New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Shades of Green

It can be something as simple as changing from incandescent to fluorescent lightbulbs. It can be something slightly more complex, like replacing worn out air conditioners and washing machines with energy-efficient appliances. Or it can be something as exotic as turning a rooftop into a thriving – and environmentally friendly – garden. But simple or complex, cheap or costly, more and more New York co-op and condo boards are taking actions designed to make their buildings, their city, and their planet shade toward the desirable new color.

Green.

In most cases, the building has only made a start – taking a first step on the path to the green transformation. “If you do a lot of these little things the impact can be pretty big,” says Larsen Plano, a project manager with the non-profit Community Environmental Center (CEC). “I think calling them ‘low-hanging fruit’ is more accurate than ‘baby steps’ because they’re not going to get you to the ultimate goal – zero energy use – but they do help.

“Taking it up to the next notch, there are more expensive retrofits a board can do. These things require a concerted effort and commitment by the board, such as window replacement, heating system controls, roof insulation, green roofs. And at the high end, there are microturbines and photovoltaic solar panels (to generate electricity), and solar thermal systems (to heat water). The city has recently established new rules to make it easier to install microturbines. They’ve clarified the requirements for approval by the fire department. These are definitely longer-payback measures, even with existing incentives.”

The CEC generally suggests that green retrofits should pay for themselves in 10 years at the most. In a curious twist, Plano says, rising energy costs are likely to reduce the time it takes for green initiatives to pay for themselves. “The general consensus is that payback times are going to get shorter, not longer, as energy prices go up,” he says. “If you do a retrofit now and calculate a payback of 10 years, by next year it could turn out to be much more favorable.”

But, in Plano’s view, there’s a critical first step a board should take before launching any major initiative. “I think it’s important to impress on boards the need to do an energy audit,” he says. “Every building is unique in terms of measures that will give you the best bang for your buck.An audit is the only way to know what’s right for your building.”

With that in mind, here are three stories of boards who are trying to do what’s right – in lighter shades of green – for their buildings.

 

A Garden Grows in Brooklyn

The dawn of the green era came to the Art Deco co-op at 140 Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in the late 1990s. That was when the board renegotiated its mortgage and used the money to install energy-efficient, double-glazed windows on all 92 units.

“That was the first step toward realizing we could do something to save energy,” says Olivier Griperay, the Paris-born treasurer of the co-op’s board. But it was only the beginning.

“Our building has just kept up with the flow,” says board president Reba Snyder, a conservator at the Morgan Library. “For instance, when we did some minor work on the roof, we decided to cover it with reflective silver paint.” The co-op also took advantage of a free city program to install more than 100 “low-flow” toilets at no cost to the co-op, and it encouraged shareholders to install flow regulators on shower heads, all of which combined for a sharp reduction in the water bill.

While Snyder can’t provide hard numbers on the money saved by reduced water use, she notes that the co-op’s water budget has remained stable while water costs and sewage taxes have been rising sharply.

Griperay likens such steps to the plucking of “low-hanging fruit” because they’re cheap and easy to implement. Others have included re-landscaping the building’s two courtyards, painting the hallways with nontoxic paints (low in so-called volatile organic compounds), replacing lightbulbs in common areas with energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) – and urging shareholders to follow suit in their apartments. “Those things made the building a little safer, a little greener, a little less toxic,” says Snyder.

In these and other areas, this board favors persuasion over force – for the time being. “This is a tool a board can have – to force shareholders to do things like buying energy-efficient appliances, installing timers on their air conditioners,” Snyder says. “We don’t demand it, but we do encourage it.”

So far, the strategy has worked. “People are willing to make these sorts of changes,” she says. “First, there’s a financial incentive. The second thing, more and more shareholders are talking about what we can do to be more friendly to the environment. So, about three years ago, we decided to create a ‘green committee,’ including a shareholder who’s certified in energy-efficient audits, another who wrote a thesis on sustainable energy for buildings. They send us e-mails and we meet and discuss them. They raise questions about saving water, reducing heating bills.”

