How do affordable housing organizations lower operating costs while keeping tenants comfortable? The obvious solution: upgrade buildings to use less energy and water and deliver better comfort. But it’s not so easy to secure funds to pay for efficiency upgrades. Even with incentive funds that are available from utilities and the government, owners have to get creative. With the “Pay from Savings” financing model, owners can complete efficiency improvements when they are needed most, rather than waiting for refinancing or taking out a secondary loan.
Mercy Housing: A Case Study
In 2016, Mercy Housing, one of the largest affordable housing nonprofits in the country, sought out assistance in upgrading its California portfolio of nearly 100 properties and 6,500 units.
As Mercy Housing’s energy and water management partner, Bright Power first used EnergyScoreCards, our cloud-based energy analysis and benchmarking platform, to understand areas of waste and underperformance. Then, we completed comprehensive onsite energy audits to identify the best opportunities for improvement. Mercy Housing, Affordable Community Energy Services Company (ACE), and Bright Power prioritized phases of work based on factors including building performance, location, and available government and utility incentive programs like California’s Low Income Weatherization Program (LIWP). The first phase, which consists of six Mercy California properties, wrapped up the installation at the end of 2017.
The three organizations partnered on an innovative “pay from savings” financing approach, which gives Mercy Housing the ability to complete the upgrades and use project savings to pay for the upgrades over a 10-year period. In order to help finance the upfront cost of these projects, ACE recently secured funding through the Reinvestment Fund.
To ensure project returns, Bright Power will actively track and verify savings through EnergyScoreCards and engage with site staff to help optimize operations and maintenance. The efficiency upgrades being deployed across Mercy Housing’s California portfolio include new LED lighting in common areas and resident apartments, innovative heat pump hot water heating systems, low-flow fixtures on faucets and showerheads, domestic hot water controls, and pipe insulation.
Pay from Savings
ACE’s “pay from savings” approach is groundbreaking because it allows owners, like Mercy Housing, to take the savings generated from their energy and water efficiency upgrades and use them to pay for the upgrades over the next 10 years. That means while Mercy Housing is conducting business as usual, their efficiency upgrades will be paying for themselves.
Paying for the project in this way requires careful tracking of the energy and water savings pre- and post-retrofit. Bright Power’s EnergyScoreCards breaks down consumption and spend by end use to allow Bright Power, ACE, and Mercy Housing to monitor savings at the building and portfolio level. This rigorous monitoring was an important factor in securing the “pay from savings” financing for these projects.
Like all EnergyScoreCards clients, Mercy Housing is paired with a dedicated Energy Analyst to monitor their savings. Caleb Smeeth, Bright Power’s Energy Analyst for Mercy Housing said, “I pay close attention to the monthly performance of each project to ensure savings are consistently achieved. If the data begins to trend in a different direction, Bright Power has a hands-on approach to engage with the site staff to diagnose the issue remotely and deploy our California team for additional on-the-ground insights.”
Beyond tracking savings for financing purposes, Mercy Housing can also use this information to see which measures make the greatest impact. This allows Mercy Housing, Bright Power, ACE, and the Reinvestment Fund to forecast projects that will yield strong energy savings and maximize tenant comfort.
The Results from Phase I (6 Properties)
In just four months at 6 properties, Mercy Housing has seen:
- 29% decrease in gas usage
- 9% decrease in electric usage
- 4% decrease in water usage
- 7% decrease in carbon emissions
After Mercy Housing expands these upgrades to nearly 100 properties—representing the majority of their California portfolio—they will see impressive estimated annual consumption reduction:
- 2.1 million kWh electricity – equivalent to 234 homes’ annual electricity use
- 23,000 therms natural gas – equivalent to driving across the US over 111 times
- 32 million gallons of water – equivalent to over 48 Olympic sized swimming pools
“Combining the LIWP incentives with the ACE ‘Pay from Savings’ offering, we were able to achieve deep levels of retrofit at these properties in a way we could not have otherwise done. We hope to replicate this approach with more California incentive programs at other properties in our portfolio,” says Caitlin Rood, Mercy Housing’s Environmental Sustainability Director. “It’s a model in which everyone wins—investors, subsidized housing owners, ACE and its partners, and, ultimately, our residents.”
With a model like this, affordable housing organizations can secure funding to meet the needs of their residents, improve tenant comfort, and reduce their carbon footprint. Caitlin couldn’t be more right—everyone wins.
