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Can We Go Green? Green Initiatives vs. Governing Docs

 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.

 

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Comments

  • Green technology tends to save more money in the long run, detispe being more expensive to begin with for example, motion-sensing light fixtures that only turn on when someone walks into a room are more expensive than regular lights, but after a few years the reduced power usage saves money. What examples of green energy are you looking at that are so cost-inefficient? Around here (Midwest) people have been installing windmills, which are quite green that have consistently proven profitable.