a series of questions and exercises that help you explore the connections between the way you currently think about your preservation project and the key considerations and benefits associated with these lenses. The final step of the tool is creating a mission statement for your preservation project that captures what it will achieve for the community.

Green Building Standards and Certification Programs

Green building certification programs establish a set of formally recognized building design, construction and operations practices and standards that can be used to achieve and verify the many benefits of green building discussed in the previous section. They are valuable for multiple reasons.

First, certifications provide evidence that a building has incorporated a sufficient number and degree of green building practices to achieve a recognized level of certification. The ability to say your building has achieved a specific certification, such as Enterprise Green Communities Certification or LEED Certified status is a compelling demonstration that you have taken green building practices seriously and achieved substantial outcomes. Achieving certifications may also help you obtain funding to support green building efforts and improve the outcomes of your preservation activities.

Second, green building certification programs more broadly provide architects, landscape architects, developers, construction contractors, and other actors with a range of expert guidance and verified options for incorporating green building practices. They also provide frameworks for assessing the value and cost of different types of practices and technologies, measuring outcomes, and monitoring to verify that the intended benefits are actually achieved in practice. These are valuable resources for enabling green building practices even in cases where the developer does not intend to obtain a specific certification.

There are multiple green building certification programs, including the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria and Certification, which was developed to translate the collective expertise of leading housing and green building practitioners into a clear, cost-effective framework for all affordable housing development types. It is the only national green building framework developed explicitly with and for the affordable housing sector and is compatible with substantial and moderate rehabilitation of SMMF properties. Green Building United maintains a list of other green building certifications that may be relevant to consider for SMMF preservation.

The feasibility of a green building certification for SMMF properties will vary based on a range of factors, but green building certifications are often easier and more cost-effective to achieve than many developers expect. Many criteria, such as the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria (EGCC), are designed to provide standards that are achievable for a wide range of properties and provide specific accommodations to make them realistic in different contexts. For example, the EGCC provides special considerations for rural, tribal and small town locations, as well as exemptions to specific criteria based on factors such as project location and development type.

In addition, many states and jurisdictions have already integrated certification-compliant green building practices into building codes and regulations. For example, California is working to phase out reliance on gas infrastructure through its building codes, and some local jurisdictions already mandate all-electric buildings. Depending on the level of rehabilitation, preserving SMMF properties in these places can make certification even easier to achieve, since many criteria in the certifications will already be met through basic code compliance.

One potential barrier for utilizing green building programs and funding in older properties is deferred maintenance. Many programs require that code violations are fixed before being eligible for funding or certifications. Fixing these violations may be resolved through the rehabilitation process or may result in increased costs that can make it infeasible to achieve certification. Some programs, such as the City of Los Angeles’ Existing Buildings Energy & Water Efficiency Program, take this difficulty into account by allowing for improvements and efficiency gains to be made over time for existing buildings.

Regardless of how feasible certification itself ends up being for your property and preservation goals, investigating green building certification programs and incorporating this lens is worthwhile. Even if you don’t end up obtaining the certification, you will benefit from the thought process and the incorporation of the practices that are feasible.

Green Building in Preservation: Putting it into Practice

Enterprise’s Multifamily Retrofit Toolkit provides an excellent place to start for adopting green building practices in SMMF property preservation. The toolkit lays out the key steps and decisions you will need to make in adopting these practices. It also provides links to relevant tools to use for each step. The process includes the steps below. Some steps may vary somewhat with the nature of your preservation project, but the toolkit provides a good general starting point for incorporating green building practices in preservation. In addition to these steps, see the Engaging Stakeholders section for more information about how to incorporate residents into this process, where feasible.

