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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



The Old Becomes New: Green Retrofits

Richard M. Cherry is founder and president of the Community Environmental Center.


For the owners and management of older co-ops and condos, “going green” may be quite appealing. But is it practical in dollars-and-cents terms? Is the investment worth it for a building that wants to maintain a decent return on investment for shareholders, keep operating costs at a reasonable level, and forestall another hike in monthly maintenance fees?

In short, how expensive is it to retrofit an existing building to make it more energy efficient and kinder to the environment? After all, the spotlight has been on new construction in which green technologies were factored in with the architect’s blueprints. The answer may be surprising for many, but green-related retrofits can be accomplished cost-effectively and without tearing a building apart.

Every building’s needs are different. But upfront, you can figure that a 10 percent reduction in energy consumption is easily accomplished, a 20 percent reduction is quite feasible, and a 30 percent reduction is possible, depending on how much you are willing to invest in energy-efficiency technology. With fuel costs increasing, these kinds of savings become ever more attractive.

Steps a building can take range from something as relatively simple and inexpensive as sealing leaks in piping to substantial investments, such as condensing boilers or a high-tech energy management system. Commonly, the more pricey the investment, the longer you have to wait for a payback. But you will come out ahead. Guaranteed.

Over the past 13 years, the Community Environmental Center (CEC) has retrofitted hundreds of old apartment buildings, many into energy-efficient co-ops and condos. For example, Parkchester North, a 55-building condo complex in the Bronx, installed insulated windows. Over the next 20 years, this one retrofit is projected to save the complex more than $500,000 in energy use, net of capital cost.

Aside from comparing the costs versus long-term savings of various energy-efficiency measures, the asset value of a property is strengthened when environmentally friendly technologies that reduce operating costs are implemented. The strengthened asset value also makes it easier to seek financing for any reason. Energy retrofits are the only building improvements that pay for themselves in savings while also achieving increased building equity.

There are the more intangible effects that add value. Just as new buildings are quick to trumpet their commitment to sustainable design in ads and promotional materials, so too can older buildings evoke social consciousness and environmental responsibility with significant energy-conserving retrofits to attract co-op or condo buyers. Green is fashionable, and prospects want to be responsible citizens, especially if they can also save on their utility bills. And a green building is healthier and more comfortable because interior air quality is improved.

For a building contemplating these kinds of improvements, the key is to compare the upfront cost of a green-related retrofit with its projected payback in terms of energy savings. The best way to ascertain what is most cost-effective is to start with an energy audit by a certified contractor or consultant. The audit will give the building a handle on what needs to be done, what can be done, and what the estimated price tag will be. Audits can be carried out separately or in combination with a full capital-needs assessment and capital plan.

Here are examples of some of the more easily accomplished retrofits:

Upgrade your lighting. Substitute compact fluorescent lighting fixtures and bulbs for fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs last ten times longer than conventional ones and slash energy consumption by 66 percent. Install a bi-level lighting system in public areas, such as staircases, hallways, and the laundry room. These setups change from dim to bright only when sensors detect human traffic (instead of letting lights burn bright around the clock). The result? A 50 percent decrease in electricity use.

Prevent heat leaks. Check pipes and ducts for leaks and seal them accordingly. Inspect the whole building envelope for cracks and other openings from which heat can escape.

Conserve water. Install low-flush toilets and low-flow faucets and showerheads.

Save in the kitchen. Substitute EnergyStar appliances for older refrigerators (particularly profligate wasters of electricity) and ranges.

There are many other available retrofits, including the installation of photovoltaic cell arrays on the roof to harness solar energy or the planting of a green roof in which vegetation provides an extra layer of insulation that deters heat loss while reducing summer cooling needs by as much as 25 percent.

Two recommended but substantial investments involve the heating system. Both yield immediate savings in fuel consumption, critically important in this era of high costs, although paybacks for the investments can range from about three to six years. High-tech condensing boilers are much more energy efficient than conventional ones because they condense and recycle exhaust gases to preheat water entering the boiler, thus recapturing energy that otherwise would escape up the chimney. By doing so, the efficiency of fuel conversion to energy is increased to over 90 percent, compared to the 80 percent or less range of efficiency attained by conventional boilers. This not only saves money but also significantly reduces emissions into the environment.

However, condensing boilers are up to 50 percent more expensive to purchase and install than the conventional variety and require more maintenance. The savings will pay for this added expense, but only over a period of a few years. Condensing boilers cannot be used in steam-heating systems, and the best route to higher efficiency in this case is with a computerized energy management system (EMS) that will go the extra step to ensure heat is correctly distributed in a co-op or condo. Electronic sensors throughout the building continually monitor room temperatures to ensure optimum heating, especially in spring and fall when standard systems commonly overheat a building. More advanced EMS installations also provide “zone controls” for more balanced heat when needed. Fuel costs are reduced because the monitors feed much more accurate information to the boiler on heat output requirements. Long-term maintenance problems are also minimized because the EMS alerts management to problems as or before they arise. On an EMS retrofit to a 73-unit apartment building, the EMS is saving fifteen percent of the fuel used for heat and 9 percent of the total fuel consumption for both heat and hot water annually.

There are many shades of “green” available to the enterprising building operator, enabling the adaptation of relatively simple strategies now and to phase in further improvements later on. Retrofits quickly show up in bottom-line savings while continuing to add to the value of apartments. Owners and shareholders achieve a triple bang for their buck. Operating costs are pared, the building’s value increases, and a significant contribution is made to decreasing harmful air emissions and mitigating climate change.

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