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Going Green in Established Buildings

Brand-new green buildings with fancy environmentally friendly features make headlines all the time. But the vast majority of the city’s housing stock is not brand-new. That’s where one green program, LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (EB), can come in.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design, is a ratings system offered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Much of the LEED program has focused on steps that can be taken to make new construction greener. Buildings can earn credits for each step taken in a variety of subjects, from reducing construction pollution to improving indoor environmental quality. Ratings are bestowed from simply “certified,” for the lowest amount of green innovation, to “platinum,” the highest.

But since 2005, there has also been a LEED program to make environmentally friendly improvements at existing buildings. The EB program is in the process of being revamped because the old one had too much overlap with the new construction program, says Lauren Riggs, coordinator for market development for the USGBC. “It was really hard,” she says, adding that it practically required owners to rebuild. “We needed to make it more feasible for operators of existing buildings.”

The USGBC is putting the final touches on the new EB and is finishing a reference guide that will provide existing property owners with expanded and detailed information on what they need to do to obtain LEED certification. Riggs says the guide is expected to be completed by summer.

Part of EB is examining the condition of the building and recording data for a set period of time, between three and twelve months, about things ranging from energy efficiency to how much residents recycle. Another part is proving that upgrades have been made at the building. Say the boiler performance is lacking, then improvements have to be shown over several months of data that indicate the system is operating more efficiently. Beyond that, the process involves setting policies for the building, such as one that management will only buy green cleaning products or use environmentally friendly contractors.

Buildings that want to participate can make improvements under six different subject headings: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental air quality, and innovation in operations (a catchall that can include anything not covered in the regulations). Some of the subjects have required procedures; others are optional.

One of the most important steps in the LEED process is to have an “energy-management commissioning” performed, i.e., an overview of the building’s mechanics, machinery, and heating and cooling elements to see how efficiently they are running and what needs to be done to make them more efficient. LEED bases its approval on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. “We require that they meet a minimum score of 69, which is about 19 or 20 percent more efficient than the average building in the U.S.,” Riggs says.

Most of the subjects have items that are required, such as a minimum water-efficiency standard. But then, under each heading, there are optional ways to earn points. For example, buildings can get points for installing solar panels or purchasing solar-power credits. One way that New York City buildings have an advantage is that they earn points for being near mass transit, says Riggs. If 75 percent of the residents use mass transit to commute, the building earns four points toward its LEED certification.

Other ways to earn credits are more complex. One topic is storm-water management. To prove that the building is working to reduce water runoff, documentation has to be provided to show how much rain runs off the structure and where it goes, along with proof that the property is working to reduce chemicals that go into the storm water.

Riggs says that the USGBC does not police buildings to ensure that residents are really using the subway, not taxis, or that the superintendent is buying low-mercury lamps. It’s more about having a policy in place and proving it with the proper documentation. However, if the building wants to label itself as LEED-certified, it must be recertified every five years (neither as complex nor as costly as doing it the first time).

Riggs admits that some of the standards required under LEED are more difficult to attain for multi-tenant buildings. “Some of it is hard to control,” she says. “For a lot of buildings that are multi-tenant, they do a tenant agreement. They just have to sign a document that says, ‘Yes, I will purchase to this standard of recycled paper products,’ or whatever.”

Other credits are easier to obtain, such as ones that are more building- wide (having a policy in place for sustainable purchasing for facility alterations and additions, for instance). If the building implements a policy stating that it will only use green contractors, it can earn a point toward a LEED designation.

Paying a LEED-certified consultant is not required, although, Riggs says, “it absolutely helps.” Reflecting that philosophy, condos or co-ops that hire a consultant are awarded one point.

“The thing that having a LEED accredited professional will help the most with is going through the documentation process,” Riggs notes.

So, how much does it cost to get a LEED EB designation? Cost is extremely tricky to project because the factors for each building vary so wildly, says Murray Levi, a LEED consultant and vice president and director of architecture and sustainability for LiRo Architects and Planners.

Cost will depend on the size and layout of the building, the type of heating and cooling systems, the building’s condition, its location, and the enthusiasm, dedication, and innovation of staff, management, and residents.

Michael Gubbins is vice president of residential management for the Albanese Group, which owns and built the Solaire, a building that obtained LEED certification for new construction, and the Vanguard, which was erected six years ago. The buildings, both rentals with about 300 units each (293 at the Solaire and 301 at the Vanguard), are now seeking EB. Gubbins estimates the cost of the process is about six percent of a building’s operating expenses, a projection that he says would probably hold true for condos and co-ops as well as rentals. But because the changes made under LEED make a building more energy efficient, Gubbins estimates a return on investment in less than a year.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA) also provides some assistance. First, it has a low-interest loan program for energy-efficiency-related upgrades. Secondly, it will pay 50 percent of the cost of three elements of EB’s energy and water efficiency and indoor air quality. Craig Kneeland, NYSERDA senior project manager, says the incentives cover both consulting fees to examine the building in those three areas as well as actual repairs or upgrades.

But the agency will not pay out more for water efficiency and indoor air quality than for energy efficiency. “Say you’re going to get [a total of] $20,000 for energy efficiency, the maximum you’re going to get for water efficiency and indoor air quality is $20,000,” Kneeland explains. In Con Edison territory, there is a $100,000 cap on how much NYSERDA will contribute. The agency can provide consultants, but if buildings bring in their own, they will only be reimbursed for the percentage of work done in the three designated areas.

Up until recently, most of the action on LEED for Existing Buildings: O&M has been on the commercial side. About 40 EB projects are pending in New York City; Riggs does not believe any are co-ops and condos. The bulk of new-construction LEED projects have been non-residential. “It’s very possible for multi-unit residential to do LEED for existing buildings,” she says. “It just takes a little more thinking on the project-team side – how to deal with multiple units and different tenants.”

Russell Unger, executive director of the New York chapter of the USGBC, says condos and co-ops add a layer of complexity to the LEED process. “You have to take into account the use of your whole building,” Unger says. “If you’re the owner of a commercial building, it’s simpler.” For example, if it comes to reducing water usage by a certain percentage, not every resident has to comply, but most will have to submit.

So, what do you get with a LEED for Existing Buildings: O&M certificate? According to the USGBC, LEED commercial buildings command higher rents. Levi says he believes that would translate in the co-op and condo world into higher real estate value. Gubbins adds that the energy improvements made will always wind up saving money.

But more than that, Levi says, going to a LEED certification is “really about the way we lead our lives. It’s this wonderful system that has a whole road map for operations and management. It’s all about saying, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’”

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