In hot water

  • By John O'Reilly
  • Published March 2016

Rooftop installations at the 182-unit Avalon Hayes Valley apartments in San Francisco couples 64 solar-thermal collectors with 18 tankless commercial units to meet all domestic hot water needs, while also helping exceed the California Title 24 energy code by nearly 30 percent.

In hot water

When, in September 2015, the 182-unit Avalon Hayes Valley apartment complex in San Francisco was awarded LEED Platinum Certification in the Multifamily Midrise category, it was only the most recent expression of the ongoing commitment of AvalonBay Communities to environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility in its properties. The latter now number 282 developments, containing nearly 83,000 apartment homes in 11 states and the District of Columbia, with another 27 communities under development.

That same month, AvalonBay was named a leader in residential real estate by the annual Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) survey, which awarded the company a Green Star for its top ratings in the various environmental categories. In December, AvalonBay was named the 2015 Residential Leader in the Light by the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts 2014. In all, the company currently owns 16 LEED and 10 Energy Star certified communities. An additional 23 communities are pursuing certification.

All of this reflects the ambitious corporate responsibility goals AvalonBay set for itself last year for achievement by 2020. These include a 15 percent reduction in energy-use intensity and water-use intensity, measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh) per foot and gallons per apartment dwelling, respectively.

Responding to the California drought, AvalonBay has cut water consumption in its properties there by 12 percent over the past year, while LED lighting retrofits in 26 communities nationwide have netted annual energy savings of four million kWh, the equivalent of subtracting 577 passenger vehicles from the highway.

Among the keys to AvalonBay's success as a developer of sustainable properties is its willingness to take the long view on its investments, looking to maximize their impact on the local environment and community, as well as the health and safety of the residents. AvalonBay not only develops apartment parcels, serving as its own general contractor on all new-building projects; but also continues to operate and maintain these communities after its construction crews have all gone home.

"This is a highly intentional culture," explains Mark Delisi, senior director of corporate responsibility. "We act like owners, and as such, we must consider the life-cycle impact of our decisions. When deciding whether to do something, we will evaluate the opportunity based on its contribution to the future health of a property: Is it the right thing, long-term? As property owners and managers, that's a priority for us."

Achieving Platinum
Earning LEED Platinum for both the East and West buildings at Avalon Hayes Valley-AvalonBay's first Platinum certification-was no small achievement. The project, a podium-style structure with five levels of residential living in each tower situated over a single-level parking garage, accumulated a total of 81.5 points, a half-point above the Platinum threshold.

"Building in San Francisco is kind of experimental, so you must always be on your game," says Senior Project Manager Bryan Moore, LEED AP, who served on the Avalon Hayes Valley asset team with Senior Development Director Joe Kirchofer and Property Manager Alyssa Perry. "Of course, that challenge also puts AvalonBay on the cutting edge when it comes to green building. We learn it here first and then communicate it to the rest of the country."

Bryce Colwell is a professional project-rater for DNV GL, an international energy consulting firm AvalonBay recruited to help it achieve certification. Colwell has spent the past decade evaluating projects on many different U.S. Green Building Council rating systems, and "only a small number of those projects have reached the top certification," he says. "This was my first apartment project to go Platinum-it happens, but not that often."

Hayes Valley scored high on a number of measures, such as "Location and Linkages" and "Sustainable Sites," scoring nine of 10 possible points for the first (with a community WalkScore of 98) and 16 of 22 for the second. These lofty numbers derive from its inner-city location in an "extremely dense" neighborhood in San Francisco, according to Colwell. "You can walk or bike to just about anything, while the property's proximity to local mass transit systems is outstanding. AvalonBay even created a bicycle sharing program for its residents and earned an innovation point for that idea."

