As gasoline prices rise with increasing summer demand, building administrators' attention has turned sharply to the cost of energy, and ways to trim fat from their overall energy budgets.
Yet for the nation’s nearly 60 million condo dwellers, considering newer energy-saving options can be a tricky proposition at best. While some condos and co-ops move rapidly to adopt the latest green technologies, many building communities, still governed by documents drafted decades or even whole generations ago, may be burdened with legal language that expressly prohibits them from making a variety of environmentally-friendly updates.
Has your building gone green? And, if not, how green can you go?
“I think what you’re seeing is just the beginning of those types of questions arising for [condo] associations,” says Mitchell Frumkin, president of Kipcon, Inc., a New Jersey-based engineering and consulting firm that provides condo reserve and transition studies. “As we go into the future, and people are looking more at the sustainable options such as solar panels, you’re going to see more of that because it’s affecting the common elements of the community.”
But How Will It Look?
Green usually sounds very appealing—at least in theory. The problems, experts note, arise from the unique legal aspects of a condo community. In apartment buildings and similar forms of high-density housing, property ownership is clearly defined through the traditional landlord/tenant relationship. Not so with condo and co-op properties, and many experienced managers can speak to the unusual ownership questions that sometimes arise. A solar panel, for expample, would have to be placed on the roof or walls of the building, in a limited common area which is owned by the community or shareholders; or in an area owned by an individual member; and it is up to the board to get everyone to agree to the installation.
Alan Goldberg, Esq., of the Chicago law firm of Arnstein & Lehr, LLP., explains that, "Condominium association boards certainly can, and sometimes do, have architectural or construction approval committees, which must approve any alterations to a unit and the limited common element areas adjacent to and for the use of the unit owner. These restrictions are often very limiting by nature, and a committee’s decision to permit modifications or additions can be quite subjective. An architectural control committee may not like the “look” of a solar panel installation either on an existing residence, or a row of panels on the lot placed in the ground facing skyward."
However, as Goldberg points out new legislation is forcing a change in thinking. "Last year, Illinois enacted the Homeowners’ Solar Rights Act to encourage the development and use of solar energy in private residences in condominium and other common interest community associations,” he explained. “This law makes it unlawful in buildings less than 30 feet in height for a board to adopt rules or other restrictions that prohibit a homeowner from installing a solar energy system for his or her home."
Goldberg notes though that, "This bill does, when applicable, allow the association to determine the specific location where a solar energy system may be installed on the roof of a building less than 30 feet in height. And, the new law actually provides protocols for adopting a solar energy policy statement, solar energy standards, and an approval process, as well as penalties for violations."
“Generally when [co-op/condo boards] replace a piece of equipment or roof for example,” adds Frumkin, “they don’t really have a problem. They just do it. But when they start changing the common elements by putting solar panels on roofs and things like that, they may run into restrictions based on the community's governing documents.” (While it is true that some condo documents still expressly prohibit solar panels, some states like Illinois as Goldberg indicates are early adopters of legislation to permit it.)
Proponents say however energy efficiencies should have miminal impact on community aesthetics. “I have heard of it happening that a covenant or a condo document might forbid a photovoltaic array," says Kevin Morrow, senior project manager foerr the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Green Buildings division. "But that’s not to say that a structure can’t still meet some sort of green criteria. As materials wear out, they’re going to need to be replaced. For just about every piece of equipment or building material that exists out there, there’s a greener alternative. That alternative could be trading out the carpet in your common areas—changing it for carpet that is doing less off-gassing. When you’re repainting your common areas, shop for paints that have fewer volatile organic compounds in their vapors.”
While Morrow admits some updates—such as changes to carpet and paint—offer no clear economic benefit, many easily-adopted green technologies will quickly show through on the bottom line. “One that you see a lot of and which really goes to help everyone, in the common areas specifically, is opting for more efficient lighting—doing away with incandescent bulbs in favor of fluorescent or even more-efficient LED lighting. That’s something that you see a lot of buildings going to.” The obvious upside, says Morrow, is a shared decrease in a property’s total energy cost. “If you’re landscaping and you opt for landscaping that is less intensive in terms of irrigation required, that’s going to obviously decrease the water bill. So there’s an economic benefit as well as an environmental benefit.”
