Green Exteriors Upgrading for Lower Energy Costs

Green Exteriors

More often than not, when boards or associations broach the issue of their buildings “going green,” images of bamboo flooring, hemp drapes, or solar panels on the roof suddenly spring to mind. The impression seems to be that in a condo, green upgrades are difficult and costly—if not impossible—to do.

Fortunately, the truth is that there are plenty of things condo boards and condo owners can do to reduce their community's environmental impact without vaporizing its bank account.

One Small Step for Green

Green construction may not seem like a convoluted task (plant a few trees here, install some solar panels there), but Boards should certainly seek the advice and help of certified professional to formulate and draft a plan.

“The best thing you can do is get lined up with a contractor who is certified in sustainable design,” says Maria Onesto Moran, president of Green Home Experts in Oak Park. “I am a fan of third party certification because it's the best way to trust anyone: a LEED accredited professional or the National Association of Home Builders also has a green certification program, I would look for one of those.”

Another important step would be to do an energy audit of your building.

“The best thing that one can do is get an energy audit. It provides a map and plan for how to maximize energy efficiency in your building and it will help you prioritize the fastest return on your investments and what specifically needs to be done. A lot of us kind of know what our building needs but we need to figure out what is the priority,” explains Moran.

She adds that many boards and residents believe that updating windows is the fastest and more effective way to energy efficiency. Unfortunately, this is an urban energy myth.

“Everyone thinks that you can make a building warmer by putting in new windows. Windows actually have the absolute longest return on investment. Windows are the last thing you should always look at. Whereas a new roof or better installation, those are going to last you a long time,” she says. “Instead of dumping all your money into windows, this energy audit will actually tell you what fire to put out first.”

Moran says that boards may be dissuaded by the price of these audits (for residential buildings they can run a couple hundred dollars) but when budgeted accordingly, audits and their results will save you money down the line.

Joe Silver, manager of Chicago's Green Depot adds, “You definitely need to do your homework before starting a project because there are a lot of [boards] that are not familiar with what they are doing and you will end up spending a lot of money on things that will not help your home at all.”

The Envelope, Please...

In terms of actual materials, the key is to improve the energy efficiency and durability of a community’s property. Tightening up the building envelope need not cost an arm and a leg, and can actually yield a higher rate of return than solar panels or recycled countertops.

One key to improving your community’s energy efficiency lies in what is known as the “building envelope.” According to Green Building Advisor (GBA), the building envelope, or shell, is the part of a structure that you can draw a line around. The enclosure begins in the ground with the foundation and floor, extends upward as the above-ground walls, and is capped with a roof. Each part of the enclosure faces different challenges.

The first and sometimes easiest step, according to GBA, an online resource for information on designing, building and remodeling energy-efficient, sustainable homes, is to: “Fix what exists. Starting with simple improvements that don't take much time or money can pay off immediately.” The website recommends taking a good look at your association's exteriors and being proactive about any needed repairs, “especially those related to weather-tightness and structural stability. Roof leaks, cracked and bulging foundation walls, and rotten framing are the kinds of problems that should be corrected before anything else happens.”

According to green remodeling expert Carl Seville, if you're looking to pay less in utility costs, “It is imperative that you first reduce your home's electric load to a minimum.” One way to do this is by taking on the 'air barriers' of your building—the places where different structural planes meet thus creating the opportunity for leaks and drafts. According to GBA, the trouble spots for air leaks are where the foundation meets the floor framing, the floor meets the walls and the walls meet the roof.

And any leak, in turn, affects the energy that goes into cooling and heating your home. Addressing these spots by tightening them up with caulk, expanding foam sealant and weather-stripping, or by adding more insulation, are relatively inexpensive methods but they will do wonders in making the building more energy efficient.

Raising the Cool Roof

Moran explains that there are many options for upgrading condo and co-op roofs. Boards can look into using shingles made out of recycled composite materials, an arrangement that is estimated to last 50 years. Post-industrial recycled rubber and plastic are the most common of materials used, utilizing old tires and even the plastic remains of diaper production, says Silver. This type of roof not only lasts a long time but because it is made from recycled content, it is more flexible than traditional slate, improving its ability to tolerate inclement weather conditions.

Another option is to plant a green roof, says Moran. This construction features a fully or partially vegetation-covered roof which is planted over a waterproof membrane. A green roof serves to provide insulation, absorb rainwater and help reduce temperatures in urban environments. Chicago's own City Hall adapted to a green roof in 2000, and according to the city of Chicago's website, it keeps the roof 50 degrees cooler than a traditional black roof in the summer.

Silver says that many residences are also painting their roofs with white reflective paint that keeps the roof much cooler than traditional black.

Seville also reminds us that one need not go overboard when greening a roof. “The most sustainable roof is one that uses the fewest natural resources to produce, and is manufactured locally (reducing the need for transportation and its associated pollution), and is energy efficient and long lasting.”

According to Amy Westervelt, an author for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which has a branch in Chicago, most people can have a “green” roof fairly easily, and without an exorbitant cost. Small improvements can deliver a big difference, not only to your home’s energy usage but also to the size of your energy bill, she says. Two simple steps, Westervelt says, are to “cool your roof” and “insulate from below.”

“Cool roofs refer to roofs that are cool in both senses of the word,” says Westervelt. “Lighter in color than traditional black asphalt or dark wood shingles, cool roofs save energy by reflecting light and heat away, rather than absorbing both. This is known as the albedo effect, and study after study in the last few years has documented significant energy savings from simply lightening the color of a roof.”

Westervelt acknowledges that the problem with a dark roof is that the temperature may be 95 degrees outside but a dark roof conducts heat at a much higher temperature down to the inhabitants of a building. This naturally makes the rooms below hotter—and as a result the cooling systems have to work much harder.

