Americans today are moving toward a more well-developed awareness of their environment, and what it takes to protect and preserve earth’s natural resources. City dwellers and suburbanites alike typically recycle paper, plastic and glass, and strive to conserve energy wherever possible. Some even garden and compost. The “green movement,” though, didn’t start with this enlightened generation, or even a generation or two back. In one form or another, various groups and organizations have been advocating for greener, more environmentally-conscious living for nearly two centuries.
Back In the Day….
The American environmental movement first began to take shape in the early 1830s when Henry David Thoreau wrote his novel, Maine Woods, calling for conservation of and respect for nature, along with federal preservation of virgin forest. By the 1860s, the United States government had already begun to create parks and to set aside wild lands for public good. Yosemite became the first national park in 1872, the same year the Audubon Society was founded. The Sierra Club was formed in 1892, and the Forest Reserve Act was ratified before the century was out. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt visited Yosemite in 1903 and publicized and popularized conservation. By1916, the National Park Service was established and Americans were embracing environmental causes.
The Rise of the Green Movement
The national parks movement lost some steam as the 20th century wore on. With two World Wars and the Great Depression to contend with, environmentalism as we know it did not remain a concern for most Americans or the federal government during the first half of the 1900s. It would take a freak event in Pennsylvania in 1948 to prompt a national outcry and fuel new concerns for more personal issues like clean air.
In October of 1948, a lethal “fog” formed over the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, when weather conditions trapped a haze of dangerous chemicals from American Steel & Wire and Donora Zinc Works over the town. By the time rain dispersed the fog, 20 people were dead and 7,000 were ill or otherwise affected; the ghastly event raised public awareness nationwide, and once again Americans were focused on environmentalism.
The beginning of the modern “green” movement could be traced to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. Rachel Carson’s book on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, also reached an eager audience during this era, leading to numerous steps at state and federal levels to clean up the environment. New laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the establishment of Earth Day, the banning of DDT, the Water Pollution Control Act, and the Endangered Species Act were put into place.
In the 21st century, Americans are even more interested in efficient living. Thanks to ongoing research and development, eco-friendly lifestyles are possible not only in single family homes, but also in co-ops, condominiums, and other multifamily dwellings.
Improving Your Space
There is an old adage about blooming where you are planted, which loosely translates to do the best you can where you are. This is definitely true for older condos, co-ops, and multifamily properties. Local governments are generally responsible for property development, and as such they recognize the impact construction and renovation have on the surrounding environment. Laws continue to change locally, and at a state and federal level to facilitate and guarantee positive changes. For almost a decade now, green building guidelines have been modeled on a rating system known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. The LEED system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to promote green residential and commercial building construction.
When it comes to eco-friendly improvements, older multifamily dwellings may require more creative effort to achieve environmentally sound policies and practices, but small collective efforts do equal positive changes. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something to protect the environment and to conserve resources.
Some Sustainable Solutions
A condo board or HOA looking to head for greener pastures may find the idea overwhelming at first. But small steps can be taken to generate improvement.
“One of the simplest ways to understand how efficient your community is would be to ask how your community handles its water,” say Nicholas Ginther, a landscape architect with DW Smith Associates in Wall Township, New Jersey.
Ginther's focus is on sustainable designs and drainage solutions for community associations. “Water is one of the most destructive forces impacting the ongoing health, safety and cost of maintenance in a community,” he says. “Water in its many forms can ruin mechanical and electrical equipment, drown landscaping, cause foundation settlement, and create washouts or sinkholes. In cold weather, water can form ice slicks, crack pavements, and lift sidewalks.”
Landscapes offer a good place for associations to begin their water conservation effort. New Englanders have been spoiled, some say, by an abundance of cheap water—but as other regions of the country have seen, that may not last forever.
