For every new building hitting the streets today, over 100 are 20 years old or older. And if you’re in an older model, you’re at a disadvantage to your competitors in newer, shinier and more efficient buildings because their work spaces cost less to operate than yours.
Energy codes that feed building codes have stepped up significantly in the last 50 years, and yet much of the nation’s buildings come from that era or earlier. Multi-family buildings built in the 1990s are almost 9 percent more efficient than buildings of the 1980s, 17 percent more efficient than those built in the 1970s and ‘60s, and 23 percent more efficient than pre-1960 housing. And multi-family building requirements mirror what’s gone on with residential, office and retail.
So don’t let building owners or landlords saddle YOU with their inefficient buildings, leaving you on the hook for costly operating and maintenance bills. Here are some great questions to ask before you buy or rent, and many of these apply to both commercial and residential buildings.
HOW OLD IS THE HVAC SYSTEM, AND WHAT WAS ITS EFFICIENCY RATING? - Most building inspectors will scare up this information in an inspection, and it’s CRUCIAL to pay attention if you pay any part of your utility expenses. Efficiency ratings are a best-case scenario in factory-perfect conditions – how much of the heating or cooling produced actually reaches building occupants? And don’t forget – erstwhile efficiency ratings don’t function anywhere near that today.
On the heels of that question, WHO PAYS FOR REPAIRS? ‘Remember Eldon the painter on the Murphy Brown Show in the 1980s? He was Brown’s perpetual house guest with an unending stream of work. If you move into a building with old systems, your HVAC repair tech may become your “Eldon.” Old HVAC systems rarely die – they live on life support forever. Nothing may light a fire under your landlord for HVAC upgrades faster than requiring them to pick up repair bills. And be sure to find out if the building owner is responsible for maintaining the system. HVAC systems are like cars – take care of them, and they will operate efficiently for longer.
INSULATION LEVELS – That fab exposed brick wall in your office may be the coolest thing ever. And the coldest. Brick has little-to-no insulation value, and neither does glass. Do you know what levels of insulation the exterior of your building has? Insist on an R-value (insulation level) of at least 20, which is code in many places. If your building doesn’t have at least that, you'll be on the hook to pay higher energy bills.
SPACES IN-BETWEEN - Ceiling plenums are the spaces between false, dropped ceilings and floors or roofs above. In much commercial construction, builders use that space as a return air space because it’s cheap to build. But plenums are also inefficient because they are usually much colder or warmer than the temperature-controlled spaces below. If your landlord won’t “hard-duct” plenum spaces, make sure supply pipes are well-insulated. Otherwise, they lose temperature from the HVAC to your space, and you pay for that.
WINDOWS – Are windows single-pane? If so, they could be leaking air like sieves. This is especially true in retail spaces, which often have big glass plates to display wares. Don’t let an owner say that the building is historical and windows can’t be changed. There are plenty of window upgrades owners can make that preserve the historic character of a structure. Also, look for “low-e” films, which can significantly reduce the amount of the sun’s heat entering a building.
LET THERE BE LIGHT – How are the lights in your space? Efficient lighting can save as much as 40 percent on energy costs, and light retrofits are often one of the least-expensive fixes with the biggest returns. “T-value” measure one-eighth of an inch. So T-12 fluorescent lights are 1-1/2 inches in diameter. T-8s are 1 inch. Simply, T-8s and T-5s are more efficient than T-12s, which aren't even available anymore. If you really want to cut down on your lighting expenses, look at LEDs (light emitting diodes). They use one-tenth the electricity of older, less-efficient fixtures.
If you’re already in an inefficient building, insist on changes when you renegotiate your lease as part of your tenant improvements. You have the power – use it. We're available to walk through buildings you're considering buying or leasing. And if you have trouble sourcing any of this, CONTACT US – we’ll help you find someone local.
 Matthew Brown and Mark Wolfe, “Energy Efficiency in Multi-Family Housing: A Profile and Analysis,” Energy Programs Consortium, June 2007.
 SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) for air-conditioners and commercial HVAC systems, and AFUE efficiency for residential furnaces.