Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved in Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing Shai Lauros, the executive director of GreenHomeNYC, a community-oriented, volunteer-run organization that helps facilitate the use of sustainable building methods and materials by owners of small residential and commercial buildings in the city.
Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in, and how’d you end up there?
Shai Lauros: I live in what’s generally considered Park Slope at the border of Gowanus/South Slope. I’ve been here with my wife since a few weeks before having Reuben, who’s now 9 months old. We used to live in Prospect Heights, in a small apartment that wasn’t particularly great for a baby, so now we’re in a slightly larger apartment and still near Prospect Park. But really, we mostly ended up here because our friends own the building and live upstairs. I’ve lived in various neighborhoods of Brooklyn for about six years, and similarly in Manhattan for another six, with intermittent breaks to other cities.
BS: Can you explain the mission behind GreenHomeNYC?
SL: GreenHomeNYC was created to make going green accessible to New Yorkers. We’re a community-oriented, volunteer-run organization whose mission is to facilitate the adoption of sustainable building methods and materials by owners and occupants of small residential and commercial buildings in New York City. Our free programming connects folks, ranging anywhere on the spectrum from green novices to green professionals, with local experts and actionable information to help them improve the energy, environmental performance and overall sustainability of the spaces in which they live and work.
BS: What’s the green movement looking like now in Brooklyn? What are the strengths and weaknesses when it comes to this borough’s energy uses?
SL: I think the green movement in Brooklyn is on an upward trajectory; it’s becoming both more mainstream and DIY at the same time, but there is still a very long way to go. More people are throwing seed bombs into vacant lots, composting and raising chickens and bees in their backyards, neighborhood hardware stores are stocking green materials and some green standards are becoming norms for developers, most especially affordable housing developers. Unfortunately, from what I’m seeing, people are still looking to “green bling” when renovating their properties – solar panels, geo-thermal heat pumps and the like, and skipping the crucial step of ensuring the energy efficiency of the building itself, such as properly insulating and ventilating the building and installing the appropriate thermostatic controls, energy efficient lighting, and water conserving fixtures to name a few. Still, I think that Brooklyn residents are more and more aware of the choices they can make to live “more green,” and it’s slowly paying off: I recently overheard a car service dispatcher looking to meet the request for a hybrid.
After the jump, Shai says what’s challenging about making Brooklyn buildings green, gives tips to adapt a greener building model, and shares her favorite green buildings in Brooklyn…
SL: A challenge facing Brooklyn is the age and typology of its residential building stock which presents financial challenges to installing high efficiency heating and cooling systems – you often need to rip out and install new distribution systems, and many small buildings aren’t willing or able to take on that work. On the upside, this same building stock has a lot of potential – a few adjustments and some basic changes in user interface can go a long way. When small building owners come to us through our House Calls program, the first thing we do is ask them to look at their utility bills. Boiler tune-ups, occupancy sensors on hall lights – these are relatively simple changes. The simplest change: unplug devices you aren’t using.
BS: The Passive House movement has been getting a lot of attention recently. What are your thoughts on the future of Passive House?
SL: I’m excited by the Passive House movement because it adds to the toolbox of techniques and standards that New Yorkers can pick from – in a borough as diverse as Brooklyn, it’s great to be able to have a range of options to meet the circumstances of each building and its owner(s). And, the Passive House concepts can be applied to renovations of existing building stock as well as new construction, engaging the specificity of each. There are some Brooklyn based examples on both the scale of the Brooklyn brownstone and small multi-unit building, and soon a medium-sized apartment building in Bushwick by (GreenHomeNYC friend) Chris Benedict, that folks can explore if they are considering making a substantial investment in their property. I think we’ll see more of Passive House as the results of local efforts become known.
BS: And for those in which a Passive House renovation isn’t an option, what are the first steps to adapt a greener building model?
SL: The first and most important thing to start is to really get to know and understand your building. Through energy audits, benchmarking, observation and analysis, you need to pinpoint where your energy and resources are going before you can intervene and control it. But regardless, you can’t go wrong if you install surge protectors to limit your plugload, change all your light bulbs to CFLs, your water fixtures to low-flow, your cleaning products and paints to non-toxic brands and become steadfast in recycling and composting. And you can ask us to come over and help – we do House Calls!
BS: What projects is GreenHomeNYC currently working on in the borough?
SL: I’ve mentioned our “House Calls” program which brings us into people’s living rooms and coop board meetings to talk green: knowledgeable GreenHomeNYC volunteers meet with building owners to help them get started with going green. We give an introductory presentation on benchmarking and green building concepts, and hold a discussion/Q&A to help familiarize people with the options available in terms of technology, best practices and NYC specific financing options available. We’re currently working with a co-op building in Prospect Park South, and we’d love to meet with other buildings in the borough.
BS: Can you tell us about a few of your favorite green buildings in Brooklyn and what makes them unique?
SL: I love Brooklyn Bowl, in part because I feel very strongly that the business community of Brooklyn has to step up and take ownership of their environmental impact in our neighborhoods, and in part because it’s green fun! I’m also very excited about 96 St. Marks Avenue – Ken Levenson’s Passive House building in Prospect Heights. You wouldn’t necessarily know anything was so remarkable from the outside, but I used to live down the street and see the construction every day, so it’s unique to me because I witnessed it happen, but also because it’s so exciting and important that Brooklyn is getting Passive House concepts applied to dense multifamily redevelopments.