A number of factors are pushing community associations to develop their own green formulas. In the process, they’re discovering a few changes can add up to environmental and financial savings.
Advanced technology is making energy-saving devices more affordable and offering attractive investments for community associations. Residents are demanding that associations conserve-and allow them to conserve-resources, and state laws are forcing associations to allow solar panels, clotheslines and more.
These influences, among others, have been pushing owners and communities to consider additional green projects for the homes and association common areas and amenities. It helps that many of these changes create financial savings too.
Bridge Sebern, CMCA, AMS, a homeowner’s association representative for Gardner Roofing in Denver, says governmental and other efforts to promote environmental consciousness are paying off. “It’s at our fingertips now,” says Sebern, who managed associations for eight years and now consults on projects like reflective roof coverings. “Ten years ago, it was a new way of thinking, now; (association leaders) see there’s a real need for this.”
The approaches for community associations have ranged from major renovations to slowly phasing in efficiencies that save money. The Crossings at Haddon Hall in Apex, N.C., takes the latter tactic. Environmental projects there are rooted in cutting costs, so they are done only when components wear out.
“We’re green conscious, but we don’t turn things over just to be green,” says Ron Melzer, board president. “The bottom line for our condominium community: We want to achieve cost savings.”
Lisa Magill, a shareholder at Becker and Poliakoff law firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says economics are helping drive the trend in many ways.
“It’s primarily important for the long-term viability of our community associations. Energy prices are just going up and up,” she says. Cutting owners’ energy costs also helps associations because it makes it easier for residents to afford their assessments, she points out.
Some of the environmental choices that associations are dealing with have to do with costs and improvements for the community itself. But many associations also have to decide which environmentally conscious projects they allow homeowners to undertake on their own.
Who pays for the electric car charging station? Can that family rip up the lawn and plant native groundcover? Should associations rethink bans on skylights now that energy prices are so high? Can you restrict clotheslines or solar panels?
State laws have driven many of the changes.
In Florida, for instance, a 2009 law promoted Florida-Friendly Landscaping, which uses native plants and suits the climate, says Magill, who has represented associations for 15 years.
The law essentially mowed down the numerous associations covenants that stopped owners from removing their lawns. That’s a green light for a homeowner who wants to replace St. Augustine grass with natural ground cover and bushes that don’t need pesticides, pruning or large quantities of water.
Magill, who is passionate about environmental efforts, says she’s trying to change the mindset among associations about landscaping. Too often board members are worried that Florida-Friendly Landscaping is going to look awful, but Magill argues that it can be beautiful as well as better for the environment.
Laws that require associations to allow renewable resources devices, such as clotheslines and solar panels, are becoming more commonplace too. Restrictive covenants in Colorado aren’t allowed to ban solar panels, solar shades, clotheslines, windmills, evaporative coolers, attic fans, trellises or energy-efficient outdoor lighting.
David Firmin, an attorney with the Arvada, Colo., law firm HindmanSanchez, predicts other states will follow in Colorado’s footsteps by requiring associations to allow energy-saving devices, especially as fuel prices rise. “The learning curve we’ve had here is going to benefit the rest of the nations,” he says.
Sebern looks forward to the day when more associations have experience with green initiatives, so others can learn from them. “When stuff like this is new, it’s so hard to figure out. It puts a delay in…coming up with a solution,” she says.
Green efforts in associations can be initiated by owners for their own units or undertaken by community leaders for the entire association. It’s the former that is most challenging.
Firmin says Colorado associations are trying to find the balance between homeowners’ rights to make their own energy improvements and the association’s need to protect aesthetic standards.
“You’ve got that conflict between an associations’s governing documents that say the community has some architectural review butting up against statutes permitting these energy-saving devices,” Firmin says.
One Colorado owner in a 100-unit, single-family community wanted to turn his backyard into a solar farm and sell energy. Another owner wanted solar shades on the outside of his house because they work best that way. The association wanted them inside because they look better that way. The homeowner won in court, Firmin says.
A newly enacted Colorado law prohibits associations from punishing owners whose lawns die during droughts or when watering is restricted; it allows associations to mandate native-grass lawns, but not non-native grasses.
Firmin also predicts more communities will battle with owners interested in artificial turf, especially as it improves in quality.
The options are better in roofing now too, Sebern says. Homeowners are increasingly interested in reflective shingles to lower energy costs. Now that many more colors are available, it’s easier to find a way to make the more efficient shingles work with association aesthetics, she says.
