Windows and Energy Efficiency

This article from Rocky Mountain Institute is a worthwhile read. Windows are an important factor in energy loss. We need to be doing much better than we are.


Accessory Dwelling Units as an Affordable Housing Program?

Yesterday I participated in the Deepening Roots & Creating Space forum organized by Chhaya CDC in New York City. Chhaya CDC serves the asian immagrant community in Queens. I was asked to be part of a panel on Accessory Dwelling Units and present the perspective of an architect who has attempted to work with home owners in the Chhaya community to create or legalize basement living space. As I was preparing my presentation for the panel, it occurred to me that we were tending to think of these units as a problem that codes, government regulations and government policies were creating. That being the case, we were assuming that doing something to alter the policies, codes and regulations would clear the way to create legal and safe accessory dwelling units. But the truth of the matter is that legal and safe accessory dwelling units do exist all over the city in row house neighborhoods. Basement rental apartments are a time honored first apartment option for singles and couples and a real estate strategy that allows families and individuals to purchase town homes and finance their mortgages.

The more that I thought about this, the more I realized that the real issue is not codes and regulations, though some adjustments need to be made there. The real issue is that communities with limited financial resources cannot afford to develop these units to meet the code and city regulations. And yet, they need the additional income and the community needs the additional housing, so the units are developed clandestinely.

A 2008 study prepared by Pratt Center and Chhaya estimated that there are more than 100,000 un-official housing units in basements and cellars across the city and that some 35% are configured in ways that would make it possible to legalize them, albeit with some minor loosening of code and regulations. What we are encountering, however, is that the large expense of bringing these units up to code ensures that they will remain underground in neighborhoods where financial resources are marginal. Between professional services, building department fees and construction costs it requires 10’s of thousands of dollars to legalize one of these units of housing. Few of Chhaya’s clients have the financial resources to accomplish this, even if city government were to make it easier by loosening codes and regulations and creating a straightforward process for converting them.

The principal challenge then, is whether or not a viable real estate strategy where there are many resources, can be made viable where there are few resources. My feeling is that without some kind of government program to assist homeowners in low and moderate income neighborhoods, it won’t be possible. I also think that the answer may be to construct an affordable housing program that renovates and legalizes these units, in some cases creates new ones, and gets them onto the market as subsidized or rent stabilized units.

It costs the city between $100,000 and $125,000 dollars to build a new affordable housing unit according to an article in Crain’s published March 22, 2011. The article is about the conversion of a stalled condo unit building into affordable housing. The cost per unit of moderate and middle income housing in this repurposing scenario is approximately $75,000. My thinking is that $50,000 to $75,000 might well be enough to gut renovate an underground basement apartment and turn it into a safe, energy efficient and affordable housing unit.

Making this more compelling are the related issues that could be dealt with at the same time:

  • There are high foreclosure rates in the communities where these underground units are common. Stress is deepened when a home owner looses the income from such a unit because the city discovers it and clears it out. Developing or legalizing a basement apartment could help many home owners generate enough income to stay in their homes.
  • Underground basement housing units are often not code compliant and every few years there is a tragic fire in one of them. A conversion/legalization program would bring units up to code and bring them out into the open. It would also give the city more of the moral high ground in addressing units that are unsafe and which can never be made safe.
  • Because these renovations would be gut or near gut renovations, the opportunity can be seized to make them energy efficient, something the city has committed major resources to with modest success.

There are some difficult issues to be resolved. The task of brokering a program relationship between multiple home owners and the city is a daunting one that will require the commitment of solid community development organizations and the city. A legal framework would have to be worked out that formalizes the obligations of the homeowner and the city. Homeowners would have to be willing to exchange some portion of control of their property through covenant or other similar legal arrangement in exchange for the funds to renovate. CDC’s will have to develop housing management procedures that support homeowners and the newly created affordable housing.

My opinion, though, is that if there is hope in being able to address the issue of underground basement housing units in a broad way, the development of an affordable housing program tailored to it is one of the better places to look.

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My Energy Audit

My energy audit took place Thursday, January 18th. Paul Lasicki, my auditor, appeared promptly at 9:00am. After verifying that there were no immediately apparent hazzards in the house (big gas leaks, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide), he proceeded to tell me about the process and give me literature that explained it in more depth, including literature on lead safe renovation practices. My house is old and probably has some lead paint issues.