  • Review Portfolio
    • Use benchmarking to understand the energy use of your portfolio and guide decisions on capital upgrades.
  • Secure Funding
    • Identify potential sources of capital for your portfolio improvements
  • Select Property
    • Identify buildings with the greatest potential for energy, water efficiency and capital improvements.
  • Select Audit Protocol
    • Select the appropriate protocol based on the funding source to obtain an investment grade audit.
  • Select Auditor and Conduct Audit
    • Obtain a quality auditor and final report with this guidance on auditor credentials and through a nationally screened list of Technical Assistance Providers.
  • Determine Final Scope of Work and Select Contractor to Complete Renovation
    • Work with the auditor and team to tailor the final retrofit scope of work based on the audit report and available financing. Hire a high-quality contractor to establish construction framework that ensures installed measures meet the audit report specifications.
  • Conduct Quality Assurance and Verification
    • Hire a third party to conduct Quality Assurance and Verification to ensure retrofit measures are installed properly and that predicted savings are realized.
  • Monitor Utility Use
    • Perform ongoing monitoring of utility usage to ensure that projected savings are realized.
  • Management, Operations and Maintenance
    • Ensure that management practices, ongoing maintenance and resident actions support the optimal performance of the newly installed green features.

Key Considerations for Integrating Green Building in SMMF Preservation

In planning for green building practices in preserving SMMF properties, keep in mind the following considerations.

[xvi] An, B. et al. (2017). Understanding the Small and Medium Multifamily Housing Stock. Report prepared by Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. and USC Price School of Public Policy. Available at

Certain energy efficiency or green building measures require specialized expertise to implement. If you do not have this expertise within your organization, Enterprise has compiled a Technical Assistance Providers Database of qualified experts in topics related to the design, development and construction of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and safe affordable housing. You can use this resource to help you identify an organization with the expertise relevant to your preservation activities.

You can obtain free energy audits and grants for implementation through existing programs. It is also important to note that some local jurisdictions and programs require energy audits on a regular basis.

Energy efficiency can be more costly in older SMMF properties if they require broader systems updates (either to meet existing codes or extend the property’s lifecycle). In these instances, green rebate programs and other financing (like Property Assessed Clean Energy programs) may be available to cover the upfront capital costs.

For the latest information on resources available to finance energy efficiency improvements, consult the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. Many utility companies also operate direct install and rebate programs to improve energy efficiency that may be available to SMMF owners. Check with your local utility company to find out if there are any relevant programs.

When pursuing these resources, be aware of any requirements that may impact your broader project (e.g., caps on total preservation cost or cost-per-unit). There may also be differences between state and local energy codes that can impact funding or program eligibility.

In considering the cost of green building in preservation, there are many costs that do not scale (or do not scale fully) with the number of units or properties being preserved or rehabilitated. Examples include the cost and time to conduct energy audits, develop maintenance plans for similar building systems, or measure and verify cost-saving. In other words, it may take about a similar amount of time and resources to do this for a single smaller property as it does for a larger property or multiple properties at the same time. You can also achieve volume efficiency when buying energy-efficient products and appliances in larger quantities.

This puts SMMF properties at a disadvantage compared to larger properties when it comes to green building, since these non-scaling costs end up being higher per unit compared to what they would be for a larger property. Pursuing SMMF rehabilitation at a portfolio scale (vs. considering costs for individual properties independently) can allow you to take advantage of these kinds of time and cost efficiency gains.

For more information on the impacts of these costs, see ICAST’s Multifamily Green Rehabilitation Resource Guide.

Adopting a green building lens does not only affect design and construction processes. You will also need to make intentional changes in property management and maintenance approaches. For example, green building technologies may require different maintenance processes and schedules than previous building systems to be effective and maintain efficiency. Similarly, residents and commercial tenants may need training and support in adapting the way they use building systems.

Some energy efficiency and health measures can be incorporated into small-scale rehabilitation efforts with little to no additional cost if you know the right products to use. For example, replacing lighting fixtures with more energy efficient ones or replacing a gas stove with an electric stove can reduce energy consumption. In the case of replacing gas- or oil-burning appliances with electric ones, this can also have positive health impacts for residents.

These products are generally comparably priced to other less efficient products and reduce your operating costs over time. This can be especially important if you want to use Housing Choice Vouchers, since public housing payment standards are based on both rent and utilities.

Two of the most common health and safety concerns when rehabilitating a property involve asbestos and lead-based paint removal. If the property in question was built before 1978, it is likely that one or both will need to be remediated. 

The level of rehabilitation involved will inform what level of mitigation to pursue. For instance, if a property has been relatively well-maintained and requires little more than refinancing to maintain affordability, encapsulation may be a suitable (albeit temporary) solution. Meanwhile, substantial internal renovations may require (due to regulation) or enable (due to financial feasibility) the complete removal of these hazardous materials.