But there are limits. Every building in the city is unique, and this co-op, built in the 1930s, is simply not capable of accommodating some of the newest technology without major, costly renovations.

“For the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about rooftop windmills and solar panels,” says Griperay. “But the reality for buildings like ours is that the investment for these things would be extravagant. And we need to be conscious of the cost.”

Adds Snyder: “We’re going to have to replace the roof in the next year and we looked into building a ‘green roof’ with a garden to reduce heating and cooling costs and a system to catch rainwater. But the engineer’s report said we would need major structural changes. Things like a ‘green roof’ might be fine for new construction, but we found we couldn’t do it in a financially responsible way with this 75-year-old building. That was a disappointment.”

But that doesn’t mean that such modifications are impossible in all older buildings. “There are no generalities,” says Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Earth Pledge, a nonprofit organization that promotes green roofs and other initiatives nationwide. A “green roof,” she points out, is not a few potted plants on a roof; it’s an “engineered, lightweight roofing system that supports living plants,” at a cost of anywhere from $12 to $60 per square foot. Such gardens reduce energy costs while combating the so-called urban heat-island effect. “The savings vary from building to building,” Hoffman says, “but a green garden can take 25 percent off a building’s air conditioning load.”

And they can be suitable for older buildings. “Our offices are in a 1902 brownstone and we have the first green roof in New York, built in the late 1990s,” Hoffman notes, adding that there are now about 150 green roofs in the city. “We had to make some modifications, but they were affordable. It’s always worth looking into.”

Green roofs are generally considered on the high end of eco-friendly changes co-op and condo boards can make to their buildings. There are other high-dollar options – and a dizzying array of less costly ones. “A lot of the calls I get are from board people who want to push the envelope – putting solar panels or wind turbines on the roof,” says Kathy Careddu, director of green building services for the CEC. “Whether it’s economically viable is another question.”

Going green doesn’t have to cost a lot of green, she points out. Buildings can save up to 75 percent on electricity bills simply by switching to CFLs. Stepping up a notch, boards can insist that residents buy energy-efficient appliances, and they can install energy-efficient washing machines and dryers when redoing laundry rooms. In hallways, “bi-level” lighting, which dims when not in use, can offer additional savings. “And if lobbies and hallways are being redone,” Careddu adds, “they should be done with nontoxic or recyclable paints, wallpaper, and flooring materials.”

At the Park Slope co-op, both Griperay and Snyder agree that the little things can add up. They also agree that shareholders in their co-op – and in others across the city – are suddenly eager to make a difference.

“People want to do more,” Snyder says. “They get frustrated when they don’t see change. Everyone in New York knows they’re paying more for energy, so we try to inform shareholders about how things are going up. By taking the first steps – like with the windows – I think it encouraged people to think about it. Now they want us to do things if we possibly can.”

“There’s a lot of buzz around green right now,” says Griperay. “But green is not just about energy conservation. It’s about improving the quality of life. People see the big things, but the reality is that there are little, little things you can do that make a big, big difference.”

Careddu of the CEC agrees. “There’s certainly more interest than there used to be,” she says. “It’s partly the cost of energy and it’s partly wondering what we have to do to reduce global warming. But a lot of management companies are interested in greening their properties. They see it as a way of getting better rents and resale prices, and some management firms want to do the right thing.”

 

Green, as in Greenwich

Robert and Maura Geils, real estate brokers with a five-year-old daughter, live in a co-op at 350 Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. Since Robert is the board’s treasurer, the Geilses decided that the best way to green their building would be to lead by example.

The 1960s-era building is looking at a major expense in the next few years: replacing the windows in all 120 units at a total cost of roughly half-a-million dollars. To prove that environmentally friendly solutions to such problems can also make good economic sense, the Geilses spent $10,000 of their own money to replace the leaky windows in their apartment with state-of-the-art double-pane, vacuum-sealed energy-efficient windows.