For more information on Affordable Community Energy Services Company (ACE), visit affordablecommunityenergyservices.com
For more information on Mercy Housing, visit mercyhousingblog.org
For more information on Reinvestment Fund, visit reinvestment.com
Just because a building was built recently, or has “high-efficiency” equipment, does not mean that the building will actually be energy efficient. In fact, often high-efficiency equipment and systems need more highly trained engineers, more rigorous maintenance, and more careful tune-ups in order to work their best. It’s kind of like the difference between doing a tune-up on a Prius versus the old stick-shift that your uncle could fix himself. What follows is the story of a decade-old building with some really big energy problems and some relatively simple fixes… once we figured out what was going on!
NYC’s Local Law 87: Energy Audits and Retro-commissioning
New York City’s Local Law 87 (LL87) has motivated and, in some cases, obligated building owners and operators to analyze the performance of their energy systems since its inception. However, the benefits of a retro-commissioning study are far greater than simply adhering to a compliance requirement.
If you are unfamiliar, LL87 requires all buildings in New York City that are larger than 50,000 square feet to perform an Energy Audit and Retro-commissioning Study every 10 years. This initiative gives building owners an opportunity to investigate and evaluate their building’s energy performance and address concerns with their major equipment.
As one of the leading LL87 service providers, Bright Power has come across several buildings where this compliance requirement has uncovered major issues with systems operation and overall efficiency. These audits have helped our clients dig deeper into their utility consumption, identify critical areas of concern, and discover opportunities to save energy and water. In many cases, we have uncovered solutions to improve the performance of major systems in the building and to address inefficiencies that would otherwise cost owners thousands of dollars more in utility spend.
We have observed that multifamily buildings with central hot water heating systems often illuminate the vast benefits of retro-commissioning projects. This is largely the case for heating systems that consist of a high-efficiency condensing boiler — and their issues can be compounded when the system includes a cogeneration (cogen) system. While these highly efficient systems are capable of realizing significant energy savings, they can only do so when they are designed, installed, and operated appropriately.
The most significant benefit of condensing boilers is their higher efficiency. This is achieved by recovering the latent heat from the exhaust gases and is predominantly dependent on the temperature of the return water served to the boiler as shown in the figure below. When the return water temperature rises above a certain temperature (120℉ in this instance), the boilers are no longer able to recover the latent heat, thereby losing their efficiency benefits. For this reason, it is imperative to accurately control the operation of these boilers to ensure the lowest return water temperature possible.
Over the past few years, we have seen issues at over a dozen properties with nearly identical systems and operation parameters. In most cases, the condensing boilers were operating such that they were incapable of taking advantage of higher overall efficiency. What started as a compliance-driven study in these buildings became much more, delivering real value to the owner and residents.
Condensing Boilers and Cogeneration System: A Case Study
Here is an example of an LL87 audit we performed on a 10-year-old building where we encountered issues with the operation and efficiency of the heating system. This building is representative of a typical high-efficiency heating system that includes condensing boilers and a cogen unit. On paper, this building should be fairly energy efficient considering the age and equipment. However, that was not the case. It is likely the building owner would not have considered performing an energy audit had it not been mandated by LL87.
Building Type: Multifamily Rental
Location: NYC Metro
Major Mechanical Systems: Condensing Boilers and Cogeneration System
Client Concerns: High utility consumption and spend
Client Engagement: Local Law 87 Energy Audit and Retro-commissioning Study
We started our analysis by benchmarking energy and water data for the property in our EnergyScoreCards platform. We immediately saw red flags. The first of which was the property’s Energy Use Index (EUI): it was more than double the national average for multifamily buildings. And when compared to buildings in New York City, the EUI was in the bottom 50% among buildings of similar age and occupancy.
Through our analysis, we discovered some major issues with the operation and control strategy of the heating system. Most importantly, we found problems with the integration and controls of the heating and cogeneration systems – the biggest reason why the building had a significantly higher energy usage.
Typically, a majority of these issues are discovered and addressed during the commissioning phase of construction, but, unsurprisingly, we learned that this system was never commissioned upon installation. Some of the most critical issues observed with the systems include:
- The cogen unit was operating at all times, regardless of the thermal or electric loads, resulting in excess natural gas usage.
- The cogen unit was isolated from the heating system, effectively reducing the cogen unit to an inefficient and very expensive natural gas generator, basically negating the benefits of the plant.
