August 20, 2014

Reducing Water & Energy Use in Affordable Housing

National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Corporation Shares Smart Practices for Investing in Sustainability

Jared Lang Headshot

Jared Lang is the sustainable development manager at National Housing Trust. His focus is on incorporating sustainability and energy efficiency into the NHT/Enterprise portfolio, financing sustainable investments and assisting in the development of policy to enhance affordable multifamily housing.

When Jared Lang was brought on board to help integrate sustainability into National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Corporation’s (NHT/Enterprise) housing portfolio, he faced a quandary familiar to many affordable housing property managers. Namely, how do you reduce water and energy use on a moderate budget?

The kind of green building projects that tend to capture the public’s attention and imagination often depend on cutting-edge but pricey technologies, like building integrated wind turbines. The appeal certainly makes sense. After all, seeing a wind turbine lazily turning atop a 40-story skyscraper telegraphs sustainability in a way that, say, swapping out light bulbs - even if equally as efficient - does not.

But while these types of projects help to push the envelope on building practices, and move sustainability from best to common practice, their methods and budgets were ill-suited to the needs of NHT/Enterprise housing. NHT/Enterprise is a nonprofit organization that buys, refinances and renovates affordable housing to preserve the homes in gentrifying neighborhoods close to transit. Like many nonprofits, it has moderate funds with which to make efficiency upgrades. 

And yet, through Jared’s work, NHT/Enterprise was able to slash the water usage on R Street Apartments, an affordable housing property located in Washington, DC by 40 percent using the equivalent of $10,000 dollars worth of investment.

We say “equivalent costs” because NHT/Enterprise was able to take advantage of a utility rebate that covered almost all of the upfront costs. The annual savings, roughly $27,000, covered the value of the upgrades in a mere six months.

NHT/Enterprise‘s success lies in their relentless attention to small yet critical details.

For example, everyone knows that low-flow showerheads use less water. While a conventional showerhead uses between three and four gallons of water per minute, a low-flow showerhead uses roughly two gallons of water per minute. But NHT/Enterprise’s research went further, asking, “How important is the quality of that showerhead to residents?”

“You can get a cheap low-flow showerhead for as little as $5 [wholesale],” says Jared, “but it’s not going to be a good product. We chose a product that costs $25 [wholesale] that’s equipped with the right aerators.” Aerators add air to the water stream, conserving water while mimicking the feel of a higher water flow.The result, says Jared, “is a product that doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re compromising.” To Jared’s knowledge, the change to water-conserving showerheads has been seamless - NHT/Enterprise has fielded no complaints from residents.


While resident behavior around sustainability is what Jared calls “the hardest nut to crack,” (which is why Enterprise Green Communities created resident engagement tools), it’s by connecting to residents’ behavior that NHT/Enterprise realized its biggest savings not only in water, but also in energy.

When residents went to shower, it would take a while for the water to warm up. They would turn the showers on, wander away to tend to a task while the water warmed. This was an efficient use of their time - but an inefficient use of energy intensive hot water. Knowing the situation, NHT/Enterprise invested not just in a low-flow showerhead, but specifically in an Evolve ShowerStart showerhead. Evolve showerheads are unique because they run out the cold water. Once the showerhead reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it slows the flow to a trickle as an auditory signal to residents that the shower is ready for their use. Then, they pull a cord on the showerhead to restart the warm shower.

At R Street Apartments, integrating this unique showerhead saved at least 180,000 gallons of water per year.

By sharing NHT/Enterprise’s experience, Jared hopes to inform other property owners that investing in sustainability doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. It does have to be smart, and you have to make sure that residents and property managers are engaged in the process, but it’s possible.

Interested in learning more about how to structure your retrofits? See Enterprise’s multifamily retrofit toolkit.


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