- Property: Easton Crossing
- Location: South Easton, Mass.
- Owner: Yule Development, Newton, Mass.
- Renovation Cost: $6 million
- Project Scope: Exterior update, site work, and energy rehab
When Newton, Mass., developer Chris Yule bought a failing townhouse property south of Boston, he set what many might consider an unusual goal: to make the property more energy-efficient, even though the property's tenants paid for their own electricity. Why bother with such upgrades? Yule believed the investment would attract higher-quality tenants and result in higher rents. He was right. Today, he estimates the return on his investment at 200 percent to 300 percent.
Big Bills The 188-unit Easton Crossing in South Easton, Mass., suffered from a number of problems, including failing septic systems and poor general upkeep. The one- and two-bedroom units “sucked energy like it was going out of style,” Yule recalls. “The place had been poorly built, and its energy performance was terrible.” Tenants in the electrically heated units were paying $300 per month to the local utility, which made it difficult for some residents to deliver their rent on time.
But Yule, who had tackled a similar challenge a decade ago, saw the property's potential. Not only was Easton Crossing in a strong market, with favorable demographics and a good location in a commuter suburb, but he believed he could reduce tenants' monthly electric and heat bills by more than half. The lower bills would go a long way toward making the property viable.
So Yule spent $6 million and three years upgrading the buildings and the 22-acre property. And like any smart developer, he looked for ways to be “ruthlessly efficient” with his money. One of the most visible problems concerned the property's 14 septic systems, 12 of which were failing. Since installing more than 2,000 feet of new sewer lines would disrupt the entire community and its outdoor areas, Yule decided to use the occasion to reorganize the site plan to make it more resident-friendly. He moved a community building that included the pool and exercise facility to a more convenient location and dug another pool. He also added a new office to the building after it had been moved. “We thought a lot about how to use each dollar to serve two masters,” Yule says.
This efficiency included using the same dollars to enhance the buildings' performance and their aesthetics. For example, the property's cheap-looking plywood siding gave Easton Crossing a low-market appearance. Yule's crews improved the look and insulation of the apartments by covering the outside of the plywood with rigid insulation and topped it off with clapboard siding.
Energetic Expertise But making a property energy-efficient goes way beyond adding insulation. As a student of the field of “building science,” Yule has spent years learning how to build quieter, more comfortable, more durable, and healthier buildings. Much of his learning has focused on the technical aspects of measuring building performance, plugging air leaks, and ensuring healthier indoor environments. Doing these things right means learning how to see a building as a system of interrelated parts.
Yule's education started 15 years ago when he attended a seminar on building envelope performance. “I went out in search of information,” he recalls. Turning to the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, a Greenfield, Mass.-based group of builders and designers who share information and experiences with one another, Yule found a community of people who were achieving great success with energy-efficient construction, which was considered a niche market at the time. “These guys have taught me most of what I know,” he says.
It has represented a smart investment of time. Yule's efforts at Easton Crossing have done nothing but lower operating costs and raise profits at the property. The property upgrades have cut tenants' electric bills by as much as 70 percent, even though the units still have electric heat. “If the building envelope is good enough, then the building will use so little energy that it almost doesn't matter what type of fuel is used to provide it,” says Yule.
The low energy bills, along with other property improvements, have attracted new tenants willing and able to pay significantly higher rents. (See box.) And because these new tenants also take better care of their apartments, maintenance costs also have been reduced. “An energy-efficient property is comfortable and pleasant to live in. An inefficient one is uncomfortable and unpleasant,” Yule says. “Tenants in an efficient property tend to take better care of it, so your maintenance costs are lowered. And because they aren't constantly frustrated trying to live in their homes, you have less turnover.”
–Charles Wardell is a freelance writer in Vineyard Haven, Mass.