- The boilers were operating throughout the year to provide heating and domestic hot water (DHW) because the cogen was not being utilized as intended.
- While the DHW setup was installed in the boiler room, the piping was set up so that the heated hot water had to travel through the whole building before going to the DHW system located right next to the boilers.
- The boiler controller did not have any feedback from the DHW setup, resulting in the boilers operating continuously regardless of the loads.
- The controls setpoints were overridden to provide high-temperature hot water all year round to the DHW system. The high water temperature yields significantly lower boiler efficiency thereby reducing the advantages of condensing boilers.
Based on our findings, it was clear that the recommendations needed to comprehensively target the distribution and controls for the system. In order to resolve these issues, we recommended these measures:
- Reconfigure the current piping setup to integrate the cogen thermal output into the heating system loop. This would ensure the cogen plant would work as it was originally designed, not as a natural gas generator.
- Reconfigure the distribution system to direct heated water straight to the DHW setup, rather than loop through the whole building before reaching its intended destination.
- Upgrade the existing controller to one capable of integrating the boiler, DHW setup, and the cogen unit. Install temperature sensors on DHW tanks and provide an input to the new controller. This would allow the building to change its operations based on the weather and season. It would also allow the boilers to operate at higher efficiency in the absence of a DHW demand.
- Install cogen unit controls to optimize its operation based on either the electric or thermal load.
Implementing these recommendations is expected to resolve the existing issues with the operation and overall efficiency of the system. Based on our energy modeling, the measures listed above will reduce the building’s energy usage overall by over 35% per year. This would place the building in the top 25% for buildings in its category in the City. Paired with other measures recommended as part of the study, the building’s overall energy usage could be reduced by half and have an expected simple payback of less than 5 years.
This project illustrates the potential benefits a qualified retro-commissioning agent can provide. Through retro-commissioning studies, property owners not only comply with City law, but also create energy-saving projects that have long-lasting impacts on the efficiency, operation, and maintenance of their buildings’ systems. In many cases, the savings generated from finding and fixing critical issues and their root causes have been significantly greater than the cost of performing the audit and retro-commissioning study.
Do you have similar systems in your building and have concerns about their efficiency? Is your building performing similarly? Contact us and we’ll find the root cause of your issue!
- LAARS Heating Systems 6000 Condor Drive Moorpark, CA 93021 ©LAARS Heating Systems 0409 Document 1183C
- One City Built to Last TRANSFORMING NEW YORK CITY BUILDINGS FOR A LOW-CARBON FUTURE – Technical Working Group Report by The City of New York
Want to reduce your energy and water costs in your cooperative or condominium? Tired of ongoing energy and water issues clogging up your email inbox and board meetings? Or are you just not sure where to begin?
A few years ago, Park Terrace Gardens in Upper Manhattan decided to form committees that focused on specific issues. This sparked the creation of their Green Committee lead by four passionate women – Osi Kaminer, Kim Schwab, Bev Solow, and Leslie Zema.
What Does a Green Committee Do?
It’s a group of residents that…
- Serve as a resource and contact for the board, shareholders, property manager, and super to address residents’ energy efficiency and sustainability needs.
- Understand the building’s energy needs.
- Research and enlist energy and water management experts, like Bright Power.
- Assess savings opportunities and the best next steps in collaboration with experts, building staff, and board members.
- Collaborate with the coop management, elect to move forward with a plan of action, implement savings measures, and keep the board up-to-date throughout the installation.
- Review project success and savings with the board and shareholders once the project is complete, including a way to ensure ongoing savings year after year.
- Continually learn from other buildings’ energy initiatives.
Green Committee Goal: Keep residents comfortable while keeping energy costs down.
Park Terrace Gardens Green Committee at Work
Through completing their own utility benchmarking, Park Terrace Gardens became aware of the building’s needs to reduce inefficiencies. Needing to comply with local energy auditing laws, the board, by recommendation of the Green Committee, brought on Bright Power to complete a comprehensive energy audit that dug deeper into the property’s opportunities to find sustainable savings. The energy audit report helped elucidate and pinpoint long-term issues and allowed the board cost-effective options to implement energy and water savings measures. The Green Committee was critical to the success of this project and overall process, coordinating with the energy experts while collaborating with the board and shareholders to ensure smooth sailing. As a result, the measures below were completed at the property and the savings are monitored using EnergyScoreCards.