Curb appeal is important to homeowners, but there are ways to keep up appearances and still conserve water. “People want lush green lawns, so it is not a hard sell, but it takes more time and effort to make changes and still keep the grass green,” says Bart Poulin of Greener Horizon Landscape Management & Construction in Middleboro, Massachusetts.
“We have recommended not irrigating mature planting beds,” he explains. “Typically, two years after planting, a shrub or tree has rooted in enough to rely on the soil’s water supply. Turf requires more water in order to keep it green. For some money, you can change your turf irrigation heads out to an MP rotor head by Hunter. These heads can reduce water usage up to 30%,” he suggests. “Time management is also important with watering the turf. You can train your lawn to promote deeper root growth by watering more, but less often. For example, instead of watering five to six times a week for 30 minutes, you can work towards only watering two times a week with 45 minute intervals.”
Let the Sun Shine In
Fritz Kreiss is founder, president and CEO of Community Green Energy, LLC in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which develops and finances renewable energy and energy efficiency projects nationwide. Like Ginther, Kreiss searches for innovative ways to provide cost effective, environmentally-friendly solutions for co-ops and condominium owners, with a focus on the benefits of solar energy, and innovative ways to make solar power available to everyone.
Community virtual solar gardens, community choice aggregation, utility scale solar development and renewable energy financing are all areas of expertise under the Community Green Energy umbrella.
“While solar has been growing by leaps and bounds across America, people living in condominiums and co-ops have largely been unable to participate,” says Kreiss. He explains that most associations have individual meters for each unit, making it cost prohibitive to provide solar for single condo units, plus most associations’ roofs will not support an adequate array of panels — and maintenance and aesthetics issues also come into play.
Also, since condo associations operate as non-profit organizations, the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and depreciation can’t be used, and the ITC credit represents 50 percent of the payback on solar. As many as 80 percent of individuals and small businesses are supportive of solar energy but many can’t participate due to excess shade, renting rather than owning, or a roof that will not effectively support solar panels—not to mention the initial setup fees can be prohibitive. Solar gardens offer a viable solution, and a cost effective alternative to traditional energy sources.
Community Virtual Solar Gardens is a nationwide program developed by Community Green Energy (CGE) that allows condo owners to buy panels in a larger central solar array to offset their condo’s electric bill. Building a large central solar array reduces the cost of going solar substantially. Depending on the state, the solar electricity generated could be a financial credit in your bank account, on your electric bill or a kWh credit.
An added benefit for the homeowner is portability—in almost all cases you can take the benefits of ownership with you if you move. “With almost half the energy consumed being from heating and cooling, the initial design of any home should incorporate overhangs to block sunlight or maximize sunlight, depending on the season,” states Kreiss.
Go Green, Save Green
Sean Hirschhorn, CEO for Building Green Solutions, shares Kreiss’s concerns on heating and cooling cost. “Building Green Solutions works with multifamily buildings and condos to reduce fuel consumption primarily from heating and hot water,” he states. We work with boards and property management firms to customize a BGS system to meet the needs and configurations of just about any building.”
BGS captures the in-unit temperatures in each building, as well as the key analytics from the boiler and the HVAC system. This method supplies the information needed to allow for a customized cost savings plan to improve the bottom line and increase homeowner satisfaction. Also, check with your energy provider as various subsidiaries and rebate programs might be available in your community. Building Green Solutions currently concentrates services in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, with some customers across the greater U.S. and in Canada. For a list of energy incentives by state go to http://www.dsireusa.org/.
From hot water to storm water, solar gardens and/or traditional heating and cooling there are green experts with proven track records on problem solving and cost efficiency available for consultations and suggestions.
Whenever a board is faced with upgrades and repairs, a green alternative to traditional options should always be considered. Local, state and federal laws and any possible rebates should also be investigated. A board may obtain additional information from trade journals, industry professionals and trade shows as multifamily buildings move towards effective ways to reduce a property’s carbon footprint.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to New England Condominium. Associate editor Pat Gale contributed to this article.