Meanwhile, communities across the country are finding innovative ways to save money and protect the environment through water conservation, improved lighting and other energy efficiencies.
Highly efficient sprinkler nozzles and smart controllers that communicate with weather stations have helped associations save water. A sprinkler system that knows it’s going to be a windy day, for instance, can shut off instead of spraying water that will be carried away.
At Melzer’s condominium complex, the landscaper was overwatering. “You walked on the lawn, and it squished.” The association replaced broken rain detectors and now is saving water.
Magill says wasting water can raise sewer fees as well as water bills. Low-flush toilets, for example, can reduce association water bills by as much as 20 percent. And many states and municipalities offer grants to help purchase them. “So much water literally gets flushed down the drain. Associations are paying for that,” she says.
At Carbonell Condominium Association in Brickell Keys, Fla., a tiny change is making a big difference. Manager Katia Ettus, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, got fed up with complaints that toilets were running in the 40-story building. She replaced the flappers on all 856 toilets at once. It cost $5,000 plus the maintenance workers’ time. The variable rates on sewer bills make it hard to decipher how much the effort saved. “(But), we don’t have running toilets (so) we must be saving,” she says.
One of Carbonell’s first big projects after an energy audit was replacing the lights with LED-light-emitting diode-bulbs that are guaranteed for at least five years. The $50,000 project not only reduced electrical bills, but saves staff time replacing bulbs. “We’re definitely paying much, much less in electricity,” Ettus says. “We would do it again.”
Lighting is one of the easiest green projects for associations because initial costs can be low, and better bulbs can save money quickly. The federal government already has mandated a shift to higher-efficiency incandescent bulbs, but many associations are going further and opting for compact fluorescent and LED bulbs, which last longer and use less energy.
“Lighting is one of those things that’s really easy to get started,” Sebern says. “It’s not a huge cost if you start phasing (it in). That’s one thing most communities are doing.”
The Crossings at Haddon Hall upgraded to CFL bulbs in hallways and cut the watts by one-third. The association also removed half the fluorescent lights in its garages and some of the lights in the hallways. “The fixtures the builder put in, if you put a bulb in every socket, you’d have to wear sunglasses,” Melzer says.
Associations have found a broad range of ways to cut energy use.
Ettus pushed through a $147,000 project to install variable frequency devices in the HVAC system. The devices slow the condenser pump speed when it doesn’t need to be at full capacity, such as when the weather is mild. Carbonell saved $80,000 in energy bills the first year alone.
A Denver high rise installed energy-efficient windows for $300,000. Just a few years ago, before green efforts became more common, taking that money from reserves for an environmental project would have sparked a battle. But owners were fine with the idea and pleased with the energy savings, Firmin says.
A Fort Lauderdale condominium with about 400 units decides to put in geothermal heating for its large pool. Some residents were skeptical, but Florida law allowed the board to undertake the energy-efficient project without owner approval. Magill says installation cost about $200,000, but the new system now saves the community $40,000 a year.
Associations are best served if they plan ahead for environmental projects instead of waiting and reacting to problems.
For instance, Colorado communities can’t ban solar panels, but they can require panels be mounted flush with the roof. Associations also can bar panels from yards and limit the percentage of the roof that is covered, Firmin points out. The situation is similar for evaporative coolers, which use moisture to cool homes but require large boxes outside that aren’t exactly beautiful. Associations can require covers that match the home.
Many associations are trying to plan for the inevitable electric car charging station question. Board members and managers should be thinking about where the stations would be located, who would pay the electric bill and where the electrical lines would run.
Planning ahead also means budgeting.
Sebern proposed installing a new sprinkler controller at a 74-unit high rise she was managing, but the board decided it couldn’t afford the $4,000 price tag.
Ettus said Carbonell’s energy audit included $900,000 in project ideas – too much for her board to swallow at once. The association is tackling the recommendations a little at a time. And Carbonell residents shouldn’t be surprised if they find Ettus taking pictures on the roof, trying to make a case to cover it in reflective paint.
Magill recommends associations interested in green projects find contractors who are certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED engineers and architects can help associations come up with five- or 10-year plans.
Magill says associations should remember that any green project can become a selling point. Buyers often like the idea of lower bills and the cachet of living in an association on the cutting edge of energy conservation.
by Tamara Lytle