Photo by Kevin Krejci.
Imagine living in the most energy efficient home possible. A small townhouse with a white picket fence and a rooftop decked in solar panels may come to mind for most, but not for Andrew Padian. He’s the Vice President for Energy Initiatives at the Community Preservation Corporation and a board member for GreenhomeNYC. The all-volunteer nonprofit organization works with building owners (not landlords, as that’s a “sexist and feudal term” for Padian) in the city to find everyday ways of making housing more environmentally sound and energy efficient.
In the latest entry for our ‘A Word With’ interview series here at BTR, Padian talks about how that image of solar panel rooftops represents one of the biggest obstacles in spreading understanding about the best ways to “build green.” In doing so, he gives insight on the reality of what implementing sustainable building and maintenance practices in a populated urban environment looks like.
BreakThru Radio: What are the greatest challenges in communicating with small building owners in a city the size of New York on sustainable practices in construction and upkeep?
Andrew Padian: Getting past the misinformation and the “bling.” When people come to you right away and they want to talk about making the green building or making their existing building greener, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is “heat pumps, solar panels, and green roofs.” And when we say to them it’s shower heads, aerators, tuning your boiler, and sealing your holes, they think we’re really boring.
Then we show them test cases where we’ve done stuff like that and saved 40 percent in buildings. I mean, we’re not the contract on it but we do a lot of work with people who have had a huge success with retrofits and we support all of their studies and all of their information, and we try to put as much of that information out into the public as we can.
BTR: In regards to that 40 percent, is that usually what’s lost in a typical small residential building either built or maintained with less sustainable methods?
AP: I don’t want to throw that number out because the rule of thumb is the bigger your building is, the more potential you have for savings and the more waste you have. Although, I’ve found very, very efficient buildings that are still capable of 25 percent savings. So I can’t tell how much someone’s going to save — and this is the hardest thing to get through any building owner’s head, from a single family home owner to a multi-family building owner to a commercial building owner. They come to you and say, “How much can you save me?”
People don’t understand that buildings use substantially different amounts of energy and they use them for different things. Two buildings, side-by-side, that are exactly the same multi-family building, built by the same architect and construction company, can have two completely different usage patterns. I just saw this in a [pair of buildings] yesterday — side-by-side, same building, same architect and construction company. One of them uses 42 percent of their hot water, the other uses 31 percent. Why?
So the most difficult thing for owners to understand is that we don’t know how much we can save them until we look at their actual usage. And most residential and multi-family building owners aren’t very good at keeping records of their energy usage. Commercial buildings tend to be very good at it. So we’re right now working with a local law in New York City, which is called Local Law 84, that requires all buildings over 50,000 square feet to be bench marked using the EPA’s portfolio manager; I can not tell you how difficult it is to pry the oil bills or any energy information from the owners – it’s the hardest part of doing the work.
But once we know how they’re doing, we know what their usage is, we know where their energy waste is, and we can address that.
BTR: Sustainability has been a buzzword that’s been thrown around many different fields in recent years. Is there ever a difference between what’s sustainable and what’s environmentally sound?
AP: There shouldn’t be. If you’re doing something that’s sustainable, you’re doing something as environmentally correct as it can be. I have to make negative environmental decisions every once in a while. I have to keep a building running on electric heat, but I can reduce that load dramatically and shift their load more towards the nighttime when there isn’t as much a demand. I can’t switch everybody over from electric heat to gas, or oil, or solar, or something more sustainable than electricity. So I have to make decisions every day that aren’t perfect environmental decisions, but they’re the best that I can do in a building. What I’m really doing everyday is reducing all sources of all energy in every building I go into — and make the building safer, more affordable, and more comfortable.
BTR: So sustainability implies a bit more practicality.
AP: Practicality is a good word. I think the best people in the field are very practical. There are also people that are very uncompromising in their sustainability and I appreciate them kicking me in the rear-end on a regular basis, because sometimes you look at something and say, “I couldn’t possibly do that, that’s too much.”
BTR: Like what, for example?
AP: There’s a lot of people these days that are looking at something called a deep energy retrofit. So you see a single-family home or a multi-family building and the energy usage is really high in it and the building is a stucco building built in the ’60s or ’70s. Somebody comes around and says, “I want to add four inches of exterior insulation to the building, pull all the windows out and put high-quality triple pane windows in, reduce the heat load from the building by 75 percent, then take all of the insulation in the building, run it through an air-to-air heat exchanger, and then send it back into the building.”
You look at that and you go, “Oh my god, you’re so crazy. That’s got a 50,000-year payback.”
But when you really look at the numbers, it’s something that you can finance when you’re refinancing the debt on the building, and the building really doesn’t feel it that much. Then all of a sudden, the building that’s using $10,000 of fuel, water, and electricity a year goes down to $1,000 per year and you have a serious reduction in heat loss in the building as well as a big up-kick in comfort. By doing an air-to-air heat exchanger, you have a lot more fresh air coming into the building, so you don’t have the fear everyone tells you of “Oh, if I tighten my house, I’ll get indoor air quality sickness” or something.
If you build tight and ventilate right, you can do a great job with energy efficiency in buildings.
BTR: And it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg if done through refinancing?
AP: Basically. When I’m not working for GreenhomeNYC as a volunteer, I’m a bank vice president working for the Community Preservation Corporation. We’ve loaned $8 billion for affordable housing since 1974, and it’s all been affordable housing primarily in New York state. We have a green financing initiative now, (and I think we are the only people in the country doing it in this fashion) but we are encouraging owners of multi-family buildings to do an energy audit as part of refinancing their debt because, as I said earlier, a group of smart bankers got together and said, “If we really want to invest in energy efficiency, the tool we should be using should be the mortgage.” When you refinance the debt on the building, particularly in multi-family buildings, you make a lot of repairs in the building that only have a three-year lifespan, but you’re building them into a 30-year mortgage. So you’re painting hallways, you’re replacing hallway lights, painting apartments, paving the driveway, painting the fire escapes — you’re doing a whole series of things that only have to be done again as a part of regular maintenance in three years. You’ll also do things like repair the lobby, replace the kitchens, replace the bathrooms — which, of course, add creature comforts to the building but also bring up its value. So when you do that, no one asks what’s the payback because they see it’s making the value of the building go up.
So we want people to get away from the whole payback conversation and really look at what your energy usage is upfront and, if we do a decent retrofit on your building, what we can save. If we can get those kind of savings in the building, it’s going to increase your cash flow and make your building worth more.
For more information on GreenhomeNYC, you can visit their website at the adjacent link.