Once the formalities were dispensed with, Paul got down to work. He started with an exterior visual survey of the house and taking some overall measurements. This survey gives the auditor an impression of the house and can often show signs of energy leakage issues, especially if there has been a recent snow fall. “Hot” areas of the roof of the building can be readily seen by snow melt.

With the exterior inspection complete Paul came in and familiarized himself with all the rooms of the house. He even climbed into the attic. Then we went down to the basement where my water heater and boiler reside. The first thing he did down there was to use a gas detector to look for leaks in my gas piping, and there turned out to be a few minor ones! Gas leaks are not at all uncommon. Discovery of gas leaks and carbon monoxide issues is one of the big benefits of getting a home energy audit. Paul marked the leaks he found with green tags so that when I call my plumber in I can take him straight to them.

Checking for gas leaks.

Identified Gas Leaks

Next he tested the hot water heater and the boiler. He used a smoke pencil to determine how well they were drafting (reasonably well, though the boiler flue was a little anemic). He also tested the efficiency of both by drilling a hole in the flue pipe and inserting an instrument that reads the amount of carbon monoxide in the flue gasses and calculates burning efficiency. And finally, after the equipment had been running for a while, he tested the ambient air for carbon monoxide. Paul found a very low level of 1-2 ppm (35 ppm is the threshold for safety). He suggested I might want to get the boiler tuned and serviced to see if that could be eliminated.

With the water heater and furnace testing complete, Paul went upstairs to the kitchen where he proceeded to test the carbon monoxide output of the gas range. Our oven is electric, not a combustion appliance, so he did not test it. All was well with the range.

Now that all the combustion testing was complete it was time for the blower door. A blower door is a device that is inserted into the opening of the front door. It is a big fan mounted at the bottom of a nylon fabric insert. When turned on, it sucks the air out of the house to depressurize it. You then walk around the house with a smoke pencil and/or feeling with your hands to see where there are drafts, which indicates an air leak. Surprisingly for the age of my house, the results showed that I did not have a lot of leakage. Most notably there is a second flue chimney in the house that has been abandoned. The chimney was removed to below the roof line, so it communicates with the attic. Air was being sucked straight down from the attic into the basement through an open hole in the chimney at that level. This will certainly help feed what is known as the stack effect. The stack effect refers to the tendency for warm air to rise. As it does, it lowers the pressure at the bottom which invites cold air into the building. If there are ways for air to enter at the bottom, and escape at the top, considerable motion of air from bottom to top can develop. This leads to a lot of heat loss in the winter. In my case, cold air would be drawn down from the attic space in the winter to replace warm air rising.

Blower Door Installed and Running

We also determined that a door to the outside in the basement needed weather stripping as did the door from the kitchen to the outdoors.

Next, we went around counting light bulbs and their wattages. I had thought that we replaced all our incandescents with compact fluorescents, but we found a few in fixtures where they were hidden from view. Replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents is an easy way to save some money on your electricity bill.

Finally, Paul measured the size of all the windows and doors so that he could input them into the software he uses to calculate heat loss and predict energy savings.

The whole process took about four and a half hours. As Paul departed he told me that he would have my report in approximately one week. Stay tuned, my next blog post will talk about what he found and recommended in that report.

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On Bill Financing is Here!

It is now easier than ever to get an energy audit and retrofit for your one to four family home to save energy and money. In June of 2011 the New York State legislature passed a bill mandating the development of an On Bill Financing program. With On Bill Financing homeowners can have their energy conservation measures financed through a charge on their utility bill. The fixed interest rate is a low 2.99%. The loan is repaid through a charge on the homeowner’s utility bill for the agreed loan period. The loan transfers to future owners upon the sale of the home. The interest may be tax deductible.

Through this program, homeowners can borrow up to $25,000 if the financed portion of the project has a payback period of 15 years or less, and $13,000 if the payback period of the financed portion is more than 15 years. In the On Bill Financing program, monthly payments can not exceed 1/12th of the estimated annual savings on energy cost. Payments and interest on the loan do not begin before June 2012. NYSERDA also offers an unsecured loan product at higher interest rates for those who would rather not have the loan obligation attached to their mortgage. A comparison of the two loan programs can be viewed here.

