The vast majority of New York City’s carbon emissions come from fossil fuels used to heat, cool, and power its buildings. This puts the caretakers of those buildings at the very forefront of the climate crisis, as they strive to meet new energy efficiency standards that will go into effect with the start of Local Law 97’s first compliance period in 2024. But the fight against climate change requires more than just upgrading windows, installing green roofs, and retrofitting boilers; it requires rethinking the social as well as the infrastructural support systems that we will need to face the worst impacts of climate breakdown.
What are building supervisors doing to rise to the occasion? How have they been coping with extreme weather events and new regulatory directives? What can they tell us about the unforeseen challenges that await the building sector? We spoke to Jennifer Davis, a building superintendent who has been ahead of the game when it comes to preparing her large West Village residential co-operative for the demands of climate change. Davis has a background as an environmental activist, a commitment that still informs her work today. She discussed the ins and outs of improving her complex’s energy efficiency and resilience, performing her duties under adverse weather conditions, and helping residents adapt and stay safe. – A.G. and A.H.-C.
Tell us about yourself and your work.
I’m a building superintendent. Sometimes they call us resident managers, and I do live in the building. I’ve been at this particular building — actually it was three buildings originally— in Manhattan for going on 18 years.
The buildings are in the Far West Village. These structures date to 1898 and 1901 and were originally warehouses. The buildings were made into apartments in the ‘70s, and in 1990 this became a co-op. There were originally 159 apartments and now there are 148. It’s a lot of studios and one-bedrooms. I would say around 300 people live here, often one or two people per apartment.
What does your work comprise of here?
Anything and everything. Because it’s a bigger building, we have a handy-person and other workers including porters and doormen. I do scheduling and make sure everyone shows up. If someone doesn’t show up, I do the shift. I deal with emergencies in the middle of the night, from floods to fires. I also do a monthly fire inspection to make sure all the fire equipment is up to speed. And I do other inspections of the boiler and other things. There’s a whole checklist. A big part of my job, which a lot of other supers don’t consider a part of their jobs, is interfacing with the residents and trying to get them what they need and make them happy. It’s not always easy. Sometimes you can’t give somebody what they want and they get upset. Then the job is talking them off the ledge. I do a lot of that.
Do you find that your work has changed as a result of climate change?
The world is working differently because of climate change. When I took over the building 18 years ago, we barely got any emergency notifications. Now I get them weekly. I get notifications about wind and have to go batten down all the stuff on the roof.
Were you here during Sandy?
Yes, but we were very lucky. We managed to not end up with water in the basement, though we did come close. Afterwards we installed a floodgate on the ground floor doors. I took pieces of marine-grade plywood and painted them with three coats of oil paint to put over all the vent-work on the lower part of the building, just in case. None of this would protect from sitting water, of course, only from a temporary storm surge. If the water comes to stay for any length of time, there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
What about your personal experience on the job? Has this changed?
Absolutely. It’s hotter in the summer, and the hallways and other building spaces aren’t air conditioned. My office is down in the basement, which can get pretty hot. Also, a lot of the time we do work in people’s apartments when they’re not home, and they don’t leave the air conditioning on. And we do work outside: if you are outside in a heatwave, cleaning the sidewalks or on the roof, it can be miserable.
What about retrofitting? Have you been overseeing this kind of work?
Laurie Kerr is an architect who lives in the building. She worked with the City and the Urban Green Council, so she knew in advance that they were going to start implementing energy-efficiency grades for buildings. Because of this we were able to get the process started early. We replaced all the windows in the building, which was no small task because there were 350 windows in 28 different varieties. The new windows, which had to be approved by the New York City Landmarks Commission, are triple-pane, argon-filled, and low-E-coated, meaning that they have low heat-energy transfer properties, making them good for energy efficiency. Before this, the windows were just single-pane and double-hung and you could hear all the noise outside. Now when you close the windows you barely hear anything.
How do you expect your line of work will change in the future? Are there other specific climate-related goals that you are working towards?
We’ve done lots of things already. Every exhaust vent on the roof pulls air up so air continuously moves through the building. We sealed around the chimneys so there’s no leakage. We painted the roof a white reflective coating. We have also been working to balance heat circulation in the building because that can save lots of energy. The steam heating systems in these buildings were designed to overheat because of the influenza outbreak in 1918. At the time, they wanted to heat the buildings enough so that you could open the windows to get fresh air in the winter without freezing to death. The buildings were designed for the windows to be left open when the heat is on, which of course is very wasteful. To balance this, we have started putting thermostatic regulating valves on the radiators. These are commonly used in Europe but are relatively new here. When we were first considering efficiency, we changed out the showerheads and put devices in the toilets that save water.