A cool roof can be 50 to 60 degrees cooler than a conventional dark-colored roof, reducing the cooling load on the building, saving energy and reducing utility costs. “By decreasing the solar gain and heat retention of your home, a white roof also increases its comfort and reduces the heat island effect. The easiest route is to slap a cool roof coating onto an existing roof.”

Westervelt also recommends “If you’re already re-roofing, or building a new residence, consider replacing shingles or asphalt with lighter-colored versions of themselves.” If your condo building has a flat-top roof, Westervelt suggests looking into sheets of fiber-reinforced white PVC membranes. “A quick search of the Cool Roof Rating Council’s Rated Products Directory, will provide you with performance data about various roofing products. Products are rated for their reflectiveness on a 0 to 1.0 scale; the higher the number, the more reflective the product is, and the cooler your roof will be.” Westervelt further advises, “Simply choosing the right material could result in as much as a 30 percent decrease in your home’s energy needs.” Whether that ends up being a tile roof, asphalt shingles, metal, concrete, or even wood, all of our experts recommend reflective coatings to make your roof cool, she says.

Insulate, Insulate, Insulate!

For insulation, your options are endless. “You can have spray foam insulation, you can have a recycled denim or recycled cotton, you can have a recycled cellulose insulation. We are trying to move away from fiberglass because when it breaks down, it has a bad contribution to your indoor air quality,” explains Moran.

According to Westervelt, insulation is one of the first things people should think of when they plan on making their homes more energy efficient. “According to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), the attic is usually the top priority because installing insulation there is easy and provides immediate benefits. And when insulating the attic, it’s important not to forget about the roof.”

An inadequately-insulated roof is a heating and cooling system's biggest nemesis. It requires twice as much air conditioning in the summer months and higher heat in the winter. “And if you have any dreams of actually inhabiting the attic of a house with a poorly insulated roof, forget about it,” says Westervelt. “Even if you do have insulation, it may not be enough to be doing much. A well-insulated roof, on the other hand, can almost negate the need for either mechanical system and certainly drastically reduce your heating and cooling needs.”

Westervelt advises, “The material you choose will depend heavily on the type of house you have and the climate you live in.” Today there is a vast range of insulation solutions form home foam insulation and cellulose insulation to simpler options like fiberglass or cotton batting.

Whether the insulation is for the roof or your walls the experts at GBA recommend the following rules of thumb, “You can't stop the heat but you can slow it down.” Also, “More insulation is better, to a point.”

According to GBA, heat always moves from hot areas to cold areas. In summer, exterior heat will flow toward the cooler interior of a home. In winter, interior heat will flow toward the exterior. “The role of insulation is to slow this heat flow. In general, thicker insulation is more effective than thinner insulation. Many energy consultants have proposed the following rule of thumb: The R-value of insulation installed in a green building should be about twice the code minimum. This is, of course, a guide to planning rather than a hard-and-fast rule.”

While it is true that doubling the thickness of a layer of insulation will double the insulation's R-value, cutting heat loss in half, the experts warn not to double too much. “Each time that the insulation layer is doubled in thickness, this rule applies. The energy saved per year by doubling insulation from R-10 to R-20 will be considerably more than the energy saved by doubling insulation from R-20 to R-40 because of the law of diminishing returns.”

A Nice Dry Foundation

We all know that foundations get wet and when they get wet they attract carpenter ants, termites, mold, and fungi, which affects the energy efficiency of the building while slowly leading to decay. The green defense is to work with your surroundings to keep water from getting in, as well to promote drying of surfaces that do get wet.

Gutters, for example, are a good place to start. According to Seville, “Gutters are a subject of debate among building professionals. When installed properly and well maintained, gutters can be a great help in keeping water out of a structure. When installation is compromised and maintenance is poor, however, gutters can become a detriment, directing water into rather than away from a structure.”

It is recommended that if your building has gutters they should be well maintained to keep water from seeping into your building’s foundations. Suggestions for gutter installation or replacement include “the most durable and recyclable material available, such as aluminum or copper, and make certain they are installed properly.” Additionally, Seville recommends, “the downspouts should terminate at least five feet from the foundation walls.”

Generally, rainwater is directed away from a foundation by sloped grade and carried off by a footing drain, however a great deal of moisture still remains and is distributed throughout the soil.

According to the experts at GBA, “This soil moisture can wick into a foundation through capillarity. Capillarity can move water to the top of a tree, so it shouldn't be surprising that it can transport water from the footing to the roof of a house. Without capillary breaks, water is drawn into a foundation through the footing or the wall, and will continue further up to drier concrete, where it can get into the framing.”

When moisture moves above ground into the framing, it may encounter cooler surfaces and condense into liquid. If the wall can't dry out, the liquid can accumulate and support mold and rot. Professionals recommend insulating the exterior of a foundation to block moisture and keep the concrete warm. A warm inside surface means that humidity won't condense into liquid that can cause mold growth. Installing rigid or spray foam inside the foundation walls is highly recommended to stop capillarity and condensation as it prevents warm air from reaching the cool concrete.

Slow & Steady Wins the Race

Whether you live in a large or small development, embarking on a “green upgrade” need not be costly or elaborate. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Today one of the easiest and cost effective ways is improving the energy efficiency of your buildings. “Tightening the envelope” of your roof walls and foundations will lower energy usage resulting in greater savings for the whole community. It is also important to ensure that your solutions are sustainable in every aspect. “When you are thinking about green products, you want to not only be thinking about energy efficiency, but how it is affecting the health of the home and the people in it. You are also taking under consideration what is sustainable from an indoor air quality perspective as well,” says Moran.

J.M. Wilson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.

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