New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Green Grades Revealed

Sylvia Shapiro’s cond-op scored an “A” from the city for its energy-saving practices. But Shapiro is underwhelmed. “We know the circumstances of our building and it’s just not terribly relevant,” she says. The 229-unit property, at 63 East 9th Street, received the grade as part of an energy benchmarking initiative mandated by Local Law 84 of 2009 (LL84).

Under LL84, large buildings must record and keep track of their energy and water use – and then the city posts the results for all to see. The letter grades are linked to a numerical score called the Energy Use Intensity (EUI), which measures the energy used by a building per square foot, per year. The median EUI for multifamily buildings in New York City is 132.1. Score a 109 or lower and you earn an A; higher than 160 is a D.

Shapiro’s building scored an 84, far better than the average. No matter the score, the cond-op board knew it would pursue an oil-to-gas conversion, an ongoing process that has been stymied by issues with Con Edison. “You do this benchmarking because it’s required by law,” says Shapiro, a board member, “but it has zero impact on us to date, and it has just spawned an industry of energy service providers.”

Others argue that critics of the program, like Shapiro, are short-sighted. The results of LL84 are not meant to stand alone but are part of a grand vision intended to make the Big Apple a healthier place to live. According to the official city website (www.nyc.gov), 75 to 80 percent of New York’s carbon emissions come from buildings, compared with 39 percent nationally. That has to change.

In an e-mail, John Lee, deputy director of Green Buildings and Energy Efficiency at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability (LTPS), points out that the goal is to educate the energy users. “There are costs associated with higher intensity energy utilization,” he writes, “and the consumer’s decisions should be afforded that information.”

The most recent benchmarking data, collected in 2011, was released this fall. (Condos and co-ops were required, in 2012, to report their energy usage from data collected in 2010, but those results were not made public.)

The aforementioned letter grades are just one component of the 56-page city benchmarking report issued in September under LL84, which applies to buildings of more than 50,000 square feet. The report – available online (see box below) – also highlights city-wide statistics and trends on how multifamily buildings use energy.

 

Kinks: State of Confusion

The bottom line is this: now you know how well your building has been doing for two years, and you can see how other buildings are doing too. But energy experts say there are still kinks to be worked out, the data is not always accurate, and it’s difficult to access. It’s also too early in the game to judge whether a building is improving.

Some critics argue that letter grades don’t currently taken into account vast differences in building design. A complex with three entrances and three elevators is very different from a tower with one entry and one elevator, observes Stephen Vernon, president of the board at a 111-unit, three-building co-op in Washington Heights. The letter grades don’t factor in whether a building has a commercial tenant that might be using a lot of power, and they don’t consider the type of resident – he may be a renter who cares little about the building’s long-term financial health, or she might be a senior citizen who is home more often and therefore uses more power.

The city is aware of the problem. “It should be understood that this is a very rough comparative measure and does not normalize for the vast differences in building types and mixed uses,” Lee says. The problem may be solved, he adds, when the Environmental Protection Agency makes major changes to create a multifamily scoring system for its Energy Star ratings. That move is expected early in 2014.

Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, an energy-efficiency think tank, agrees. His group advises the city on the ratings system, and he describes the letter grades as a work in progress. “The city is moving toward an apples to apples comparison,” he says. “Right now all buildings are compared against each other, so you have a luxury high-rise on the Upper East Side compared to a two-story walk-up in the outer boroughs.”

 

Problematic Data?

Mitchell Ingerman, president of Aurora Energy Advisors, an energy consultant company that is on track to do 1,500 LL84 submissions this year, says EUI scores are important but some of the data is problematic. For example, he claims that thousands of buildings have probably under-reported energy usage because they only benchmarked common area energy usage, not common areas plus the energy used inside apartments.

At the management company FirstService Residential, energy experts used the LL84 data with their own internal benchmarking to discover trends and problems. One client condo was found to be performing exceptionally well when it came to common areas, reports Aaron Mehta, director of energy information for the company. But the official benchmarking score made it one of the worst performers in the firm’s portfolio. Mehta says they realized that almost every unit in this condo had large wraparound balconies, and the likely cause of energy loss was owners leaving windows and doors open.

Overall, FirstService’s multifamily buildings are performing seven percent better than they were in the first year of benchmarking, according to Mehta. “It’s very early in the game, and we’re just getting the chance to look at this data and see what we can do with it,” he says.

One of the clear benefits of the LL84 program is that it brings the issues into focus. “The true value of the entire process is to start a conversation among board members and residents and their managing agents,” says Ingerman. “It’s about taking a look at the score, whether it’s good or not so good, [and saying,] ‘Let’s talk about our energy consumption and what we should do about it.’”

Warren Schreiber, board president at Bay Terrace Co-op Section 1, a 200-unit garden apartment complex in Queens, says he was not surprised by the “D” his co-op earned with an EUI score of 248.2. The board is now considering submetering, which would require unit-owners to pay for the power they use, hopefully convincing them to use less. Schreiber notes that retro-commissioning of the heating system is also under consideration, but the board isn’t ready to pull the trigger on a major job right now.

 

A Greener Future

Some are optimistic about what the LL84 program can achieve in the future. “Automated utility data uploading would be great,” says Laurie Kerr, the former deputy director for Green Buildings and Energy Efficiency at the LTPS.

Kerr, who is now director of the City Energy Project at the National Resources Defense Council, adds: “Right now, it’s a pain in the neck, but if they hear it from the co-op and condo community that they want it automated because it improves accuracy, that would do a lot. Everyone has always admitted that this is a work in progress and two things need to happen for this to really get traction: the data needs to be more accurate and more accessible.”

But some think that the whole program should be reconsidered. Bob Friedrich, the board president of Glen Oaks Village, a 3,000-unit cooperative in Queens, questions the law itself. He argues that it is a clear case of the government interfering with the rights of individuals to make their own decisions. “In an ideal world, we would all have new boilers,” he says. “But we don’t live in an ideal world. We have finite resources, and co-ops have to make decisions [about where to allocate those resources] every day. Unlike the city, we can’t borrow unlimited amounts of money to do these things. To say we need a new boiler when what we really need is to put in new ramps for our seniors [is wrong]. That’s for an elected board of representatives to decide.”

Others say such criticism misses the point of the program. Majersik believes the best thing a board can do with the benchmarking information is to engage in what he describes as “coopitition,” both cooperating and competing with similar buildings. “Work with a neighboring building or a building that you know is similar to your own, and reach out to their board,” he suggests. “Tell them, ‘I’ll give you my numbers for two years if you give me yours,’ and throw down the gauntlet to see who can improve their scores more.”

Concludes Aurora’s Ingerman: “It’s about taking a look at the score, whether it’s good or not so good [and saying], ‘Let’s talk about our energy consumption and what we should do about it.’”

 

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