Easy Fixes Abound
But for boards considering more substantial “green” improvements, experts point to many basic structural updates that can be enacted without risking covenant violation. “It’s relatively easy for a community to reduce their energy costs in a few ways," says Frumkin. "By addressing the mechanical equipment [and] by looking at the building envelope, for example. And when I’m talking about the building envelope, I’m talking about the walls, the outside walls, the roof, the foundation, that type of thing. It’s pretty much a proven fact that on any type of building, if you do some relatively inexpensive upgrades to the building envelope, you can generally save in the range of 15 or more percent in energy costs.”
“I think the key to making the decisions about what to do, as with all things, lies in what the building community's goals are," says Morrow. "You can make any building more efficient, and frankly, the older a building is, the easier it is to make it operate better. Generally speaking, it’s easy to get to the attic. Obviously heat rises, and most heat leaves a building by going up through the attic. If that attic is under-insulated, that’s a place you can lose a lot of resources and a lot of money along with them. So making sure your insulation is adequate—up to code, at minimum, and maybe even beyond code— is another thing you would likely look at doing early on.”
Easier still, say experts, in some areas cutting energy costs could be as simple as flipping a switch—by making a switch to deregulated energy. Some states are just beginning to deregulate, says Frumkin. Illinois implemented deregulation in 2007 but with mixed results. Initially residents were paying significantly higher rates after switching to deregulation.
Experts, though, believe that in most instances, savings should be in the neighborhood of eight and 10 percent. “And if the community changes over the energy supply for their common area clubhouses, they can generally save about 15 percent of their energy costs by just switching to deregulated energy,” says Frumkin. “Talk about low-hanging fruit!”
When considering larger capital expenditures, the key, says Frumkin, is crunching the numbers and thinking outside the box. “Let’s take a piece of equipment, and say it’s going to cost $50,000 a year in energy…. When it comes time to replace that equipment, instead of using a standard piece of equipment, let’s use a high-efficiency piece of equipment. The energy cost goes from $50,000 to $25,000 per year. You may be spending more for the equipment, but your energy cost drops in half because you’re using higher-efficiency equipment,” he explains. “My point is that there are huge opportunities for associations and buildings to do this sort of thing, and nobody does it.”
Greening your building however does not necessarily mean scrapping your old HVAC system, installing solar panels on the roof or topping your building with a wind turbine. There are many simple things a board can do that would not require a vote by the entire community. Some simpler, less costly investments can be made such as the installation of energy-efficient lighting; eco-friendly carpetting or paints; computer controlled thermostats; etc. Most importantly, these green imnprovements do not necessarrily require a vote by the entire community. However, many communities are reticent to even consider these less expensive and financially judicious options.
And that, says Frumkin, is a fundamental mistake. “And I think the big, big mistake associations make is that they don’t do common area upgrades because you can get unbelievable pricing for capital replacement work by some of the best contractors due to the economic conditions. They’re looking for work. So I think any community that gets in the fear factor mode because of what they read in the papers is going in the complete opposite direction they should be going in. Most of them have been accumulating reserve funds irrespective of the economy, and that money is there to be spent and now is the time to spend it for a number of different reasons—the cost, the quality of the contractors, and the fact that they can significantly help the economy by doing this at this point.”
According to Andrea Vollf, LEED AP ID+C, of Andrea Vollf Interiors in Schaumberg, IL, and education chair for the U.S. Green Buildings Council (USGBC) Illinois Chapter, the key to discovering what opportunities are available she urges board members, as well as individual unit owners to, "contact their local municipalities to learn about what is available in the market as well as the current rebate programs."
Vollf also suggests that boards consult with a LEED AP consultant , preferably a USGBC member. (LEED is a certification process sponsored and administered by the Green Building Certification Institute.) Theses certifications were developed to encourage green building professionals to maintain and associations make is that they don’t do common area upgrades because you can get unbelievable pricing for capital replacement work by some of the best contractors due to the economic conditions. They’re looking for work. So I think any community that gets in the fear factor mode because of what they read in the papers is going in the complete opposite direction they should be going in. Most of them have been accumulating reserve funds irrespective of the economy, and that money is there to be spent and now is the time to spend it for a number of different reasons—the cost, the quality of the contractors, and the fact that they can significantly help the economy by doing this at this point.”
Now is a good time to go green, says Frumkin. “For buildings and associations, there are huge opportunities for turning their communities green. In my mind, the opportunities for these multifamily communities are much more significant than the normal world.”
Matthew Worley is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.