Saturday, July 5, 2008

Greening Brookline: One Condominium Building at a Time

I live in a three story brick U-shaped courtyard condominium building. Built in 1940, there are aspects of old world construction that give the place its character like the hard wood floors, solid wood panel doors and archways between the rooms. There are also many "art deco" flourishes, such as pink and black bathroom tiles in many of the units, that owners have dealt with in a number of ways over the years. But there is a solidity and thickness to the walls, with their settling cracks and impenetrability that makes hanging art require a masonry drill bit, that you just wouldn't find in newer construction. All in all, for a 68 year old building, its doing pretty well.

For better or worse, 50 unit owners have made an investment in this place. We are stuck with the building and all its foibles and we are stuck with each other! For those of you who also live in a condominium, I know you are shaking your head in a knowing way. For nothing focuses the forces of democracy, nor reveals the depths of petty differences, quite like the joint ownership of ones' home!

Into this setting, comes the realities of climate change, peak oil, environmental concerns in general, and the need to rethink just about everything about how we operate. A similar scenario is being replayed at just about every other condo building large and small across town I am sure. In response, a small group of us have formed an ad hoc committee to tackle the "Greening" of our building. One or two trustees are members. Each of us has our pet issue. Natural lawn care, more recycling, energy efficiency, etc. The number one problem of course are the two extremely thirsty industrial-sized oil-fed boilers rumbling away in the basement. Since we all had to shell out a painfully large extra amount of cash just to keep the things fed this winter, we are in no position to hire "experts" or buy our way to any amazing solutions. No, this is a DIY operation, but we are gung-ho! Motivated and hoping to motivate others. Plus, we happen to know someone who is an "expert" who is equally gung-ho who offered to come take a look at our building gratis and to offer us an initial evaluation and suggestions (Thank-you Jim!).

First on Jim's list, of course, was the "low hanging fruit" of insulation. Our back doors need replacing or at least weather stripping and the single pane glass windows could be covered. Same goes for the bare water pipes in the basement and the skylights in the stairwells. We are planning an "Eco-day" fun work day, with refreshments to get this work done. A bit of camaraderie and elbow grease will be empowering, ultimately saving a bit of energy. Then of course there's the issue of windows. Some of the units purchased new windows as a group a few decades ago. Problem was, it was optional, so not all the units have them. It's unclear whether or not the Trust can mandate new windows, but at a minimum we are hoping for storm windows for everyone. The irony here is that our heating system is so uneven that some people freeze while others boil. So what you get are people opening their windows! even after they shut off their radiators. So, how do you justify sweating (no pun intended) the energy loss of the windows when you have this going on? Ultimately, we would be better off with individual heat/cool/hot water units, running on natural gas in each condo. These would be much more efficient and comfortable, but the conversion cost too high and the energy source not renewable.

We are looking into converting to natural gas, as an interim solution. It is at least cleaner, cheaper and domestic. The National Grid commercial sales rep and installation contractor have been positive and encouraging, as they run around like the energizer bunny trying to service the demand from all those beleaguered oil customers. Indeed, the entire Northeast's greatest and most pressing sustainability challenge is the need to transition from oil heat dependence. We are pushing hard to make this happen before the cold months return.

What about the roof? No one can agree about whether or not it lacks insulation. Should we get an official energy audit? But what really got us excited was Jim's vision of the future. Up on that big flat roof of ours, he saw solar panels that could capture the sun's energy to heat our hot water, (currently heated from those same oil-guzzling beasts). I'm hoping that next year is the year for solar here, as the State legislature has just passed its new energy bill. Included therein are provisions for both rebates, the ability to rent solar panels to own (minimizing capital outlay) and if we are lucky enough to generate extra electricity we can sell it to NStar! Solar panels proliferated across Germany once the government set the buy back price of energy high enough to make investment in the panels worthwhile. Jim told us that with the help of an electrician we could do some of the installation ourselves. We are eager to get started!

On the long-term horizon the vision gets interesting. Jim's idea? Geothermal, zoned for each unit, with solar augmentation. We have the unique advantage here of having a large courtyard where we could sink many wells. How feasible is this? We don't really know. There is one house in Brookline on Winchester Street that derives all its heating/cooling energy needs from geothermal, but it is essentially a newly constructed building.

Here is where our seven member group got into trouble. Suddenly, there were rumors running wild through the building that this group of eco-freaks were going to be assessing everyone immediately for a $1,000,000 geothermal energy system! Our manager declared he wanted nothing to do with us. The shrill emails flew and no one was being rational. Obviously we had a communications problem. Not too surprising. We only have one annual unit owners meeting a year, at the end of the year. No one knows what's going on. It's natural that fear and concern about such major decisions would cause anxiety and fear. So added on to our to-day list was getting every unit owners email and doing a newsletter. The newsletter can share all the research information we turn up, like our rate of recycling, or energy use statistics. We can educate and encourage. We talked about maybe needed a big meeting.

Many owners thought "going green" meant more expensive. Our objectives are focused on both short and long term cost control and adopting practices that will generate less waste, etc. To me, this lack of foresight and denial of reality is the most frustrating part of this. Doing nothing is not a neutral option, it is a recipe for continued waste, inefficiency, escalating costs and increased environmental damage. Any well thought out investment we make at this point to reduce our energy use or shift to renewable energy sources or remove harmful chemicals from our environment will have paybacks that far outweigh the cost. Even if you are not planning on living in your unit for long, which condo is more attractive to the potential buyer, the one that has got its energy needs secured for the future or the one at the complex that has buried its head in the (Middle Eastern) sand? Being able to market our building as a "green" building and have that actually mean something, will be extremely valuable to a great many people for a multitude of reasons.

Changing our cleaning or landscaping company to ones that use earth friendly practices and products could be challenging. We are just now researching our options. A significant obstacle in this regard will be the discounts given for multi-building contracts. Our management company manages many buildings. Being a lone wolf building with a new company could be difficult or costly or both, we shall see.

While we are trying to do as much as we can for ourselves, we are also hoping that as governments respond to the needs for energy evaluation and improvements there will be some assistance coming our way, both technical and financial. Until then, we will carry on, hopefully communicating and exchanging ideas to bring some positive changes. A clearing house of information between condo associations would be a useful thing, so we all don't have to re-invent the wheel!

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