Garden-style condo communities have a lot of room for green
Big sustainability measures need not be the sole domain of high rise buildings. A garden-style condo community in Silver Spring is proof.
Vicki Vergagni didn’t know much about trees when it all started. Now she can pick out individual species from her car window.
“I’m in love with trees now,” she said with a laugh. “I notice them everywhere I go. I can spot them all when I’m driving and point them out by their Latin names.”
Glen Waye Garden Condominiums, where Vergagni is president of the Board of Directors, were built around 1965. As recently as a few years ago, the 15-acre property, which includes 214 housing units in 28 buildings in Silver Spring’s Glenmont area, wasn’t exactly a bastion of environmental sustainability.
More than 200 trees, several conservation landscapes and a raft of water- and energy-saving projects later, Glen Waye is more desirable to residents and has reduced its utility bills by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. In the process, Glen Waye has become a green leader in the County and a model for how garden-style properties can go green by taking advantage of their own unique characteristics.
“We’ve got an eye to the future on a lot of this,” Vergagni said. “We’re taking our savings and plowing them back into upgrading the buildings…People love it.”
A Shady Proposition
Generally speaking, garden-style apartments or condominiums consist of a group of low-rise buildings arranged around a series of landscaped courtyards. Usually the apartments take up much larger footprints by total acreage than their high-rise counterparts.
For sustainability purposes, that offers opportunities and challenges. Buy-in from apartment or condominium residents or associations can be tricky. Fortunately, that has not been a problem at Glen Waye, Vergagni said, after unit owners saw the savings generated from the earliest projects the community undertook.
The sheer number of buildings and the larger spaces involved also can make projects unwieldy. But this challenge can also present an opportunity. With more property comes more land, meaning more abundant chances for conservation.
Over the past year and a half, Glen Waye leaders have taken advantage of their large footprint, planting 218 trees. Residents are literally seeing a big difference.
“People are outside and enjoying it,” Vergagni said. “It’s done wonderful things for the property.”
As the shade trees grow, they will cool the air around the buildings and shade the buildings, thus, by extension, lower summer air conditioning (A/C) bills. According to research done by the Alliance for Community Trees, properly placed shade trees can reduce cooling costs by 30 percent.
Two local programs, Vergagni said, helped make the widespread plantings possible.
The first was Shades of Green, developed by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission in a partnership with Casey Trees, a DC-based nonprofit dedicated to restoring the tree canopy throughout the area. Through the program, eligible homeowners and homeowners’ associations receive free shade trees and technical assistance.
Glen Waye residents received 24 shade trees through that program. But they weren’t done. A grant from the Chespeake Bay Trust, which was coordinated for Glen Waye by Bethesda Green, a local sustainability-oriented nonprofit, provided partial funding for 60 more trees and ground cover. An additional 82 ornamental trees, along with native plants for conservation landscapes and 13 animal sculptures made from recycled metal, rounded out the project.
Massive Energy Savings
On the issue of homeowners’ associations, it can be hard sometimes for residents to get past the costs associated with making upgrades in the first place.
Grants and rebates are one way to assuage this concern. Another, especially if you’re living in a garden-style community, is to show detractors the savings realized by the energy- and water-saving measures.
Of Glen Waye’s $1.1 million annual operating budget, more than 40 percent used to go to utility bills. Now energy spending is down to 33 percent of that budget. That’s an approximate reduction from $440,000 to $355,000, equating to approximately $85,000 in annual savings as a direct result of the sustainability upgrades.
Among Glen Waye’s energy-saving upgrades:
- New energy-efficient windows in all buildings;
- High-insulation concrete siding;
- Water-saving aerators on faucets;
- Shower timers that alert users of the most efficient durations;
- Magnetic vent sealers that help minimize unnecessary HVAC use;
- Pre-programmedand targeted thermostat settings for all resident fridges and freezers;
- “Cool roofs” that prevent unnecessary A/C use by reflecting solar rays;
- LED light fixtures across the property; the cost of this was $112,000 cost but the community will receive $46,000 in rebates from Pepco for the project; and
- Programmable thermostats for many residents.
“These things, even the little things,” Vergagni said, “make a huge difference.”
An Eye to the Future
A lot has been done, but Glen Waye isn’t finished just yet. Buoyed by the opportunity to reinvest their earned savings, the community is already planning its next round of upgrades.
According to Vergagni, future plans include electric vehicle charging stations and solar carports. A butterfly garden in in the works. The Board of Directors is in the process of ordering cisterns, which will be large enough to collect an inch’s worth of water runoff from the roof. Down the road, Vergagni wants to look into composting and greener cleaning products.
Glen Waye residents, both current and prospective, have plenty of reasons to get behind this green cycle.
“It’s very attractive to people. We joke and say we’re building an arboretum,” Vergagni said. “Everything makes a difference, and it has to raise property values.”
By Scott Harris. Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County and covers the environment and other topics. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interested in getting a free shade tree for your home, too? Tree Montgomery is a new DEP program to plan shade trees in Montgomery County. Learn more and sign-up today at TreeMontgomery.org!