By Annabelle Rosser, CUB Environmental Outreach Coordinator
Earlier this year, CUB outreach team members Yami, Aimee and myself, along with folks from the Sierra Club, EDF and the community organization One Northside, were given a tour of the Lake Village East Apartments, a 218-unit affordable housing community in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago.
As one of Elevate Energy’s many retrofit project sites, the 46-year-old building has been undergoing energy efficiency renovations for the past 5 years, including upgrades to the heating system, building weatherization improvements, new energy efficient air conditioning units, and new LED lighting. (A little background on Elevate, one of our friends in the fight for lower utility bills: The group’s mission is “smarter energy use for all.”)
One of the most important improvements made during the retrofit process was to the building’s heating system. During a typical Chicago winter, if you drive by buildings with 10 or more stories, you might notice a peculiar pattern: the windows of the top floor units are often open despite the frigid temperatures outside, while the windows of the bottom floor are shut. Why? Hot air rises. In tall inefficient buildings, it is not uncommon for the heating systems to result in a Goldilocks-like distribution: chilly lower levels, boiling hot upper levels, and a “just right” middle.
Before retrofitting the building’s heating system, the 26 stories in the Lake Village East Apartments suffered from this effect. Residents often experienced as much as a 20-degree difference in temperature between the top third and bottom third units. Now, thanks to a more efficient hot water heating system, sophisticated system management tools, and improved insulation throughout the building, residents living on floor 26 and floor 2 are comfortable in their units all winter long, and the heating costs for the building owner have dropped substantially.
Despite the clear benefits efficiency upgrades delivered in this particular building, one major obstacle multi-unit property owners face when making such extensive changes is resident displacement. If you have ever experienced or witnessed a home remodel, you know things can get messy, chaotic and downright uninhabitable. The Lake Village East Apartments make up a strong community of residents, many who have lived in the building for 20-plus years. It was crucial to the property owner that the neighborhood culture the building experienced help the retrofit process rather than be disrupted by it.
To accomplish this, renovations were made periodically and without ever disrupting the building’s electricity, hot water or heating service. Construction in individual units was done in floor-by-floor segments, and while each unit was made livable by the end of the night, the owner also transformed a handful of vacant units into “hospitality suites” that residents could choose to stay in as an alternative. The care and thoughtfulness that the building owner gave to the comfort of current residents ensured that the retrofit did not sacrifice community for change.
In the last decade, Elevate Energy has helped retrofit over 30,000 units in buildings similar to this one. CUB is excited to see the group’s work continue, and we hope to see more urban residential communities emulate the success of the Lake Village East Apartments.