Upgraded boiler and balanced the steam distribution system
The Green Committee counted over 80 windows that were left open during heating season! Since the upgrade, the Green Committee used portable temperature sensors to educate residents on the changes they can make in their unit to get the most out of the retrofit, like moving furniture or heavy curtains away from radiators.
Weatherstripped exterior doors and in-unit AC systems
To tackle this effort and get the return on their investment, the Green Committee created gift bags for each resident complete with weatherstripping designed for windows with A/C units, detailed installation instructions, and handwritten personalized notes to each resident. The committee saw huge success with this campaign and are sure the personalized touch made all the difference. This measure has greatly reduced the amount of air infiltration coming into the building, minimizing the amount of energy wasted in both heating and cooling seasons.
Installed LED lighting
The board sponsored a giveaway of 5 LED bulbs for each unit in an effort to attract shareholders and reduce energy costs. The Green Committee set up the building’s conference room with different types of LED bulbs to demonstrate to the tenants that LED lights can have the same – or often times better – lighting output as other energy-intensive bulbs. Through education and live demonstration, the committee changed the opinions of shareholders. In tandem with a common area lighting retrofit, the building saw the lighting retrofit reduced 15% in electricity cost reductions in the first year!
Installed faucet aerators
The Green Committee shared with the building shareholders how and why they were making the change – using the audit report as a crutch to validate the investment opportunity (payback was under 6 months!). Supplemented with informational flyers and thank you notes, the committee was able to make a big impact.
Advice From Park Terrace Gardens on Starting Your Green Committee
1. Regularly educate and communicate with board members and residents.
Committee member, Osi Kaminer, says that their commitment to consistently educating the board is the key to their success. She also says that having a committee member serve as a board member to liaise between the two groups is crucial. This ensures the committee gets in front of the board regularly and can continue to push forward the Green Committee’s agenda outside of meetings.
Osi attributes their success with residents to the constant communication and open access to committee members. The committee created a group email for shareholders that would forward to the Green Committee and the property manager. They also publicized their phone numbers and welcomed regular contact. This personal communication reminded the other shareholders that the committee members were residents themselves, making shareholders more receptive to the Green Committee’s suggestions.
2. Don’t shy away from shareholders who complain.
Osi is clear: the committee’s goal is to ensure everyone is as comfortable as possible. While they know they may not be able to make everyone happy, they can make everyone comfortable.
Investigating a shareholder’s complaints about a cold unit sparked a visit where the committee learned that a previous tenant had removed a radiator from the unit. And, in discussing this with the shareholder, the committee learned that there were other units facing the same issues. If they had simply said “the boiler is set above the temperature required by law” and moved on, they would never have learned about the missing radiators in multiple units.
3. Understand the Board’s Goals.
Have the committee start with a list, provided by the board, of items they may want to explore and address. Let the committee investigate and share back their findings with the board. Keeping your goals aligned will be a constant reminder – you are both on the same side with the same goal.
4. Look to Others’ Success.
This Green Committee attended many workshops and connected with other buildings that completed or were undergoing similar projects. By learning from those who already have gone through the process, the Park Terrace Gardens Green Committee knew about potential roadblocks before they hit them. And, they were able to show what a project might look like on the other side, exciting the board and shareholders.
Read more detailed information about the steam system upgrades in this Building Energy Exchange case study.
See the survey the Green Committee used to help our engineers understand residents’ behavior when it comes to heating and cooling their apartment here.
See an example of a flyer the Green Committee posted thanking residents for their participation in NYSERDA’s Energy Reduction Plan here.
The Bronx is quickly becoming New York’s favorite borough for new multifamily affordable housing developments. Bright Power sat down with Aaron Koffman from The Hudson Companies to dig deeper into why.
(Bright Power) How did Hudson Companies come to develop affordable housing projects in the Bronx after much of the firm’s historic affordable housing development activity had been in Brooklyn?
(Aaron) Hudson’s been around for 31 years now. Early on, we did work with Housing Partnership to build home ownership units in various places all over the city. Hudson built a lot of two story walk-ups, low-rises, side-by-side kind of developments that were 80-100 units, in the Bronx, Brownsville and even in Fort Greene. It was a great way to bring stability to the communities, since in many cases the land was vacant or underutilized. Then Hudson took its focus toward market-rate housing in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. We did a lot of deals in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
I came on board in 2008 and ever since we’ve focused more heavily on affordable housing. Personally, I really wanted to get us back in the Bronx. The Bronxchester RFP was announced in 2013, and we loved the site. It was mostly vacant, in a great neighborhood next to the subway and all the shopping. And so we went after it, and formed the team for La Central. Thankfully we won and have been going to the Bronx ever since.
