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Chances are you consider yourself someone who wants to be green, or is already well on the road to greening your house and doing your part to help the environment and lead a sustainable life. If you’ve been reading our Articles and Blogs then you no doubt have gotten the message that it’s all about taking responsibility – thinking through every discrete project in your renovation, every product to be used etc., to weigh its contribution to, or detraction from, more environmentally sustainable practices and healthy living.

Accountability goes up and down the chain –manufacturers are to be held accountable for the raw materials they use in their products and their manufacturing processes, the energy they consume and the amount and hazardous quality of the waste they produce; we the consumers are to be held accountable for our choices, whether we inadvertently give the go-ahead to manufacturers who use toxic substances or are responsible for additional energy consumption by purchasing goods produced in remote locations, and last but not least, we are to be held accountable for the amount of energy and resources we personally consume – that’s what I really want to talk about today.

Here’s the rub, and will probably make me very unpopular and potentially subject me to a flurry of hate mail: it’s time for tenants to be held accountable too. To the extent that heat, water use and water heating can be segregated and separately metered and controlled by a tenant, then the tenant should be given control over that system and have to pay for it. If it’s out of sight it’s out of mind, and tenants who don’t see the water bill to quantify how much water they use, nor see the electric bill for hot water, nor the heating bill and the effect it has when the thermostat is turned from 65 to 72 to 80, have no incentive to understand the situation or change it. Everyone should be directly accountable for the energy and resources they personally consume. On the flip side, it is the building owner’s responsibility to make the capital improvements necessary to allow the tenant to effectively lower consumption, this means dealing with heat loss by beefing up insulation, sealing cracks, installing new windows if necessary etc. (see our Article Insulation and the Building Envelope: Controlling Heat Loss and Gain), providing an efficient hot water heating and delivery system so that water, and the energy needed to heat that water, is not wasted (see our Article Water Heating - Understanding Water-Saving and Energy-Saving Measures), eliminating water leaks and so on.

I am not advocating that this be a windfall for landlords. Rents would need to be adjusted downward based on an objective standard for what water, heat and hot water heating bills would be in a particular building. This rent movement theory will work in market-rent apartments, it’s the rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments in NYC that pose the problem yet they can be the worst buildings because the rents, in particular rent control rents, are so low that the owners do not have the funds to make the capital improvements needed to green their buildings, or at a minimum make their buildings as energy efficient as possible by replacing windows, beefing up insulation and installing new efficient heat and hot water systems and so on. It means the rent control and rent stabilization laws will have to change to allow for lowering rents and shifting heat, water and hot water costs to tenants. Rent control tenants believe it is their god –given right not to have to pay for anything, but everyone must change for the greater good and by putting energy use and costs directly in the hands of the user/tenant, the tenant can control those costs.

Segregating heating in an efficient manner is the most difficult task and in large buildings may be unworkable, but in brownstones where the number of units is quite small it is very possible to have separate small gas-fired furnaces and efficient hot water heaters for each unit. Water can be easily segregated by branching feed lines off the main feed with separate meters, or sub-meters. Individual hot water heaters per unit is a very easy objective and can be attached to the main hot water feed line supplying each particular unit.

The US is behind Europe in energy conservation measures because Americans are obsessed with individual rights, like the “right” or should I say the expectation that water, heat and hot water are included in rent, without regard to whether those “rights” are selfishly enforced at the expense of doing the right thing on a large scale. Shifting our urban living paradigm to one that puts the use of energy and water, and its costs, in the control of the actual user is the best way to incentivize conservation.

Renovating a brownstone can be a daunting task. Over the years we have renovated many, and as we embarked on our latest renovation in Brooklyn we decided, in the face of the global warming catastrophe, rising fuel costs and sustainability issues, to go about it as a “green” project. Starry eyed and gung ho, I dove right in, started researching exactly what it means to be “green” and exactly what is encompassed by “green” building practices. Every inquiry led me in multiple directions, like an exploding star, and I rode a roller coaster of barely contained enthusiasm, to being overwhelmed, to being paralyzed, to finally being able to see the forest for the trees. 

Allow me to explain.  My epiphany started with becoming familiar with LEED®, arguably the best place to start a discussion of green building practices given the recent proliferation of building-size “going for LEED certification” banners cropping up all over the metro area. “LEED” stands for The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and the LEED Green Building Rating System™ was first developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1998, for commercial construction, as a way to encourage the development and implementation of green building practices. LEED has become the pre-eminent green building rating system in the U.S. measured by dollar value and square footage of LEED certified green commercial projects and number of homes in the program. In 2005 the USGBC launched a pilot LEED for Homes program, and on Dec. 5, 2007, made the LEED for Homes program official.

