Energy Efficiency in Apartment Buildings

Yesterday I attended the 20th Annual New York Cooperator’s Expo, a real estate trade show catering to the co-op/condo marketplace. In addition to the expected glut of insurance agencies, management companies and gym equipment peddlers, there were a number of vendors offering energy efficient products and services. This is only my second year attending the expo so I cannot speak on what their presence represents as a “trend”; but particularly in light of the Mayor’s recent environmental proposals, including his Earth Day speech and the PlaNYC sustainability initiative, this seems like a very good time to be on the forefront of helping New York City’s building’s “go green”, regardless of which green is the motivator.

From the standpoint of multi-family building owners (including co-op and condo residents), energy efficiency is one of the few areas with potential for cost savings. Since all other expenses seem to only go up (taxes, payroll, supplies, repairs, improvements, etc.), the idea of cutting costs by conserving fuel and electricity has an obvious appeal. (For those with an interest in environmental issues, the benefits are even greater; but the financial argument is much more dependably popular with fellow shareholders!) In apartment buildings throughout the city, one need look no further than the windows that stay open all winter due to overheating to know that a lot of fuel is being burned – and greenhouse gases generated, and money wasted – unnecessarily. The conventional wisdom is that antiquated heating systems with steam boilers and radiators will always be inherently inefficient, but can never be replaced (short of gutting the entire structure). Similarly, building safety codes require that most common areas be lit 24-7 whether they are occupied or not, resulting in high electricity use with little purpose. It is encouraging to see technological retrofits for these situations becoming more common, though they could certainly be better promoted; as well, in order for retrofits to be widely implemented, more creative financing methods must be introduced.

The vast majority of New Yorkers live in buildings that are at least thirty years old, and although it is exciting to see newer developments like the Solaire in Battery Park City (“Environmentally Engineered for Advanced Living”) incorporate solar panels, green roofs, and greywater reuse, most of us will never live in that type of building. The question of how to “green” older buildings – not only for environmental reasons, but also to make them more financially viable – is one that New York City should be addressing head-on. As has been pointed out recently in the media, New Yorkers generate less than a third of the carbon emissions of average Americans, due largely to our city’s high public transportation use. However, we have much room for improvement; and since 79% of the city’s greenhouse gases are produced by buildings, what better place to begin? Why not create public/private sector partnerships to “green” our city’s buildings, like the ones recently announced in Cambridge, Massachusets ? This could potentially serve the dual purpose of reducing the city’s contribution to global warming while preserving housing for middle- and working-class residents, many of whom are struggling to pay maintenance bills as their co-ops’ energy costs rise.

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