Affordable housing developers plan their new projects for the long haul and are cost-conscious about added sustainable features.

When it comes to what elements provide the biggest bang for the buck, five developers share what makes most economic sense to them, from building envelope and building orientation to water-saving elements and alternative energy innovations.

1. Building Envelope

“We’re big believers in focusing on the building envelope,” says Les Bluestone, principal of New York’s Blue Sea Development Co. “The technology is changing so quickly that all of our highly efficient systems could soon be surpassed by even more efficient equipment, but the envelope is forever.”

After the building envelope, Bluestone says the development team looks carefully at water usage. “We are finding that water and sewer charges are becoming a much larger part of the maintenance and operations [budgets], outpacing fuel and electric increases, and the use of ultra-low-flow fixtures and harvesting rainwater for irrigation have become standard in our developments,” he says.

 2. Building Orientation

Jeff Oberdorfer, executive director of San Jose, Calif.–based First Community Housing, says building orientation is the green “feature” that gets the biggest bang for the buck. “Solar orientation, noise reduction, and natural ventilation are all involved in the site design,” he says.

3. Passive Green Features

For Austin, Texas–based Foundation Communities, any passive green feature the nonprofit can afford is generally a solid economic bet. “Building orientation, thermal mass, and insulation never have a mechanical breakdown,” says Executive Director Walter Moreau. “So the green payoff accrues over the life of the building.”

4. Solar Thermal

Susan Friedland, executive director of Berkeley, Calif.–based Satellite Affordable Housing Associates, says solar thermal provides the most value for buildings with central heating systems. “It’s so cost effective, and there are still very generous rebate programs out there,” she says.

5. Water Efficiency

“Water efficiency clearly provides the quickest return on investment, and, given the drought conditions affecting Western states, water efficiency is critical to conserve water and control rising rates,” says Darien Crimmin, vice president of energy and sustainability for Boston-based WinnCos. Fixing leaks; replacing toilets, showerheads, and faucets; and controlling irrigation systems are key to conserving water