Where we can do great work in the Bronx, we would love to do it. Of course, theBronx has become very hot so now there are areas of the Bronx that are not affordable for affordable housing, which is a problem. So we’ve known about it, and then should’ve done more, didn’t do enough, and now we’re back doing a lot.
La Central, 430 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, NY
(Bright Power) How does developing affordable housing in the Bronx differ from other areas of New York City?
(Aaron) From an economic perspective, the difference is very minor, if at all, between affordable housing in the Bronx and affordable housing in Brooklyn. Taking the economics out, there are more cases where the Bronx has better train access. We were focusing on Brooklyn so the Bronx feels new to Hudson – even if some of our fellow developers have been doing great work in the Bronx for years.
I like that it’s new to us. We keep trying to do more deals in Queens, but for one reason or another it hasn’t worked out, and so the Bronx is still sexy. Though, we love all of our boroughs equally, I love the community groups, elected officials, the incredible amount of pride, and the people and their stories in the Bronx.
(Bright Power) What role does the Mayor’s housing plan play in the increased attention on affordable housing development in the Bronx?
(Aaron) I think it’s always important when government makes a statement that they want to invest in communities. There’s an energy there that trickles down to the agencies and staff level where clearly, when the Mayor does make it a priority, the City does its best to execute that priority. For that reason, it’s great that Mayor de Blasio has made it more of a priority to put more investment into the Bronx and so has the Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr.
The Borough President tells a great story about how his son just graduated from college, and he and his friends moved to upper Manhattan but he wants him to move back to the Bronx. He wants his Bronx kid back in the Bronx, working as an engineer and living in the Bronx, and his son wants to be there. So the Borough President is really championing investment in the Bronx, and the Mayor is too. And so everything kind of follows suit with that energy, that’s a lot of tailwind for us.
I do think the City showed their cards a little early regarding the Jerome Avenue rezoning and brought some speculators into the market that drove land cost up considerably. Not trying to criticize the administration, but that seems to be what happened. Now you have market-rate developers like Chetrit who does great work but, in the South Bronx? You know what I mean: all of a sudden, where you wouldn’t have seen a market-rate developer, there they are.
(Bright Power) Congratulations on your success on winning the Spofford RFP! What do you think differentiated your proposal for the local officials, community and the City to choose your team?
(Aaron) Obviously I can’t speak as to how we were selected, but we crafted a team for The Peninsula that was first and foremost of the Bronx. We have incredible community partners, including Urban Health Plan – one of the largest employers in the South Bronx – and The Point CDC. And I think the great retailers, in part, joined our team because of our community partners, including Spring Bank, which already has a few branches in the Bronx, and a supermarket. We can activate it at night, because Hunts Point Brewery and Bascom Catering will be there and we can cater events in our open area. We want to try to bring more people in; it’s about inclusivity.
On the development side, I love our team. Our non-profit partner, MHANY, owns many properties across the street on Spofford so they know the neighborhood and certainly have expertise in affordable housing. Hudson brings even more expertise in affordable housing and ULURPs. Gilbane has an incredible depth – they’ve been around for 130 years as a construction company and are trying to expand their New York development. And I will give a shout out to the architects BLA and WXY – they did a beautiful job designing the project. We’ve all been there before, even on the non-profit side. And when you put it all together, that’s what made us so attractive.
(Bright Power) Do you think that implementing sustainable design strategies was a big differentiator?
(Aaron) I do, it’s about sustainability, there’s no question, and it’s also about resiliency. I don’t know if Hurricane Sandy resonates in the Bronx as much as it does in Brooklyn or the Rockaways, but resiliency plays a role.
We’re in a different world where people are more cognizant of their utility use. People understand that power is polluting. Community leaders want to see that their neighborhood has the most sustainable and resilient development in the area. I’ve heard many elected officials boast about the green elements of these projects. And it is meaningful to people. I have talked to tenants of ours on other projects; they’re happy to brag about this.
At Hudson, it’s not just about us saying that we’re about the sustainable stuff, it’s that we’ve actually done it before. We know solar, passive house, cogen, and yet we still want to do one better. Also, we’re sustainable in a smart way – affordable housing depends on finite resources and we must weigh cost premiums to make sure we are doing it in an intelligent fashion.
