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House Calls

Doctors don’t seem to make house calls any more. But environmentalists do. Recognizing that it can be a daunting challenge to get your building to go green, GreenHome NYC, a non-profit, volunteer-staffed organization, is trying to make it a little easier for co-ops and condos to make more environmentally friendly choices. The group has started a new program dubbed “House Calls,” in which volunteers will come to your co-op or condo and give basic information on green building options.

“I was very impressed with the presentation they made to us,” says John McClement, a board member at the 92-unit co-op at 415 East 85th Street, who was given the task by the board to look into green options.

Initially, board members were curious about one of the sexier environmental options – solar panels – but after GreenHome’s presentation, they realized the project would probably not be right for their location. McClement did learn more about some more mundane but equally environmental options – green cleaning products and motion sensors for hallway lights.

Bomee Jung, who founded GreenHome in 2002, says the group’s mission is to help consumers sift through all the available information on green building. Jung says she and other volunteers are not experts or consultants but peers who have done the research to help others. “I’m learning and I’m sharing what I’m learning,” she says.

Eric Nevala-Lee, program coordinator for GreenHome and a House Calls volunteer, agrees: “This is like the first step in a ten-step process,” he says. “It’s to make people more comfortable with the idea, give them some thoughts on what they should be thinking about and then try to push them there.

Often it’s one or two board members who are interested in environmental issues and need to get the rest of the group on board. During the presentation, volunteers talk in general about the value of energy efficiency.

“We make the argument that out of all your costs, energy bills are the thing you have the most amount of control over,” he says. He points out one example: a 225-unit co-op in Brooklyn at which 22 percent of the annual operating expenses came from utilities. “Every building is interested in trying to save money and energy savings are absolutely linked to that.”

Volunteers give basic information about the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority program for multi-unit buildings (see “NYSERDA Primes the Pump,” Habitat, June 2007) as well as a basic rundown on federal, state, and local incentives for green projects. Boards can learn about scores of other groups that offer information about green issues, from Con Edison to other local non-profits, like Sustainable South Bronx. During presentations, GreenHome also gives information about vendors who do green projects.

“It’s not about who is good or bad, it’s about who will do the kind of work that fits your building size or your budget,” he says.

During the house calls, Nevala-Lee says volunteers also try to reinforce the idea of looking at green options for any and every stage of building maintenance, from new materials to recycling construction debris.

“Even if you’re not doing this stuff next month, it’s good to have a plan in place so when you are spending money you’re doing it in the most efficient way possible,” he says, adding that the meatiest part of the presentation is often the Q&A session, where board members can ask about topics that are of particular interest, say on green flooring or roofs, or balancing heating or master metering. “If people have a specific interest, we’ll try to put them in touch with people who can answer that,” he says.

The group made its first house call in October and has done a half-dozen more since then. Nevala-Lee says after each presentation, volunteers work on refining the information, based on responses they get during the sessions.

“We also want to follow up with people to see if they did any work on a green project to see if there was progress made,” he says. Additionally, the group hopes to be able to connect co-ops and condos with each other so they can learn from each other’s experiences.

“A lot of what the presentation provides is support to confirm that this is possible, that it’s the right thing to do,” he says.

Dolly Soto is not on the board of her 140-unit co-op, Windsor Terrace, in Brooklyn, but she is part of a group of concerned shareholders who want to do more for the environment. So she set up an appointment with GreenHome and hopes to take the information to her board. She learned that the building’s energy supplier, National Grid, provides a free energy audit. “We know that certain things are going to have to be upgraded and we want to see if green is the way for us,” she says, adding that the building will soon need a new roof. “In our case I think we were kind of obsessing about NYSERDA but that may not be the way for us,” she says.

Ken Cooper, president of the board of the 56-unit co-op at 14 East 90th Street, says he heard about GreenHome after contacting the mayor’s office about PlaNYC – the city’s strategy for a sustainable future. (see “A Vision of New York City,” Habitat, May 2007.)

“We were trying to figure out what type of additional things we can to do be supportive of the mayor’s program,” he says. During the presentation, Cooper learned about systems that can be put in place on the building’s boilers that would allow it to shift between natural gas and fuel oil. “It might not have as much to do with energy efficiency but it does protect your building should fuel oil prices get unreasonable.”

After the visit from GreenHome, Cooper’s board decided to go to NYSERDA to find a consultant to do an energy audit in order to possibly participate in the agency’s multi-family performance program. “What GreenHome does is they come in and say, ‘Here are all the things you can do and here is how you can find out more information,’” Cooper says.

In addition to the house calls, GreenHome also provides monthly presentations about environmental issues. The website offers an “ask an expert” feature where people can get answers to specific questions. The group also holds a housing tour twice a year showcasing examples of green buildings.

Jung says they have about 30 volunteers and that she spends about ten hours a week volunteering for GreenHome. By day she works for another non-profit called Enterprise, which works to make affordable housing more green. Nevala-Lee’s day job has him freelancing as an illustrator for set design.

Jung says the response to the House Call program has been excellent so far: “It has helped people get more excited about what they’re doing.”

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