Avalon Hayes Valley also scored well in "Water Efficiency" (9 of 15 possible points) and in the all-important category of "Energy and Atmosphere" (19.5 of 38). In fact, the project achieved an optimized energy performance in mid-rise buildings that exceeded the state of California's Title 24 energy code (version 2008) by 28.6 percent. According to Pyatok, one of the architects on the project, the apartment units "are anticipated to see 20 to 32 percent savings in electricity and gas use over a typical apartment."

AvalonBay recently announced a new "Building Certified" construction standard, requiring all of its new high-rise and mid-rise construction projects to achieve third-party certification of environmental and energy efficiency from external rating programs such as LEED or Energy Star. Adds Delisi: "For garden-type apartment projects, LEED or Energy Star may not be mandatory, but it must be considered."

But this new AvalonBay policy is, in large part, echoing current reality on the ground, according to Susie Maglich, director of design resources, whose job is to manage design and construction standards for all new construction and redevelopment projects for AvalonBay. "Many of our construction teams have already pursued or achieved building certifications on our projects, which shows just how deeply AvalonBay has instilled the sustainability message in our teams in recent years.

"A lot of the points needed for certification are already AvalonBay construction standards," Maglich continues. "Low-flow plumbing, low-VOC paints, LED lighting-our teams routinely use these materials, whatever the level of certification they pursue on a given project. Which is why those same teams are becoming so proficient with the LEED certification process."

Maglich oversees the maintenance of a massive AvalonBay construction standards manual that lists products, descriptions, assemblies, model numbers-"anything we want to standardize across the entire organization nationwide, to ensure our teams are capturing lessons learned and implementing best practices."

Getting comfortable with tankless
Given AvalonBay's emphasis on maximizing efficiency and sustainability, you might assume the company aggressively seeks out and embraces new building technologies. But while fully committed to innovation and the benefits it brings, the company treads carefully with new products on behalf of its properties and residents, according to Maglich.

"Working with our project teams, we will pilot most new products on one or more projects, studying it through construction and then on the operations side," she says. "Only after we get totally comfortable with a product or system will we begin to consider it as a standard."

A good example of this piloting process -and another major contributor to the impressive LEED scores at Avalon Hayes Valley-is the buildings' use of a solar-thermal-supported, tankless water heating system, manufactured by Noritz America, for all domestic hot water needs.

While not unheard of for large multifamily projects, solar thermal and tankless water heating technology are far from commonplace in this type of building. However, at AvalonBay, "individual tankless systems are now included in our standards," says Maglich, thanks to their successful installation in a number of projects in the Northeast, "where the units are used for both domestic hot water and space heating."

The installation at Avalon Hayes Valley is much larger and more complex than the individual Northeast systems involving the centralized, rooftop placement of multiple tankless units to provide domestic hot water to all apartments.

This is the second multi-unit, rooftop installation for AvalonBay. The first is a key feature at AVA 55 Ninth: a 17-story, 273-unit apartment building located in a similar San Francisco neighborhood a few blocks from the Hayes Valley buildings. Shortly after its completion in 2014, AVA 55 Ninth achieved LEED Gold.

Both projects are considered "pilots," notes Maglich. "Our hope is that centralized tankless systems will soon also become an AvalonBay standard because of the success we have achieved with these two San Francisco installations."

Like most proponents of tankless, AvalonBay appreciates the energy savings of on-demand water heating, as opposed to constantly reheating and storing hot water in large tanks in anticipation of its use. Maglich and her colleagues also like the dramatically smaller footprint that comes with eliminating the storage function. But while these attributes were apparent from the outset, AvalonBay still had questions about tankless-mainly having to do with the long-term, of course.

"Because we hold onto the properties we build for many years, the maintenance and the operations sides of all these products and standards are very important to us," says Maglich. "So we wondered how the move from conventional tank water heating to tankless would impact our Residential Services group.

"For instance, we've learned that we need to flush these tankless units every year, and that flushing routine is now part of our maintenance procedures. As a result, tankless has become one of our preferred methods when we are pursuing LEED or Energy Star or wherever the local energy