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Conserving at Concord Village

We’re talking about energy. Energy produced and lost – and a board that decided to do something about it. As with many post-war properties, Concord Village, a seven-building, 1,025-unit cooperative in downtown Brooklyn, heat wasn’t distributed evenly, forcing the shareholders to cope by opening windows in the middle of winter to cool down their overheated units. There were other ways the co-op was wasting energy, too. Take the stairwells: “On a windy day, you could hear the howling wind going through the staircase, and that was taking the hot air as well,” says Catherine Woolston, a board member who pushed for change in the co-op.

To compound matters, three of Concord’s seven buildings still had master meters, which meant that shareholders living in them were paying a flat fee for their electricity, no matter how much they used each month. The result, Woolston recalls, was energy abuse.

Woolston had long ago thought it was time for a change. But transforming Concord Village into an energy-efficient housing complex wasn’t easy. In fact, it took the board members four years of on-again, off-again discussion before they agreed to move forward.

 

Change Is Coming

Once the board had been convinced of the need for change, it informed the shareholders of its plans and put out a request for proposals for an energy audit. It hired Steven Winter Associates, a Manhattan firm specializing in cost-cutting measures and sustainability, to figure out where the co-op could be more efficient.

The consultant pointed the co-op to state funding, saying there was a rebate on energy fixes in multi-unit family dwellings. The state would reimburse up to $600,000 in upgrade costs to Concord Village if the complex reduced its energy consumption by 15 percent. All it had to do was produce an energy audit and identify upgrades. And then make them. The catch? The changes had to be completed in a year.

“Part of identifying the opportunity is figuring out what upgrades are possible and assessing what grants and rebates are out there that apply to certain buildings,” says Marc Zuluaga, the Steven Winter consultant who monitored Concord Village’s plans with project manager Jason Block. “We matched the needs of the building with upgrades that made sense to the owner and the most suitable grants. It was a tailored process.” There were three steps involved:

 

Conducting an energy audit. The first step was performing an audit to see how much energy the co-op was using, how that figure compared to other buildings, and where Concord Village could save money. The board then had to approve the audit before sending in the proposal to the state. “The board had to be willing to move forward if we were approved. Otherwise, what was the point?” says Woolston.

Once the audit was submitted to the state, it would be reviewed by a third party to make sure the outlined costs and energy savings were accurate, says Zuluaga, director of Steven Winter’s multifamily energy services.

Planning the upgrades. The next step was planning and executing the upgrades. Steven Winter’s engineers walked the board through hiring contractors to make the fixes. The board approved the contracts. The state doled out the rebates as stages of the work were completed and inspected the work when it was done.

“There was definitely multiple steps with the board. Like any board, there were different perspectives, but they arrived at consensus,” says Zuluaga.

 

Verifying the savings. The final step was to make sure energy usage was reduced. Monitoring was tracked by WegoWise, both a company and an online tool that can follow a building’s energy usage, benchmark it, compare its energy usage to other properties, and manage its utility information. This was information that the state wanted, too.

In the past, major companies or real estate moguls tracked energy consumption in an effort to save on operating costs, but co-ops and condos skipped this tracking because it was too pricey, according to Daniel Teague, director of business development at WegoWise. “Traditionally, this type of monitoring meant installing expensive equipment on-site,” says Teague, explaining that his software company is able to produce quarterly reports on energy use with the client’s utility account number and such basic building information as size.

“People are paying for predictions [on how much energy will be saved] and taking them as fact. It’s a big hole in efficiency,” Teague says.

 

Grant Approved

In 2012, Concord Village was approved for a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for up to $600,000 toward energy fixes if the building decreased energy use by 15 percent in a year.

The co-op identified $2.5 million in upgrades, but it quickly became clear that some of the plans were too ambitious to finish in time. Plans to retrofit the ventilation system, for instance, were scrapped when the board realized the vents were different sizes in each unit and in different places, making changes difficult to complete quickly.

The co-op settled on making enough upgrades to qualify for half the funds – $300,000 – to reduce the property’s energy use by seven and a half percent, and sliced the budget down to $1.2 million. The projected annual savings were $150,000; the actual savings were $230,000 in the first year.

The lighting, air sealing, and heating upgrades made the biggest impact. The building replaced its indoor and outdoor lights with LEDs that were put on a timer instead of being on all day. The doorways in the staircase were sealed so heat didn’t get sucked out. Contractors installed thermostatic radiator valves, which allowed residents to control the heat in their unit and stop heating when the temperature hit 72 degrees.

The co-op also secured more state money to install submeters in each apartment.

“If you are at an all-you-can-eat buffet, you eat more than you would if you had to pay for each item. In terms of energy, it’s the same thing: people tend to overuse to get their money’s worth,” explains Woolston. The cost of the new meters to switch three buildings – the other four had already made the switch – to submeters was $120,000 after the incentive.

There have been tangible results. In the first year, 84 percent of shareholders with the submeters paid less than they used to for electricity. Of the 16 percent paying more, the highest bill averaged $150 more a month, according to Woolston, who believes it went down because people were more conscious of their energy usage.

To fund the retrofitting, Concord Village borrowed against its $10 million reserve. The plan was to use the expected $150,000 in annual energy savings to pay back the reserve over 10 years. Since it saw $230,000 in savings the first year, the board is weighing what to do with the extra $80,000.

 

Of Projects and Managers

The board hired Project Management Group, a subsidiary of the property’s management company, Akam Living Services, to act as project manager and oversee the renovations because, Woolston explains, “we knew this was too much of a burden for our regular staff.”

Bringing Steven Winter Associates on board was also key. “Without the technical know-how, you can’t get this done. You have to build a support network,” says Woolston.

Co-op and condo boards are bombarded with information from contractors and engineering companies promising to improve the building’s efficiency, confusing members as to where to start, according to Steven Winter’s Marc Zuluaga: “There is a lot of noise out there.”

In the case of Concord Village, Zuluaga was able to tell the board where its energy consumption was compared to other large post-war co-op buildings and what projects would have the greatest financial benefit.

“They were the middle of the road in terms of energy consumption. This was a well-maintained property that had done projects in the past, but we were really able to cut down fuel [usage],” he says. “These problems can be fixed, and I don’t think [most] people [in co-ops and condos] believe that.”

As with most co-ops, getting everyone on board at Concord Village didn’t happen overnight. “I had been talking about these projects for seven years and we had a stable board during that time. There was a core group who understood the issue, so when the opportunity came, there was some comfort level,” says Woolston. “We had to react fast, but people had been prepped for a long time.”

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