“We’re using our apartment as an example of how the windows cut down on heating and cooling costs, reduce noise, and increase the value of our unit,” says Robert. “When I close the window, I can’t even hear a bus go by. It’s more than paid for itself. I know it’s increased the value of our apartment by more than $10,000.”

The Geilses’ new windows fall somewhere in the middle of this co-op’s range of initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint. There have been simple informational campaigns on the low end of the spectrum and proposals for major physical improvements on the high end.

On the low end, the board replaced recycling bins and their decals, spread information about recycling worn-out electronic devices at the Union Square Green Market, and changed from incandescent bulbs to CFLs in common areas. To complement the new bicycle lane on Bleecker Street, the board doubled the number of bike racks in the building.

“A lot of this is common sense,” says Geils. “We’ve also told people in the building about an option with Con Ed to get their power from hydroelectric and wind sources rather than a coal-fired plant. It costs a little more, but it’s effective because you don’t have to pay taxes. And you’re doing the right thing.”

On the high-dollar end of the spectrum, the co-op installed a garden on the roof and is working to develop a system to capture rainwater runoff to water the garden. And it hired an engineer to put together a proposal for solar electricity-generating and water-heating systems on the roof.

“That’s going to be a hard sell,” Geils says, noting that the electric generator would cost about $100,000 and the solar panels about $300,000 – investments that would take about 10 years to recoup. “The shareholders are reluctant to spend on these big projects, and that 10-year payback would make it unattractive.”

Regardless of the fate of those two high-dollar proposals, Geils believes the awareness of environmental issues in this city has turned a significant corner. “It’s grown exponentially,” says the New York native who has been on the board since he moved into the building in 2002. “West Village people have always been green-oriented, but nothing to the extent we’re seeing now. People stop me in the hallway and ask me what we’re doing to reduce the building’s carbon footprint. I think it’s moved beyond awareness into the ‘I-want-to-do-something’ phase. People are looking for ways to make a difference.” For Geils, thinking in such a global way also has a deeply personal aspect. “Having a child made me much more conscientious,” he says. “Now I look at this as a mission. I’m doing this for my daughter.”

 

Payback

Since most co-op and condo boards don’t have bottomless pockets, the rate at which green initiatives pay for themselves is almost always an issue. The return on some investments, such as a green roof, is devilishly difficult to calculate; the return on others is not. “The easiest thing individuals can do to save money is buy CFLs, which saves 75 percent on electricity,” says Alan Schogel, head of 15-year-old Synergy Lighting Renovation. “In hallways, we change to CFLs and we change the ballast, the part that supplies the correct amount of electricity. It’s possible to reduce the electric bill by half in buildings built 20 or more years ago. Co-op boards are generally delighted by the payback, which comes in one to three years.”

That kind of return catches the eye of board members like Howie Biren, president of an 88-unit co-op at 275 Webster Avenue, on the border between the Midwood and Kensington sections of Brooklyn. Biren, who teaches school in Brighton Beach, has been the co-op’s president since 1989 and is sensitive to the financial constraints of his fellow shareholders, a middle-class mix of teachers, office workers, artists, and retirees. And so the greening of 275 Webster Avenue has tended to be done on the cheap. CFLs were replaced in common areas at no cost by Con Ed; when city water metering arrived in the 1990s, the co-op installed low-flow toilets under a city program and persuaded most shareholders to voluntarily install flow regulators on showerheads; the heat-reflecting coating on the roof is replaced every two years; and the boiler is cleaned yearly.

“We have a dual-fuel boiler that can use natural gas or heating oil,” Biren says. “We use natural gas almost all the time because it’s less polluting – as long as the price is close to the price of heating oil.”

Reactions to these changes have varied. “Some people have a renter’s mentality and regard the changes as an inconvenience,” Biren says, “while some of the younger people are happy we’re helping out the environment.”

In Biren’s view, this is one of those rare areas where it’s possible for co-op boards to eat their cake and have it too. “People came up to me when we changed the lights and told me the new lights look nice,” he says. “I told them we’re saving money too. I’m always looking for ways to save money and make the earth a better place. The way I see it, every little bit helps.”

 

 

 

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