Changes that are on the horizon include replacing the water pump and installing backflow preventers which stop potentially polluted water from the building flowing back to the water main.
What about induction stoves? Do you have them in the building?
I think there might be one, yes. But because this building was made into apartments in the ‘70s, it doesn’t actually have enough electrical power to run induction stoves in the apartments. Some people have upgraded so they can have more power. But most people don’t want to do so because it’s very expensive; you have to run wiring from the basement.
In an effort to try to accommodate growing energy needs, we did clean up all of the electrical services in the basement to bring more power into the building. It will allow the building to put charging stations for electric vehicles in the garage, which is something we are looking into. But this power hasn’t been distributed to the individual apartments. To get the electricity up from the basement so residents can install induction cooktops or heat pumps would be incredibly difficult and invasive.
Has all the work you’ve done thus far helped? Does the building have a grade A energy-efficiency rating?
The first letter grade here was a B but it’s been an A since then.
What is the grading process like?
Mostly it involves inspectors looking at energy bills and calculating what we’ve done in terms of improvements and being up to standard with regulations. For example, there is now a local law mandating use of LED lighting. We just got rid of all the fluorescent lights in the basement and replaced them with LED lights on a motion sensor.
I assume that this building is set for the Local Law 97 energy efficiency requirements.
We’re fine for now. But who knows what will happen if they change the bill.
Do you feel like the residents of this building are aware of the energy efficiency measures that you’ve taken?
The building is a co-op and 100 of the apartment owners are shareholders. Around 50 of the apartments are rented and some of the renters are rent-stabilized. Some of the shareholders care, and some of them don’t. Some of them care mostly about keeping maintenance costs low. But generally, people in this building are aware and involved. There’s more of a community here than any other building I’ve been in.
Do you feel that this community helps the building respond to climate risks?
During Sandy a lot of people helped each other. I think on the whole people asked each other, “Have you checked on this person? Are they okay?” Of course, I also consider it part of my job to do this. There are a number of elderly people in the building. Some haven’t left their apartments in years because of Covid. We check on them. Once I was talking to one of these persons, and she kept repeating that she was tired, just so tired. I asked her if she had her AC on. She’s 80. She said she was fine. But I went up to her apartment and it was really hot. I had to tell her that she needed to turn on her AC, otherwise she was going to be like the frog who gets slowly boiled to death in a pot. She turned it on and later told me that she felt much better.
What do you think your job will be like for someone doing what you do in 30 years?
Honestly, in 30 years I think this building will be underwater. Sometimes I feel none of the work I’m doing will matter because of this. The ocean is right there. How big of a seawall can you build? Can you build it fast enough? Are people still going to want to live here if there’s a 50-foot seawall and they can’t enjoy the waterfront view? I’m not particularly optimistic about the future.
What would a positive vision of the future look like to you?
Beginning in 2011, I spent a lot of time doing anti-fracking activist work. I have a lot of friends who are still doing climate justice activism and have even successfully fought for things like the creation of the wind farm that’s going to be installed off the Rockaways. From the start, we understood that everything is connected, and that you can’t focus on just one environmental problem without working to enact a more general paradigm shift. I think a positive vision might involve that broader shift to a more sustainable and environmentally just society.
Do you see your work as a superintendent and your activism as connected?
They were very connected once upon a time. I haven’t been doing a lot of activism recently, however, because I got burnt out and had to refocus. But when I first started here, this was something that I was really interested in. How could I make things better? How could I improve the building in ways that might make a difference? Since so many of the larger projects have been completed — like the cool roof coating, upgrading lighting, and balancing the heat, now I try to do what I can, and this sometimes involves little contributions. When building residents throw things out, for example, I like to collect and rehome them to keep useful objects and materials out of the dump. And that’s how I’ve always been. I would rather repair things than get rid of them. You can always figure out how to reuse what you might otherwise throw away.
I think there’s going to be a lot more work along these lines for activists and people in the trades. There’s going to be a lot more need for labor to retrofit buildings, to deal with damage, and to figure out how to build so we can live in our new environmental circumstances. Think of all that work that happened after Sandy, all those boilers that had to be replaced because they got flooded, all the drywall that went in the trash because it got wet. Sometimes humans don’t like change. But when you are forced to change, it’s different. Maybe it’s a positive thing that there will be all this need for growth and change, and for rethinking things, and for thinking things through.
All photos by Amy Howden-Chapman
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.