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Blowing Hot and Cold

The architect Emery Roth spent his long and illustrious career redrawing the skyline of New York City. He gave us the San Remo, the Beresford, the Eldorado, the Hotel St. Mortiz, and many other icons. Near the end of his career, Roth produced a curious hybrid called the Normandy, a 20-story Art Deco gem topped by twin towers that seem to have wandered in from the Italian Renaissance. A New York Times critic called the design “schizophrenic,” but Roth liked the Normandy so much that he lived there in retirement, high above the Hudson River on Riverside Drive between 86th and 87th Streets.

But the 235-unit Normandy, which became a co-op in 1979 and a registered landmark in 1985, had a problem from the day it opened in the late 1930s. Icy winter winds skate off the river, and the west-facing apartments – with their single-pane, steel-casement windows – were frequently too cold. Other apartments, on the sunny southern or the leeward eastern side, were frequently too hot. To unbalance things even more, some shareholders installed energy-efficient windows, but more than half did not. Many installed window and through-the-wall air conditioners, which leaked cold air in the winter. Radiator valves were wearing out or no longer functioning. The Normandy needed help.

Dealing with Data

Enter Bennett Lincoff, a copyright lawyer who moved into the building in 1997 and joined the seven-member board in 2009. “Immediately when I got on the board, I heard people complaining, ‘I’m too cold,’ ‘I’m too hot,’” Lincoff says. The attorney hit on a simple idea: why not survey the entire building to find out exactly who’s too hot, who’s too cold, and who’s just right – and then attack the problem based on that hard data, as well as anecdotal evidence from the shareholders?

“After I created the survey, I badgered people until they answered,” Lincoff says. “I got a 92 percent response [rate]. Then I created a database and analyzed what was going on.” The results were not entirely surprising. Two of the most problematic apartment lines were the overly cold H line, at Riverside Drive and 87th Street facing the river, and the overly hot L line, facing the sheltered inner courtyard. To refine the data, Lincoff teamed up with the resident manager, Halit Mehmetaj, who was hired in 2012, shortly after the board had contracted with Orsid Realty, which assigned Phillip Syskrot as property manager. Together Lincoff and Mehmetaj visited every apartment on the H and L lines, noting types of windows, presence and types of air conditioners, and the number of functioning and malfunctioning radiators and valves. Based on all the accumulated data and anecdotal evidence, the board and management started casting about for solutions to the problem. Some of the initial cost estimates went higher than $500,000.

Finding the Right Balance

Meanwhile, the board was undertaking other energy-conservation projects. Despite protests from some shareholders, it pushed through electrical submetering, which has reduced the building’s electricity consumption by 20 percent. Lincoff also negotiated a bulk price for high-efficiency windows – bought by 40 shareholders – that won the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The board switched from No. 6 heating oil to a dual-fuel system (No. 2 oil and natural gas), which required getting Con Ed to run a gas line along 86th Street. And in 2012, the board hired Lewis Kwit, president of Energy Investment Systems, to perform the required sustainability audit for the building. Kwit was soon up to his elbows in the project to balance the Normandy’s heat.

A two-pronged attack was developed. The first was low-tech: weatherstripping the original windows, putting thermal sleeves on air conditioners, and inspecting all radiators and valves. The second step was to divide the building into four zones, based on prevailing interior temperatures, and then find a high-tech way to distribute heat based on each zone’s needs. “We found a zone valve system that would heat each of the four zones separately,” says Kwit. As an experiment, the contractor Leonard-Powers installed three motorized steam valves in the too-hot L line in 2013. Sensors were placed in eight apartments and linked to a computer, which could regulate the flow of steam to the entire line based on temperature fluctuations in those eight apartments. It worked. Four valves were then installed in each of the horizontal steam pipes in the basement that feed all of the building’s risers.

The cost turned out to be about half the original estimates – $150,000 for the heat-balancing system and another $100,000 for asbestos abatement. “We have a reasonable reserve fund, but the board got concerned about financing capital projects by taking on debt,” says Bob Kheel, who joined the board in 2010 and succeeded Lincoff as president in 2013. “The heat balancing was a bit of an unusual expense – it was an optional, discretionary decision by the board. Some board members were concerned if it was proper. There was a little pushback.” At the same time, the board imposed a $2 million assessment over two years to cover balancing the heat, replacing the mechanicals on all six elevators, converting to gas, and switching to electrical submetering.

Reducing Complaints

As far as Kheel is concerned, it was money well spent. “The number of complaints about heat has dropped dramatically,” he says. “That’s the best indication that it’s been a success. We’re very pleased with what happened.” Kheel adds that the heat balancing project and other improvements were undertaken with an eye to the future. “All of what we’ve done is with a long-term view,” he says, “not just trying to keep maintenance down. We always asked: how can we make the building better for the next generation?”

For Kwit, who helped solve the high-tech piece of the heat-balancing puzzle, the work by Lincoff and other board members was crucial. “This project confirmed that leadership and persistence are important,” Kwit says, “and that all engineering solutions are a compromise. You also learn that nobody can do it alone. The staff is great and Halit is a great super. Residents in this demographic are going to be somewhat persnickety. But they’re satisfied.” So is Lincoff, who says serving on the board was an education. “I ran for the board because I thought it was a way to protect and enhance my investment – and make a positive contribution to the shareholder community,” he says. “I was constantly besieged. I didn’t know anything about electrical submetering or heat balancing – I’m a copyright lawyer! – but I enjoyed learning. The heat-balancing project had to be pushed from the inside. This was a quality-of-life issue. In the end, I learned that any board that wants to get something done has to do it themselves.”

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