Efficiency will make Eagle-Vail apartments more affordable | VailDaily.com

Efficiency will make Eagle-Vail apartments more affordable

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EAGLE-VAIL – When tenants move back into the Riverview Apartments in Eagle-Vail, they’ll have something for their bank accounts.

Work at the Eagle County-owned apartments is replacing the old parking lot, the wooden siding and the stair towers. But the work will also result in apartments that are less expensive to heat and more comfortable in the winter.

At first, county officials had a broader vision in mind – starting from scratch and simply tearing down the 1970s-vintage buildings. But as economic reality intruded, the people planning the job discovered it might be more “green” to work with what was already there.

The apartment buildings had already received new windows, doors and roofs about five years ago. Items including low-flow toilets were installed as tenants moved out.

With those things in place, people planning the renovation started focusing on what needed work.

“We focused our attention on the walls,” Active Energies co-owner Megan Gilman said. “From a durability, comfort and efficiency standpoint, we expect a big boost.”

Gilman said her company has started doing more work for people with existing homes.

“It makes a lot of sense,” Gilman said. “The older a building is, the more cheap and easy things you can do (to boost efficiency).”

The secret is careful planning, Gilman said. Identifying efficiency projects from cheapest to most expensive can help a building owner save money immediately, but also plan for the bigger-ticket items down the road.

But, while making old buildings more efficient is one shade of green, it can be more complicated than just starting from scratch.

“With any renovation project, you always discover unforeseen conditions when you begin to peel back the layers of a building or site,” Matt Lee wrote in an e-mail. Lee and fellow local architect Seth Bossung have their own companies but were partners on the Riverview project.

Some of the problems a renovation project can unearth include mold or rot, Lee wrote. And county planner Yuri Kostick, one of the leaders of the project, said peeling back the old siding revealed, among other things, an outside water spigot that had been covered up with siding.

Unseen problems can keep a team scrambling. But, Lee wrote, sometimes those unseen items can be useful.

“We discovered that the earth underneath the parking lot was primarily comprised of large boulders and cobble with very little soil in between,” Lee wrote. “But, instead of spending additional monies to have the boulders hauled off of site and disposed of, we were able to use many of the large boulders as landscape features.”

That saved money, Lee wrote, both in the disposal and landscaping budgets.

Renovation instead of fresh construction also limits what a design team can do. Buildings can’t be moved, so designers have to work with what’s there. And, with any renovation project, money ultimately limits what can be done.

One simple thing was lost in the big picture. Kostick said planners took a hard look at the electric baseboard heaters in the Riverview units. Those heaters are “basically the least efficient you can have,” Kostick said. Those heaters will work better with much better insulation on the outside walls, but programmable thermostats would help cut residents’ heating bills even more.

But, Kostick said, the money simply wasn’t available for more than 70 new thermostats and the labor to install them. New thermostats and wiring them will still come, but more slowly – they’ll be replaced as individual apartments become vacant.

But Matt Scherr, executive director of the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability, who’s a believer in “environmental justice” – in which energy efficiency is available to people with smaller paychecks, too – sees the Riverview project as a step in the right direction.

“Green isn’t a luxury,” Scherr said. But that hasn’t always been how people thought about building affordable housing.

“Before Habitat for Humanity started building green, they were building houses for people that had cheap mortgages but then had $300 utility bills every month.”

That’s changed in the recent past, Scherr said.

When Riverview is finished, Kostick said he hopes it can be an example for renovating other apartment and condo complexes.

“Fifty percent of the energy consumption in this country is in buildings,” Kostick said. “It’s really the best place to start.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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