New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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House of the Rising Sun

The view from Sun Garden Homes’s rooftop includes unobstructed sights of Green-Wood Cemetery, the Statue of Liberty, and the Manhattan skyline. But it is the roof itself that is the most remarkable: it is covered in solar panels, the only ones visible as far as the eye can see.

 

Sun Garden Homes, a 70-unit co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, installed the 50-kilowatt photovoltaic system in November, the first step in a long-term plan to dramatically reduce the building’s energy usage. The building plans to overhaul its metering system, insulate and repaint its roof, improve boiler controls, and upgrade lighting, windows, and toilets. The co-op anticipates that the property’s energy usage will drop by 30 percent from the solar and metering project alone.

The board’s unlikely president, a 35-year-old songwriter raised in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, spearheaded the effort. And he has more ideas for how to turn this working-class community into a model for energy efficiency. “I’m in the rock and roll business,” says board president McGowan Southworth, standing in the co-op’s interior garden. “But this stuff is way cooler.”

When Southworth was nominated for the post as president last April, he warned shareholders that he would push for solar power if elected. Other residents were wary of his ideas; however, no one challenged him. Immediately after his election, he stepped up his efforts to convince fellow shareholders that solar power was a worthwhile investment. After all, energy conservation was a concept he knew well.

Southworth grew up on a 19th-century water-powered sawmill in New Hampshire that generated more energy than it used. His father and uncle worked in construction. And now his brother employs the European passivhaus (“passive heating”) method in building construction as well.

Southworth figured there must be a way these methods could translate to an urban setting – the residents could certainly use the savings. Sun Garden Homes is a working-class building with many residents on a tight budget. Since 2007, maintenance fees have doubled to $100 per room. Southworth attributed the increase to rising property taxes and large utility bills. In the next five years, the building will likely need a new boiler, an investment that could cost $150,000. But in order to reduce utility costs, the co-op would have to invest heavily upfront in a new technology, and many residents were skeptical.

“They just didn’t think it was feasible,” says Southworth. So the board president and other enthusiastic residents set in for the hard sell.

Let the Sun Shine In

Sun Garden Homes may not have as much cash on hand as other New York City co-ops, but it has one thing that is hard to come by: an unusually large footprint and ample sunlight.

Set on a quiet street opposite Sunset Park, the building dates back to the 1920s and sprawls nearly the length of the entire block. Set at one of the highest points in Brooklyn, the building’s sprawling, 12,500-square-foot roof is awash in sunlight.

“Not everything is a home run, but this one was,” says Bret Heilig, founder and chief executive officer of Five Boro Solar.

In order for the solar project to be cost-effective, the building would also need to convert its metering system from individual meters to a master meter with submeters so that the electricity generated by the solar system could be fed through a single meter. With a master meter, the building would also benefit from a lower commercial electricity rate from Con Edison and could reduce billing costs substantially by handling its own billing.

To explain how the project would work, board members printed up giant posters that explained how the building would finance the project and from where the savings would come. They held a meeting of all the shareholders in the community room, a subterranean hall that once housed another boiler. Ultimately, residents were won over.

“It was everybody’s dream, young and old,” says Southworth. “They all loved the idea of solar power and didn’t like the idea of having to buy energy from a dirty source.” Nearly six months later, the posters still hang from the walls of the community room.

Sun City

The solar and metering project cost $250,000. They financed it with a five percent loan from Amalgamated Bank and raised maintenance fees by $20 a month for the next five years while they pay it off. Heilig expects the payback period to be just two to three years, however.

Sun Garden Homes will ultimately pay far less than $250,000 because the project qualified for a $75,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). It will also receive a city property tax abatement of about 20 percent of the cost, a 30 percent federal tax credit, and a 25 percent state tax credit, all applied to the costs remaining after the NYSERDA grant. “They really end up paying for very little of the overall cost for the system,” says Heilig. In five years, Southworth anticipates the building will have $100,000 in its reserves to pay for the new boiler.

Sun Garden Homes had many attributes that made it a good candidate for Amalgamated Bank. Its maintenance fees were low compared to comparable buildings, and the community was not heavily leveraged. Energy improvements provide another benefit as well: they make a building more attractive to potential buyers.

“A building that consumes less energy is more valuable than a building that consumes a lot of energy,” says Gardner Semet, executive vice president and director of commercial real estate lending at Amalgamated Bank, who helped Sun Garden secure the loan.

Sun Garden Homes has other energy savings plans in the works. The building plans to insulate the roof and paint it white; insulate steam and hot water pipes; and replace light bulbs with LED lights, old toilets with low-flow models, and old radiator valves in individual apartments. Several units are particularly drafty and cold, causing the boiler to work harder. The result is a common one in New York City apartments: most apartments are sweltering in the winter while a lonely few are icy cold. The co-op plans to directly target the cold units by adding insulation and replacing windows with triple-pane models. Sun Garden Homes plans to implement many of its energy savings plans itself. Among the building’s residents are electricians, contractors, and carpenters. Twice a year, the building holds a work party. Shareholders spend the day toiling in the building – changing light bulbs, replacing toilets, and updating fixtures. On the agenda for the next work party is painting the roof white to make it more energy efficient.

Ultimately, Southworth would like to find a better solution for the building’s aging, energy-hogging boiler, which must be replaced in the next five years. Before that day comes, Southworth would like to see Sun Garden Homes improve its energy efficiency enough so that the building relies very little on steam heat and can buy a much smaller one instead, or maybe find a way not to even need a boiler at all.

Concludes Heilig: “He really wants this to become a green building. And he’s willing to fight whoever he needs to fight to make that happen.”

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