(Bright Power) Hudson Companies was one of the first affordable housing developers to commit to implementing solar energy on their affordable housing projects. How has your view of solar energy changed over the years?
(Aaron) We’ve gone from solar being an interesting idea to solar being a no-brainer. We’ve done some great work with Bright Power in the solar and sustainability department, and the economics have only supported more investment in solar. It saves the development money, which makes the project more sustainable and allows us to put more investment back into the development.
I wish at Dumont Green we’d done a bigger solar project. Still, we’re putting in-ground and tree lighting to enhance security at night, which could happen, in part, because we’re taking electricity savings and putting it back into the building.
We see solar success every day at Gateway. I hear from a lot of Gateway tenants how proud they are when they drive down Flatlands Avenue and they see all the solar arrays up on Elton Street and they know that they live there. They are very proud that it feels state of the art. To reach 1 million watts of solar power generated at Gateway was a proud moment for our team.
We were drinking so much Kool-Aid on the solar at Gateway, which The Related Companies was a partner on, that Related has just now installed their own solar array on the Related Gateway mall. A big company like Related is always looking at the bottom line, so for them to buy in on the retail side is quite the testimony for solar.
Gateway Elton Street, Solar PV System
(Bright Power) Have you noticed tangible benefits or received feedback from residents about sustainable design elements of your buildings?
(Aaron) La Central is going to be the first affordable job where we’re doing VRF (variable refrigerant flow) HVAC systems. I’m really excited to move those tenants in, even though it will not be complete until 2020, and have them find out that the air conditioner is remote controlled, it’s already installed, and their windows are as big as possible – you get all the light!
I like to ask our tenants, “You know that new apartment smell, that smell of a freshly painted apartment?” And of course they immediately say yes. Then I tell them, “Yeah, unfortunately that smell is actually bad for you. That’s off-gassing.” When they walk into our apartments, they don’t smell anything. Then, it immediately hits them – oh, these guys are doing it better. Whether it’s no VOC paint, no vinyl, or putting dishwashers in the apartments (major water savers), I see that tenants are happy to be in our developments because we’ve taken steps that give tenants respect. That speaks volumes to how Hudson does business.
(Bright Power) Many of your development projects, including La Central and Spofford, are joint ventures with non-profit housing providers. What do you look for when selecting your development partner/s on a project? Can you describe the benefits they bring to your developments?
(Aaron) Non-profit partners are essential to every affordable job that we’ve done. What do we look for? We want a real partner. We are not an 800 lb. gorilla for-profit developer. We want collaboration. We want feedback and criticism. The non-profits in NYC are incredibly sophisticated, and we want their knowledge to help inform our projects. We look for that feeling of collaboration, competency in a particular field of social service depending on the building program, or general knowledge of services/neighborhood – if we can find all three, the better.
About Aaron Koffman: As Principal, Aaron heads Hudson’s affordable housing pipeline and portfolio totaling over 3,600 units and ~$2 billion in costs. At 797 kW and spanning nine buildings, the Gateway Elton solar project is collectively the largest solar installation on an affordable housing development in New York State. Aaron is the project lead on several large affordable housing/mixed-use new construction developments in the city, including: the 992-unit La Central development in the South Bronx, the 740-unit Spofford Detention Center Redevelopment in Hunts Point, the 659-unit Gateway Elton development in East New York, and a 56-building affordable preservation portfolio in several Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.
Prior to joining Hudson, Aaron was a Project Manager with Forest City Ratner Companies, focusing on the 6,400-unit Atlantic Yards (now Pacific Park) residential development. In addition to serving on the Boards of the NYU Furman Center, Coro New York and the Center for Urban Pedagogy), Aaron is an Adjunct Professor of Affordable Housing Finance at NYU. Aaron received a Masters of City Planning degree from MIT and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UC Berkeley.
Andy McNamara, VP West Coast Operations at Bright Power (left) with Aaron Koffman, Principal at Hudson Companies (right) at Gateway Elton’s solar PV system unveiling.
In the US, buildings account for about 40% of the primary energy use. Now, a lot is being done to cut that number down and companies like ours exist to do just that. Sustainable building practices are on the rise with recently developed standards like LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, and Passive House. Cities are mandating stricter energy usage reporting to collect better data that they can then use to inform green policy and legislation. So I’d say we’re headed in the right direction but there’s one thing that always sticks out in my mind when thinking about efficiency in the long term, the one variable that is arguably the most important and the most difficult to control: people.
