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.