At Issue VA - The Inherent Efficiency of Multifamily Housing

At Issue,

The Inherent Efficiency of Multifamily Housing

The past few years in Virginia have seen the adoption of numerous state and local laws and regulations aimed at reducing the Commonwealth’s carbon footprint and increasing energy efficiency.   In pursuing cleaner, greener and more efficient use of energy, many of these policies and initiatives have focused specifically on the building sector. Buildings are where we humans live, work, and spend the majority of our time. And with the rise of hybrid and telework arrangements post-pandemic, we have seen a corresponding bump in residential energy consumption (roughly 7-8%) as a result. 
But often, these policies get it backwards when it comes to enforcing more rigorous standards on higher density residential buildings. These buildings not only serve a critical role in housing our workforce, but they do so in the most efficient manner of any type of housing. Policy approaches which employ escalated standards based on building size fail to recognize the inherent efficiency of multifamily housing and even penalize those households that use the least energy and produce the smallest carbon footprint. This is not to mention the corollary effect that such mandates have on housing affordability and other policy priorities.

Multifamily Housing is Inherently More Efficient Than Other Types of


Higher density multifamily residential development is far more energy efficient per square foot and per household than other types of housing.  The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Building Stock Analysis provides a helpful visualization of energy use among building types.

As depicted above, average thermal end-use intensity shows a stark drop-off as density increases.  For example, a newly constructed apartment unit in a high-rise building (defined here as greater than 4 floors) is approximately 10% more efficient than a new-build single-family home. That same multifamily unit is roughly 46% more efficient than a brand new mobile home. This is consistent with the findings of international studies, which all reach the same conclusion: energy use intensity of both gas and electricity declines as density increases, up to a factor of six.  

Facets inherent to their design help apartments realize this efficiency. This includes:  

  • HVAC equipment sized appropriately to meet building demand versus other types of housing which employ individual HVAC units 
  • Smaller household footprints, which consume less electricity 
  • Party walls, which reduce heat loss and gain

In addition, apartment residents generally use less water per unit than single-family homes and the compact form of multifamily housing yields less energy loss in electric and natural gas transmission.  

Multifamily Development is Gentler on the Environment than Other

Types of Housing

Multifamily development also tends to be more compact than single-family housing, thereby creating less land disturbance and fewer impervious surfaces. Compact multifamily development can achieve up to a 30% reduction in runoff of pollutants and sediment compared with conventional suburban development. And, by housing more people on less land, multifamily housing further allows for greater preservation of green spaces.

Multifamily Housing Produces a Smaller Overall Carbon Footprint

Multifamily buildings, through their more efficient use of energy, produce a smaller carbon footprint by generating fewer harmful emissions into the atmosphere.  But the benefits of high-density housing don’t stop there. Residents of multifamily housing also make extremely efficient use of transportation infrastructure, which represents another major source of greenhouse gas emissions.  
Again, some of this is attributable to design elements:

  • Multifamily housing developments are often clustered along transportation corridors making various kinds of mass transportation feasible.  As a result, multifamily residents tend to drive fewer miles per unit and also tend to use public transportation more than residents of single-family housing.
  • The availability of recreational facilities – including fitness centers, pools, and picnic areas – within multifamily communities reduces the need for automobile trips as most residents can walk to these amenities. 

This all leads to reduced auto dependency. Apartment residents average one motor vehicle per household, while owner-occupied houses average two vehicles.  Even more impressively, apartment households generate 30-40% fewer vehicle trips than single-family homes. Single-family housing generates an average of ten automobile trips per weekday, while apartments generate only seven. High-rise apartments generate even fewer trips, averaging only four trips per day. 

The Multifamily Housing Industry Continues to Lead the Way in

Improving Energy Efficiency

In spite of being where most humans spend the bulk of their time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) cites the building sector as only the fourth highest source of greenhouse gas emissions at 13%, significantly trailing behind transportation, electric generation, and industry sources, and barely ahead of agricultural sources. This can be credited in part to the incredible efforts the industry has taken in recent years to improve energy efficiency.

The real estate industry has made significant strides to increase energy efficiency and keep greenhouse gas emissions down despite the intensity of use. This is evidenced by the Commonwealth’s heavy concentration of green buildings.

The Commonwealth is perennially ranked in the top 10 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for new green building certifications, and 2021 saw Virginia ranked #5 in the nation, adding 94 new projects at 18.54 million square feet of space. In total, Virginia boasted 1,774 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings, representing 249,054,363 gross square feet of green building space as of 2019.  The bulk of those are commercial office properties, but 84 multifamily residential buildings have been LEED-certified in Virginia.

At Issue is compiled by the Apartment and Office Building Association (AOBA) of Metropolitan Washington, and is intended to help inform our elected decision-makers regarding the issues and policies impacting the commercial and multifamily real estate industry.  
AOBA is a non-profit trade organization representing the owners and managers of approximately 172 million square feet of office space and over 400,000 apartment units in the Washington metropolitan area.  Of that portfolio, approximately 69 million square feet of commercial office space and 169,000 multifamily residential units are located in Northern Virginia.  Also represented by AOBA are over 200 companies that provide products and services to the real estate industry. AOBA is the local federated chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International and the National Apartment Association.  

Along with input provided by AOBA member companies, the following data sources and references were used in compiling the attached report:   AOBA strives to be an informational resource to our public sector partners. We welcome your inquiries and feedback. For more information, please contact our Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, Brian Gordon.