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Small steps to big savings

Looking back, Catherine Lezer never imagined how much money and electricity her Sydney apartment block could save by changing the lights in common areas. Nor did she dream of the sense of community that doing seemingly tiny things with her neighbours would nurture.

The building, a 34-lot block with four shops in Waterloo, was ten years old and had all the usual problems — water damage, peeling paint, worn carpets in the hallways. The executive committee decided it was time to fix up the common areas. Their strata manager, Paul Culbi from Jamesons, suggested it was a good opportunity to make the building more energy efficient.

Catherine, the committee chairman, couldn’t have agreed more. With a background in property and renovation, she came across the Smart Blocks website just after our launch and was surprised to discover all of the possibilities for her building.

In her view, improving the block’s energy efficiency makes good sense. Not only does it add value to the apartments, it also ‘future proofs’ the building.

At the strata manager’s recommendation, Energy Smart Strata audited the building. The audit laid out the building’s energy use in black and white and made clear what needed to be done. Lighting was the building’s biggest energy drain, so the committee decided to tackle it first.

The holy grail

Catherine approached a number of different companies and organised quotes for different fittings to upgrade all lighting in the common areas, fire stairs and garage. Frustratingly, she wasn’t satisfied with any of them.

She was after the Holy Grail — a light with a sensor and low wattage that looked good. Plus, it had to work with their concrete ceilings. Without a cavity for the fitting, an oyster light was the only option.

Eventually, after much googling, Catherine finally found a solution: an oyster light with a sensor and the right wattage and colour temperature from Lighting Technologies.

Armed with paint chips, energy payback graphs and photographs of fittings, Catherine presented the plan to the building’s owners at an AGM. The lights would be paid for by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage 'Energy Savings Scheme', alongside a $9,000 investment from the building’s sinking fund.

The owners cast their votes. Despite some initial aesthetic concerns from a few people, everyone agreed.

The thrill of the drop

The upgrade took place in two stages, and after each stage, the dip in the building’s electricity bill was dramatic. Catherine would have been happy with a 25 per cent reduction — with 42 per cent, she was thrilled. The switch will pay for itself in less than three and a half years.

The building's electricity consumption dropped considerably at the two installation stages

The buzz of working together

According to Catherine, the project has had the surprising benefit of nurturing a strong sense of community. The residents and owners had to work together and Catherine believes this collaboration has brought the building closer. People are friendlier, they care more about the building — and they get involved.

As well as the lighting project, residents have organised an e-waste recycling drop-off, planted a water-saving garden with courtyard seating and started a Facebook page to keep everyone in the loop.

Encouragement award

In recognition of their achievements, in July this year their block was awarded the Strata Owners Community Engagement Award from Strata Community Australia (NSW). The award honours how well the block’s executive committee, chairman, strata manager, owners and residents have worked together to make such significant improvements to their building.

Future plans

Next up, the residents of Botany Road are working to install solar power for common areas, which they expect to complete in the next six months. Thanks to the significant reduction in energy use from the LED lighting, they now need a much smaller solar system than they initially estimated. With their original lighting bill, they were looking at spending $25,000 on a solar system; now, they expect to spend less than $10,000.

Once their common areas are powered by the sun, the residents and owners of Botany Road will sit back and enjoy their smart energy-saving block and friendly community. Then they'll start saving for a lift replacement due in ten years. It’ll be energy-efficient, of course.

Catherine Lezer’s top tips

  • Install lights and other energy saving measures first, then install a solar system that matches your reduced energy needs. When we installed LED lighting, our energy use dropped so significantly it has halved our solar requirements. Now we can install a much smaller (and less expensive) solar system.  
  • Over-communicate. Even if your block’s owners and managers seem uninterested, keeping everyone in the loop is important. I found the City of Melbourne’s Good Practice Guide: Multi-unit residential facilities management had helpful advice on how to get people involved.
  • Get lots of quotes and do lots of research to make sure you have the most suitable product and service.
  • Get the help of someone who has building or asset management experience. It was a big learning curve!
  • Don’t get frustrated. Anything involving a strata takes ages, but it’s worth it in the end.

Update: Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, recently dropped in on this Waterloo apartment block to check out their green transformation. She was wowed by their energy efficient lighting and new communal bike racks. The City of Sydney is doing all sorts of good things to encourage other buildings to follow their lead.