In any kind of building, though particularly in multifamily properties, the people using the building ultimately decide whether or not it’s going to be efficient. New equipment and cutting edge technology are only going to get you so far if the people inside the building don’t adopt them. As simple as that may sound, we’ve often found it to be a barrier to long-term savings and performance. In some ways it makes sense since energy efficient behavior can be in direct conflict with comfort and productivity. Letting the AC blast for hours on a sweltering summer day just feels right sometimes. But as studies have shown, this part of the energy efficiency equation is crucial to its successful results. Let’s take a look at some of the behavioral studies that explore this topic.
The US Department of Energy conducted a study in 2014 to assess the behavior of federal employees, operations and maintenance staff, and visiting public in federal buildings and their impact on building energy performance. The study employed strategies from peer-reviewed literature that are shown to drive behavioral change and aligned them with specific sustainability goals. Key strategies used to promote behavioral changes included education regarding emerging technologies, offering rewards, and securing commitments. The study concluded that the groups’ behavior significantly impacted the results of proposed energy efficiency initiatives. These results were not surprising to me, nor would I expect them to be surprising to anyone, but the fact of the matter remains that the behavioral component of energy efficiency initiatives, while crucial, is the most difficult to control and often most easily overlooked.
Behavioral Cooperation in Action
So what happens when you get everyone who works or lives in a given building on board with energy efficiency? According to a study published by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, occupants contribute to 30% of a building’s energy consumption. These findings inspired Allegheny County’s Sustainability Office team to collaborate with an energy management services provider, to implement a program to improve employee behavior towards energy efficiency within the organization. The county’s participant group consisted of 6,000 employees, making it a significant opportunity to observe energy conservation as affected by behavioral change. The program was based on four key steps:
- understanding individuals’ behavior and establishing a baseline
- raising awareness and communicating the impact of energy conservation
- creating a sustainable behavioral program
- revisiting existing programs and improving upon their practices.
This effort proved to be a huge success at the organization. In just a few months, the county saw significant improvements in three key behaviors: turning off lights, turning off computers when not in use, and switching to a community printer, which in turn led to measurable energy savings. See Figure 1 below for more detailed findings.
In Allegheny County, energy consumption went down thanks to a concerted effort to change attitudes and behaviors, but I wondered whether or not we were starting with a low bar since the US is known for being a global energy hog. Would the same be true in other, more energy savvy parts of the world?
Several similar studies have also been conducted in countries where the general awareness of and responsibility towards energy efficiency is observed to be higher than the global average.
The 2013 paper by the European Environment Agency that analyzed the behavioral impact on consumption patterns also published findings on the impact of behavior on energy efficiency. It showcases that an interface between policymaking and human behavior is key to achieving sustained reductions in energy consumption. As noted in the paper, for several energy efficiency measures implemented in Europe, the success has depended crucially on individuals to understand the information they receive and to act upon it. One of the prime examples highlighted in the study combines direct and indirect feedback methods such as deploying smart meters, installing in unit energy consumption displays, providing detailed bill analysis and historic consumption comparisons. These strategies have been most successful in changing individual behavior to achieve energy savings. And it makes perfect sense.
You can install the most efficient, cutting edge technology on the market but if you don’t get your people to adopt it, it’s just not going to be effective. Take faucet aerators, for example. These innocuous fixtures are tremendous energy savers, but all someone has to do to impede on those savings is unscrew it from their faucet. Explain to the resident how they work and allow them to be a part of the selection process and you’ll see your long-term savings.
These are just few examples in the long list of studies and observations that highlight the importance of individual behavior in this context. It would not be farfetched to say that the success of emerging technologies and improved practices hinges on its users as much as the product’s viability and cost implications.
By no means can behavior alone achieve our goal of operating a more efficient building, providing a more comfortable residence, or living in a more energy efficient world, but it is crucial to our success in any one of those endeavors.
Wolfe, A.K., Malone, E.L., Heerwagen, J., & Dion, J. 2014. Behavioral Change and Building Performance: Strategies for Significant, Persistent, and Measurable Institutional Change. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA.
Zachery Ambrose, Ashley Jones, Sally Russell 2014. Energy Saving Behavior Change for the 21st Century. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.
Rachel Young, Sara Hayes, Meegan Kelly, Shruti Vaidyanathan, Sameer Kwatra, Rachel Cluett, and Garrett Herndon 2014. International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. American Council for Energy Efficiency and Economy.
