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Problem Solved! Cameron S. Lory

Projects designed to benefit everyone in a building can be challenging enough, but when a project benefits only those who decide to participate, it can get even tougher. You worked with a co-op on the Upper West Side that successfully navigated these shoals. What’s the story?

We developed a master plan for an Upper West Side co-op on 98th Street – a prewar, six-story, 31-residential-unit building – to install a split air conditioning system that would allow individual units to cool their apartments. The system consists of an outdoor condensing or compression unit that is connected to a cassette unit inside each apartment. It’s the equivalent of going from window air conditioners to central air.

So the master plan was for the entire building, even though not everyone wanted to participate. How did that work?
Well, this was an interesting project because there was a limited group of forward-thinking shareholders that formed a grassroots movement to fund our work. They understood that they would pay upfront to have a master plan in place for all the units and that other people who came along and put in units later might or might not contribute to the fund.

So there was a group of people who wanted to have central air conditioning, but maybe not everybody in the building could afford it or wanted it. So the group ponied up the money and hired your firm to create a master plan that would allow every apartment to join in later, if the owners wanted to. Can you describe the plan and its challenges?
So the master plan had to do with locating all these condensing units on the roof and dealing with all of the code issues. There were infrastructure challenges, because it’s a beautiful building and you have 31 of these units, and you wouldn’t want any of them on the street facade. But there’s also limited space on the roof, because there are city and fire codes that require a great deal of open space. There were also seismic considerations. This is an older building with a wood-frame roof, so we don’t have a concrete deck to fasten to. So the design and layout of the platforms for the system connections were difficult to come up with. The master plan was a way of getting this done right so that everybody could have their units up there at some point in time.

So let’s say you’re on the third floor and the compressor is on the roof. How does the wiring work, and how does the refrigerant get to your apartment?
So with these split systems, that wiring is called the bundle. Some of the apartments can access the air conditioner units on the roof through the central courtyard or an off-street facade. So we could run that wiring down through there. We found that other apartments don’t have any real estate that’s connected to a part of the building where it’s acceptable to run these bundles of wiring and refrigerant and condensate and everything else. But we actually were able to enlarge a space within the building itself to run them down through and directly to those apartments.

So all of this was included in the original master plan?
It was a two-phased master plan. We first did a feasibility – a can-we-do-this-and-make-it-happen kind of assessment – and then we laid out how everything gets installed. We didn’t want to go in there and say, “This is what it’s going to cost for us to figure out all the details to this. Oh, by the way, it’s not actually going to work.” And so we did a proof of concept, and then we figured out all the details for the next phase.

So if there are other buildings interested in pursuing something like this, what advice would you offer them?
Obviously, the first thing is you’ve got to know your building and understand the basic infrastructure. How much electrical supply is there? In this case, there’s not an endless supply because they have a very limited line into the building. So we had to design the units to limit the amount of power each apartment drew, because otherwise they were going to be asking for more power than they actually had. You also need to take into consideration the maintenance requirements for your building, such as how old your roof is and when you’re planning to replace it, and have some sense of what other building projects might affect these air conditioning units and in what time frame.

Would you suggest having a separate alteration agreement?
That was the case with this project. The building has an alteration agreement for interior restoration projects, but there’s a separate alteration agreement that’s just for the master plan that calls for pre-installation meetings. That way we know that the installer is fully compliant and is implementing things properly for each unit. It can also mean reduced fees for the building, because if installers are following the master plan, we don’t have to do a lot of work on our end reviewing the alterations. A separate alteration agreement can also build a service component into the agreement so that the AC systems are maintained properly. So I would say those are the three things that we found that this building did right. Had they not done these things, well, I don’t think they would have been as happy with the end product. The project is working out very well.

Are there any other takeaways that boards should consider?
I think the biggest takeaway is that split-system AC units are a way they can reduce energy use in the building. They’re more efficient, and as the city is going more and more toward finding ways to reduce the use of gas and fossil fuels in buildings, this is a very good way to head in that direction.

The other important thing to understand, particularly in a city where we have so many older buildings, is that you want to guarantee equitable access to the building’s roof for all of these different users. If people go up and just say, “OK, I’m going to put my platform here and it’s going to work for me,” by the time you get to the 15th unit, let alone the 31st unit, the space is becoming incredibly crowded. A great deal of planning has to go into this so that everybody gets the benefit – not just the first person who planted his flag up there.

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