To qualify for the program a homeowner must first sign up for a NYSERDA Green Jobs Green New York energy audit which can be free to low cost, depending on income level. My wife and I are in the 250% of AMI (Area Median Income) bracket and our cost for the audit will be $50. The audit is performed by a NYSERDA approved certified home performance contractor, which means at least one member of their crew has completed Building Performance Institute (BPI) training and certification. These audits not only identify opportunities to improve a home’s energy performance, they also identify safety issues, such as gas leaks and carbon monoxide issues.

The audit takes 4 to 5 hours to complete. Upon completing the audit the home performance contractor will generate a report (usually within 1 to 2 weeks) and present the home owner with a list of measures that can be implemented and paid for by incentives or financing programs from the state. The homeowner can elect to finance with a low interest unsecured loan from the state or with On Bill Financing. It is important to know which loan program you intend to pursue, as the analysis and reporting requirements for On Bill Financing loans are apparently more stringent than for the unsecured loan product. If in doubt, tell your auditor to prepare his report according to the higher standards of the On Bill Financing loan product.

This is an important opportunity for homeowners to reduce their energy bills. Funding for the program is limited so act sooner rather than later. My wife and I signed up for an energy audit which was conducted this past Thursday. Stay tuned, I will be writing another blog post about the experience and the results.

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Accessory Dwelling Units, Immigrant Struggles and Occupy Wall Street

Yesterday I gave a workshop on accessory dwelling units. This is the term that has evolved in New York City for apartment units created out of basement and cellar spaces in one and two family homes. There are a ton of them throughout the city and homeowners regularly receive violations for them. Sometimes homeowners knowingly flaunt the laws. Other times they have inherited the situation from a previous owner and did not realize the unit was illegal. Although the building department can be more lenient towards the latter situation on fines, they are none the less rigid on enforcement. The situation must be legalized or returned to its former legal state.

The community I presented to are recent immigrants from southeast Asia. They are generally here legally and are generally hard working people trying to raise their kids and have a decent life. They depend on these accessory dwelling units to help them afford their mortgage. Some attending yesterday admitted that they are under water. They can’t afford their mortgage, their house is worth less than they have paid for it, the building department is making seemingly unreasonable demands to correct a situation they did not know was illegal, their tenant has been forced out as a result.

New York City fire and building department officials have good reasons for being stringent about these units. It is not uncommon for people to die in fires in them. Unscrupulous landlords will sometimes divide them up into multiple single rooms for rent. The sanitation, light and ventilation conditions can be appalling and they are fire traps.

And yet, there are situations where a homeowner could make some legitimate changes to his or her house if only the hurdles were not so high. Owners must hire an architect or engineer, file at the building department, get a contractor in to do the work, all expensive to do. And recent changes in the building code mandate a fire sprinkler system in certain situations if changes are made to the C of O. For a family under water on their mortgage and struggling to survive these hurdles can prove impossible to overcome.

My role yesterday was to educate home owners in this community about what is and is not legal and what some of the hurdles are. As it turned out, it was also to listen to the stories they had to tell about their situation. One man told me about how he often has to choose between feeding his children and paying the mortgage. The children win of course, but his situation grows more precarious as a result. A woman talks about how she lost a good paying job and now works three different jobs in its place. She is also starting up a home business embroidering bed linens. She is determined to keep her home. She asks me if the building department will give her a violation if she has a bed in her cellar which she plans to use for display of her wares. I tell her if she can make the case that she is running a home business and needs it as a prop, probably not.

Chhaya Community Development Organization, sponsor of my presentation, is trying to help these homeowners renegotiate their mortgages with the banks. They all express frustration that the banks are unyielding even though, in many cases, adjusting their mortgages would be more profitable than foreclosing. There is apparently a slippery slope they don’t want to proceed down here. Of course, we let the banks out on that slippery slope when we deemed them too big to fail and collectively bailed them out. A fact these homeowners are aware of. For a while I am the face of the banks and they politely vent their frustration at me. There is discussion of joining the protest at Wall Street. They feel a need to add the faces of their community to the cause.

As I left the meeting to go home the man who chooses between food for his children and paying his mortgage follows me out. He needs to talk more about his situation. After listening to him and sympathizing with him for a while I finally have to tell him I need to go home. Tears begin to rise in his eyes and I see the desperation. I suggest that he consider renting the house to another family and moving his family to an apartment he can more easily afford. That way his mortgage gets paid, and hopefully he reduces his overhead. Its an idea he had not thought of. I tell him to talk to the people at Chhaya about it.

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