Our Top Picks for Energy Cinderella Stories
Every year there’s one small team that slowly but surely rises in ranks, winning upset after upset, while facing off against the biggest names in basketball. The same can be said for certain energy conservation measures which are often overlooked in favor of flashy, high-tech projects. But sometimes, it’s the smallest changes that make the biggest impact. Let’s take a look at our top five picks.
These simple devices are so easy to buy and install we’re not sure why they’re not on every faucet. By restricting the flow of water that comes out of your faucet, aerator implementation is a simple and cost-effective water conservation measure that can also result in major cost savings, especially across a portfolio. (Note: Low flow doesn’t mean crappy – we sometimes refer to the aerators we recommend as “engineered flow”, because they don’t get you any less clean, they just use less water.)
Where to start? Caulk has many useful applications. You probably think about caulking around the tub and countertops as preventing leaks into the floor below, but it also prevents mold and preserves indoor air quality. Caulking around your windows, doors and A/C sleeves keeps indoor air in and outdoor air out. So if you’re feeling the chill on a cold winter night, or when you receive your heating bill, feel around for air infiltration and try a fresh bead of caulk to keep you cozy and warm.
Energy efficient lighting has got to be one of the easiest upgrades out there with the most bang for its buck. The cost of the bulbs themselves are quickly recovered in short payback periods and improved quality of life. That’s right, efficient lighting also means comfortable lighting. Gone are the days of flickery twisty CFL bulbs – get yourself some of the new LEDs and enjoy beautiful light, much longer bulb life (10x fewer bulb changes) and much less unwanted heat, leading to a balanced indoor environment and budget.
If you’ve ever accidentally backed into an uninsulated pipe, you’ll surely understand the value of pipe insulation. Pipes get hot, really hot, and that’s exactly what they’re made to do. What they’re not made to do is retain that heat. This is where pipe insulation comes in. Attaching insulation around every heat and hot water pipe is not only an important safety measure, it also significantly cuts down heat loss, meaning you’ll have lower heat and hot water bills.
Control Your Controls
Sometimes the biggest savings are right under your nose. Many building owners implement building controls of some form. But more often than not, once the controls system is in place, it’s left to operate on its own without much oversight. Checking in on your controls is the best place to start when something isn’t working, but it’s an even better practice to check in when everything seems to be working fine. You never know what you might see. After all, a proactive approach to energy management is the real Cinderella story every year.
Passive House, or PassivHaus as you may have seen it written, is an innovative new approach to energy efficient design and construction practices. We’re excited to see it popping up across the United States more and more. There are plenty of well-covered examples of these projects – their potential impact on residential energy conservation efforts is unmatched. But what are people really talking about when they say Passive House? And more importantly, should you be considering it for your next development?
What is Passive House?
Passive House is a recently-developed German building standard that takes energy efficiency to the next level.* Buildings that are designed to this standard are called “Passive Houses,” but they aren’t just single family homes. Passive Houses can include multifamily and commercial developments, too.
Passive Houses require less energy to heat and cool, and are up to 90% more efficient than the existing building stock. Insulation and superior air sealing are the primary focus of Passive House design. The goal is to design an extremely air-tight building envelope, limiting outside air coming into the building. This allows for the ventilation to be managed mechanically, which dramatically improves indoor air quality without consuming unnecessary energy.
What are the benefits?
Passive Houses are built to exceptional standards, and the benefits follow suit. The fine-tuned control over indoor air quality and temperature make Passive Houses extremely comfortable for residents throughout changing seasons and across climates. An added perk of the focus on insulation is that they are also much more sound-proof than traditional buildings – something our friends in NYC and other bustling cities across the country certainly covet.
Additionally, Passive House is a smart financial investment. Because the buildings are so well insulated, their heating and cooling systems can be dramatically smaller, which helps offset some of the costs of higher quality envelope. The highly efficient design reduces energy usage and operating costs dramatically, making up any additional construction cost within a few years.
And, of course, these buildings are good for the environment.
How do I know if it makes sense for me?
While existing buildings can be retrofitted to these standards, Passive House is most common for newly constructed single family homes, multifamily buildings, and commercial real estate developments. If you have an upcoming construction project, Passive House is an excellent option to explore if you want to maximize comfort and minimize utility costs. The key is to incorporate it into the design process as early as possible for an easier transition to high-performance design.