Some jurisdictions offer financial assistance for hazardous material removal. For example, Cleveland’s Lead Hazard Control Program offers lead testing and remediation assistance to owners of properties built before 1978.

Nationally, one-quarter of SMMF buildings were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and some are much older. Older properties typically do not offer accessibility features for persons living with disabilities or others, such as seniors, that would benefit from more accessible features.

While creating more accessible homes is important in and of itself, when older properties use public funding, they are subject to federal accessibility requirements through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, Section 504 under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.

Developers using federal funding and undertaking more significant rehabilitation of unsubsidized affordable SMMF properties with 15 units or more need to provide accessible units under Section 504. Developers who receive funds from federal, state, or private sources will need to comply with ADA requirements in public areas of their multifamily property (parking lots, rental office and laundry and community rooms).The overall age or last renovation date may suggest if a property will need additional accessibility features.

Section 504 requirements apply to developers that receive federal financial assistance, such as Community Development Block Grant or HOME funds, for substantial rehabilitation (a project that has 15 or more units and the cost of the alterations is 75 percent or more of the replacement cost of the completed facility). Under these circumstances, a developer needs to make a minimum of 5 percent of units, or at least one unit, whichever is greater, accessible to persons with mobility disabilities and an additional 2 percent of units, or at least one unit, whichever is greater, accessible to persons with hearing or visual disabilities.

Resilience in Preservation: Putting it into Practice:

There are a few key factors that make affordable SMMF properties particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

First, SMMF buildings tend to be older, inconsistently maintained, and simply weren’t built with modern standards, materials and construction processes. As a result, SMMF properties may not meet the latest standards and building codes that take resilience to natural disasters into account. They can be more susceptible to leaks and structural impacts from extreme weather, like wind and flooding. In addition, older buildings not built to modern standards may face compatibility challenges with newer resilience-oriented housing technologies that are designed for buildings who meet modern standards.

Second, the size of the property itself can affect the susceptibility of SMMF properties to different kinds of environmental risks, since construction materials and methods can differ based on property size. Property size also influences the ability to utilize some types of resilience and sustainable technologies. For example, properties in denser parts of a city may not have enough rooftop space for solar panels or battery storage. Similarly, costly mitigation techniques that may be feasible for larger properties (where costs can be spread out over a larger number of units) may be infeasible for smaller buildings.

Where to Start: Understanding your risk

It is important to understand the local hazards surrounding your preservation project, because different communities, and even different areas within the same community are vulnerable to different types of disasters. A range of climate- and location-related hazards may pose risks to your structure, which in turn impact your residents, business continuity and your community. These include, for example, earthquakes, flooding, landslides, sea level rise, extreme heat, tornado, tsunami, hurricanes, and wildfires.

These hazards in turn can pose a range of risks to your residents, property, business and the broader community. For example, a risk to property could be related to the building envelope; mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems (MEP), communications infrastructure, units, roofs, and foundations, among other things.

The nature of the property, the nature of the risks, and your preservation goals and scope will all affect how you incorporate resilience into your rehabilitation efforts, which disaster-related requirements apply to your project, and which resources are available. Enterprise has created the Enterprise Portfolio Protect Tool to help you assess the specific exposure and rating of your building. Based on your inputs, it will create a risk score based on social vulnerability and climate risk. The tool covers those hazards most common to the United States and territories. Community Powered Resilience also offers tools and case studies to help understand risk and undertake your own risk assessment.

Zones, Regulations and Incentives for Resilience

In addition to these decisions, you will need to make regarding risks, there may be special zones, regulations or incentives designated by state and local entities that require or encourage the adoption of specific resilience measures. While existing properties are sometimes exempt from requirements created after they were built, rehabilitation or other activities may trigger the need to become compliant with the requirements. Some requirements may only apply to buildings of particular types, sizes, heights, or construction materials. Thus, in preserving your property, you will need to work with your local building or planning department to determine which, if any, state and local resilience-related requirements you will need to comply with in preserving your property, along with what public incentives your property may qualify for.