“Great!” I said to myself. Here’s a set of standards I can follow, I think subconsciously wanting to believe that they made it easy by doing the work for me, eliminating the need for me to research and make decisions because the Guidelines would spoon feed me with what I needed to know to become “green”. Without even looking at the guidelines I decided that I wanted to be the first LEED- certified brownstone under the new LEED for Homes guidelines, despite the fact that I secretly wrinkled my brow at press articles about LEED-certified urban homes touting bicycle racks as a green attribute that earned LEED credits – bicycle racks are a great idea, don’t get me wrong, but we live in NYC with a dense population, local services we can walk to and a great and extensively used mass transit system.  An urban project will have built-in LEED credits in the category that deals with reducing the need for vehicular use due to our location, therefore adding a bicycle rack to the front of a home does not further promote forsaking car transportation. In other words, though a great thing to do, a home bike rack is a low-impact aspect upon which to hang a “green” hat in an urban environment. Nevertheless, I placed blind faith in LEED and wanted to set an example of LEED certification focusing on bigger-impact aspects of renovation, like solar and wind power, overall systems design for reduced energy consumption, water saving measures etc., and to chronicle the process to make it an easier path for others to “be green”.

Then I got into the nuts and bolts of trying to apply the LEED for Homes standards to a brownstone. I became a member of the committee evaluating the new LEED for Homes standards for NYC, and I studied them with a view to their application to brownstones. (see our Article Navigating the Green Building Guidelines Part I: A LEED® for Homes Guidelines Primer -- The Lay Person's Guide)  I quickly discovered that, in order to qualify for certification, the project must be a total gut renovation, right down to the joists and studs -- not very practical or necessary for the vast majority of brownstone renovations, nor, arguably, should it be given that brownstones are historic properties worthy of preservation.  Unnecessarily ripping out all the walls, beautiful architectural moldings and detailing, and floors simply to further the goal of getting a green stamp of approval, seemed hypocritical and indeed not “green” because it adds a tremendous amount to demolition waste and burgeoning landfills, some of which could be toxically laden with lead and asbestos.

So, what’s the point: simple – don’t get hung up on the points. Taking action simply to accumulate credits under a green building guidelines scheme misses the point and tricks people into thinking they are meeting some master criteria handed down from a higher power. Focusing on the points, rather than the issues, adds greater significance than warranted to low-impact actions. The focus, therefore, ought to be on the ISSUES when making decisions about building and renovating, not the credits. Perhaps this is a reason why the motivated and well-intentioned professionals at the USGBC, together with the American Society of Interior Designers, issued the Regreen standards last month, a program for non-gut renovations and remodeling focusing on best practices rather than a rating and certification system.  I urge you not to approach a "green" renovation as a status symbol that requires a third party stamp of approval. 

If you indeed are embarking on a gut renovation for legitimate reasons other than to simply meet the LEED® certification criteria, then by all means go for certification! If, however, you are renovating and don’t need to tear down all your walls and rip out all your floors, then an understanding of the LEED® for Homes guidelines, and the NAHB guidelines as well as Regreen, can help focus you on the issues, some of which you may have never even known existed. An understanding can assist you in making environmentally sound decisions on a project-wide basis, but not dictate decisions simply for the purpose of  earning points under the guidelines as an end in itself.

Since I started this process the National Association of Home Builders has issued “The NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines” and has plans to launch in late spring, in cooperation with the International Code Council, the “National Green Building Standard” dealing with single-family construction, remodeling and multifamily construction, which will be submitted to the American National Standards Institute for approval after the public comment period.    (Each of the guidelines will be the subject of an Upcoming Article.)

Confused?  Don't be.  Ecobrownstone™ will guide you through the process, and the first step is to internalize the mantra that "there are no wrong answers, only choices."  We're doing the research and distilling the infomation because, remember, we're renovating a brownstone too.  Through a series of in-depth articles Ecobrownstone™ will help you make sense of the standards by analyzing LEED® for Homes, Regreen, The NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines and, when issued, the National Green Building Standards. We will demonstrate how each can be applied to our ongoing case-study brownstone renovation at 168 Clinton St. in Brooklyn Heights, and to vintage urban row-house or townhouse renovations generally. Also check our articles for detailed information on specific aspects of the building process, from Air conditioning to Zero-VOC finishes and furnishings.

The first place to start your green renovation odyssey is to read Start Here:  The Decision Making process for Brownstone and Urban Row-house Green Renovation.

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