Home Innovation Insights

The 2020 NGBS provides more options and benefits than ever to make existing buildings more efficient.

Michelle Foster
January 26, 2021

Everything Old Can Be Green Again: 2020 NGBS Enhancements for Existing Buildings

The ICC-700 National Green Building Standard (NGBS) has helped transform the way new homes and multifamily buildings are designed and constructed, resulting in thousands of new buildings that are better for the environment, can help slow climate change, and are better for the occupants. Compared to code-minimum buildings, NGBS Green Certified new buildings use less energy, waste less water, help manage stormwater better, and have improved indoor air quality, among other benefits. But, while the benefits of new NGBS Green buildings are significant, they pale in comparison to the benefits when architects, builders, and developers use the NGBS to guide their building renovation and conversion projects. Because the number of new buildings constructed each year is a very small percentage of existing buildings, the NGBS’s potential for mitigating the impacts of older, inefficient buildings and improving the living conditions for the occupants of these buildings is critical. In fact, old buildings are among the biggest sustainability challenges in the United States. Most of our current building stock will still be in place 10 years from now — the current timeframe identified to make significant progress toward climate commitments – and in the multifamily market, well over 75% of existing buildings will still be in use in 15 years.

From the very beginning, the NGBS took a pragmatic approach to greening existing buildings. In a nutshell, the NGBS required existing buildings to attain specific reductions in energy and water consumption measured from the baseline energy and water use of the building pre-renovation. Depending on how green and efficient the renovation activities were, the building could earn one of four certification levels: Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Emerald. In addition, any building seeking NGBS Green certification had to successfully incorporate sufficient green practices that dealt with resource efficiency, lot design, indoor environmental quality, and operation and maintenance. 

For any building, the NGBS has mandatory practices that must be completed for a building to earn certification, however for existing buildings these practices are mandatory only when relevant. For example, the NGBS requires that tile backing materials installed in wet areas are appropriately water resistant, but if the renovation activities for an existing building do not include removing kitchen or bath tiled areas, and the Verifier does not find any evidence of water or moisture issues, the building would be exempt from that practice. It certainly would not be very green to rip out perfectly functioning tiled areas! In addition, attributes of the existing building that comply before remodel, and remain in compliance after the remodeling activities are complete, can earn points toward certification for those practices. So, if a building is located where multi-modal transportation access is available, the building can claim certification points for that practice – the building’s location certainly isn’t changing, and the benefits of being near transit access remain the same pre- and post-renovation.

Over the 12+ years Home Innovation has been running the NGBS Green certification program, the number of existing multifamily buildings seeking NGBS Green certification has increased considerably, and the percentage increase has never been greater than in the past two years. In fact, only recently did we have sufficient renovation projects to breakout the certification stats on our real-time certification counter

More existing building owners are embracing green buildings in an effort to boost energy efficiency and cost savings. On average, green buildings can see utility savings of 20 to 50% over traditional multifamily buildings. But cost-savings are only the tip of the iceberg. According to Multi-Housing News, builders have become more focused on sustainability as resident demand for sustainable features increases. In fact, an estimated 65% of renters are interested in a community with sustainable/green initiatives, and 78% are interested in a community with ENERGY STAR-certified appliances (2017 NMHC/Kingsley Associates Renter Preferences Report). The National Multifamily Housing Council also noted that renters are weighing more environmental factors, such as indoor air quality, as well as whether buildings have sustainable features and/or green certifications.

While previous NGBS versions always provided a rigorous and practical approach for green certification of existing buildings, the 2020 NGBS Consensus Committee thought the NGBS could be improved by providing some additional flexibility, especially for multifamily buildings, so they added two significant features. First, the 2020 NGBS explicitly allows a three-year look back for remodeling activities that can be counted toward certification if there is sufficient documentation to verify the energy and water improvements. This provision is particularly useful for occupied multifamily buildings when the owner intends to do rolling property improvements as units become vacant. Previously, the NGBS did not have any provision for rolling improvements and, as a result, only vacant buildings could use the NGBS for their green certification needs.

Second, in addition to the Performance Path for Energy and Water Improvements, the Consensus Committee added a Prescriptive Path for Energy and Water. This flexibility was added in recognition of the vast diversity of existing multifamily buildings that could benefit from increased sustainability and efficiency. For some buildings, particularly those built within the last 10 years, the flexibility and ease of using a prescriptive checklist is preferable to the performance and modeling approach. Existing buildings seeking NGBS Green certification can mix and match the energy and water compliance paths depending on which work best: Energy Performance + Water Prescriptive; Energy Prescriptive + Water Performance; Energy Performance + Water Performance; or Energy Prescriptive + Water Prescriptive. Regardless of which compliance path is selected, one thing is clear, when the dust settles, the renovations are complete, and the NGBS Green certificate is issued, the newly renovated building will be more efficient, more sustainable, and a better place to call home.

For more information on how the 2020 NGBS and existing buildings are better together, check out the Remodeling and/or Multifamily sections of our website.

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