The following examples of resilience-related zones and regulations provide an illustration of the types of requirements you may encounter, but the specific requirements will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and in some cases even between properties within a jurisdiction.

  • Properties located in floodplains may be required to comply with building elevation or other flood mitigation requirements. Coastal properties may be further subject to requirements related to storm surge.

  • In areas such as southern Florida that experience regular hurricanes, there are specific building code standards for hurricane protection (see the Florida Building Code for more details).

  • California’s state building code includes measures that improve resilience from earthquakes. Local jurisdictions may have additional related programs and requirements. For example, Los Angeles created the Soft-Story Retrofit Program to improve the resilience of certain types of particularly vulnerable structures. San Francisco's Preservation and Seismic Safety Program combines preservation and seismic retrofits in one program.

Mitigating Risk and Improving Resilience through Preservation

The following sampling of resilience strategies can be achieved during moderate rehabilitation and have been selected from the Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience tool, as the most relevant to SMMF properties. These are discussed in much greater depth and practical detail in that resource but are provided here as example practices. Enterprise also provides Regional Residential Resilience Academies that are tailored to address specific regional risks that may be helpful to you.

Sample Practices for Improving Resilience in SMMF Property Preservation

  • Reduce your building’s vulnerabilities to extreme weather
    • Backwater valves. This can prevent significant problems from sewer line failure by blocking reverse flow from entering the building through wastewater pipes.
    • Sump pumps. This is an effective and affordable way to reduce costly flood damages, by removing water accumulating in the low points of a building (typically the basement)
  • Improve your property’s ability to adapt to changing climate conditions
    • Onsite stormwater management to prevent flooding when municipal stormwater management systems are overloaded. Tactics can include: stormwater storage (particularly effective in small spaces), bioswales, and green roofs.
    • Window shading, which can lessen solar heating in the summer and insulate against heat loss in the winter, reducing energy consumption.
    • Distributed heating and cooling, which can help avoid flood damage while lowering operating costs. Distributed systems are most effective in buildings with high-performance windows and well-insulated, airtight envelopes.
  • Ensuring critical needs are met when a facility loses power or other services
    • Power to critical systems: While this is often not required for smaller buildings, developers pursuing unsubsidized affordable SMMF preservation should still consider this to ensure tenants are protected in the event of disaster, particularly if there is a chance they may be sheltering in place during an emergency and non-evacuation event. The smaller scale of unsubsidized affordable SMMF buildings or the increased efficiency of the systems, helps reduce the cost of investing in this disaster resilience strategy – the backup generator can be smaller, there may be fewer systems to backup, etc.
    • Emergency lighting: There are a number of options to provide emergency illumination for residents planning to either evacuate or shelter in place – exit signs with emergency area illumination, natural daylighting for corridors and stairwells, battery or solar powered lighting, luminescent strips in dark spaces, etc.
  • Building the resilience of your tenants
    • Developing an Emergency Management Manual. Ensure it is translated as needed, if residents have limited English proficiency.
    • Building relationship with tenants to understand priority needs and best use of limited resources. Social cohesion and relationships support recovery after a disaster and mitigates some of the mental health impact after natural disasters.
    • Ensuring at least one land line telephone is available on site in the event that cellular service is disrupted during a disaster.
  • Building the resilience of your staff and organization

Self-Reflection Questions on This Topic

  • What are your goals for your preservation project, and how do they relate to the economic, environmental, health, equity, and reputational benefits of green building and resilience practices described above?
  • What are the biggest disasters or other risks your property is susceptible to, based on location, building type and current systems? How do you currently value or estimate those risks?
  • In what ways do you think green building and resilience practices could help you achieve the goals and mitigate the risks you listed in the last two questions? Would seeking a green building certification for your property provide value?
  • What do you think are the most straightforward opportunities for your property regarding green building and resilience? What will be the most difficult or costly opportunities?
  • What specific green building or resilience measures are you already going to have to undertake by virtue of your location, property age, and rehabilitation intensity? What measures will you need to make decisions about?
  • What concerns do you have regarding adopting these practices? How might you investigate and address these concerns?
  • What will your first steps be to take regarding integrating a green building, resilience and health lens into your SMMF preservation?
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