Housing Vermont Figured Out a Better Way to Heat and Cool Affordable Housing with the Parsons Platform
It wasn’t easy.
In the summer of 2008, heating oil reached nearly $4.50 per gallon. Energy costs across the 1,600 apartments owned by the nonprofit Housing Vermont doubled as that year’s spending on fuel hit $2.5 million.
Housing Vermont tried to shield their tenants from the spike, but renters still saw their fuel costs go up by almost 10 percent. Something needed to be done in order to protect renters with low incomes from volatile fuel prices. With a major grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Housing Vermont set out to make energy efficiency improvements on their managed properties.
This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Parsons Platform, an initiative High Meadows has been proud to support. The path that led to the Platform’s ultimate success is illustrative of the ups and downs experienced by even our most impactful grantees as they navigate their work.
This is a story of bold ideas and assumptions that didn’t pan out. Here’s our moral to the story: If you want to move forward in the face of loss and failure, you need to be ready to adapt.
Housing Vermont works in partnership with community nonprofits, investors, and government agencies to construct and rehabilitate affordable housing. Most of their developments run with very tight margins. In order to keep the properties affordable, Housing Vermont reduces energy use by building state of the art thermal envelopes and incorporating high efficiency products and renewable energy.
After four years of energy efficiency upgrades, Housing Vermont did generate some savings in 2013, but not to the extent they had hoped. The organization needed to figure out why certain investments weren’t delivering the anticipated savings.
“The root cause of high fuel usage was difficult to pinpoint: was it inadequate staff training, malfunctioning equipment or the choices made by tenants?” the organization wrote in an initial grant proposal to High Meadows, distilling the essence of the challenge they faced.
Unlike the massive high-rise affordable housing projects built in places like New York City, affordable housing in a rural place like Vermont is built at a modest scale— anywhere from four to fifty units in a building. In a high-rise, you’ve created the economy of scale to hire an on-site building manager. For the most part, you don’t have that economy of scale in Vermont, and you don’t have on-site building managers.
Housing Vermont’s Energy Manager at the time, Trevor Parsons, came up with the idea of installing remote monitoring systems that could provide an early warning to their maintenance workers if something at one of their properties got out of whack.
However, the building automation software packages sold by commercial firms were too expensive and designed for large institutions such as hospitals or universities— not a decentralized network of affordable housing developments.
Working with a local software developer, Housing Vermont decided to create its own barebones system to monitor and store real-time data from the heating, cooling and other maintenance systems at their various properties. The results were “immediate and dramatic— we were able to pinpoint problems in days, sometimes even hours,” they told us.
Housing Vermont sought help from High Meadows to build out the system and pilot its use at a number of their properties. The project was an early success. The system utilizes a central server to collect energy performance data from housing sites, store the data in an open format, and make that data available to property managers to better manage building systems. Housing Vermont was able to reduce their energy and maintenance costs while also lowering greenhouse gas emissions. This was a victory for their tenants and for the environment.
Tragically, Trevor Parsons became ill with cancer and died in 2015. The real-time monitoring system that was his brainchild became his namesake.
Over time, the value of the Parsons Platform extended beyond the direct savings. As it turned out, much of the platform’s value was in documenting how the heating, cooling and air quality systems, including solar PV and solar hot water systems, operate in the type of developments built by Housing Vermont. That data allowed the nonprofit to convince building engineers to install smaller, less expensive, but still highly efficient HVAC systems that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered. For Housing Vermont’s Applegate Apartments in Bennington, for example, the Parsons Platform identified an alternative design that resulted in a $200,000 reduction in capital costs for a new heating system. That’s $200,000 that can go into more housing, and not into building an oversized HVAC.
Case Study: Peter Coe Village Apartments in Middlebury
This site was re-designed in 2015, creating 10 new energy efficient apartments and restoring 12 apartments in historic buildings, all in the village center. The Parsons Platform revealed the water pumps in the district heating plant were set too high, leading to higher than necessary electricity use. Adjusting the controls and optimizing the boiler system saved $15,000 in unnecessary equipment costs and $10,000 annual savings in fuel costs.
This is about much more than just lowering energy use. Housing Vermont used the Platform’s savings to provide free Wifi to residents and to invest in raised beds for a community garden and mentoring and other community services for the children living in these homes. Instead of spending money on energy, they can invest in resources that create a more healthy, stable, and resource-rich environment for residents.
After the Parsons Platform proved its worth to Housing Vermont, the challenge became finding a sustainable business model to cover their investment in the system as well as pay for its maintenance. Housing Vermont settled on a subscription model, and went about finding other development and property management companies to bring on as customers.
It came as a bitter surprise that commercial landlords weren’t interested in the Parsons Platform, despite its track record of delivering energy and other savings, not to mention the reduction in emissions. Why? In market housing developments, energy costs are born by renters. Landlords had less self-interest at stake, since their tenants were paying the additional heating costs if air leaks allowed heat to escape or air conditioning wasn’t working properly.
The Parsons Platform had to find its audience. With a final grant from us in 2017, Housing Vermont refocused their efforts to find new clients for the Platform by engaging other nonprofit affordable housing developers, both in Vermont and across the county. Within Vermont, Housing Vermont has granted all their housing network partners access to the Platform as “development users.” Housing Vermont helps train their partners in how to use the Platform, and in return gets feedback on how to make the system better.
As of December 2018, the Parsons Platform’s most recent twelve installations have resulted in $1,095,500 in direct capital savings, $5,000 in annual operational savings, indirect financial benefit of $500,000 (capital & operational cost avoidance), and an additional expected annual savings of $137,000 from projects currently underway. Beyond these savings, tenants are more comfortable in their homes at lower cost, all the while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Parsons Platform is a classic example of a pattern we see in much of our work at High Meadows. You propose projects based on certain ideas about what the problem is, what the solutions look like, and how to get from the beginning to the end. After the work gets going, some of these ideas work out, some don’t, and sometimes things happen that you could never anticipate. When that happened, Housing Vermont regrouped and found a new path towards success. In 2013, we couldn’t have imagined the Parsons Platform of today. Now, we’re excited to see where Housing Vermont takes it next.
This article was written by Morgan True, of Kria Associates, with help from Gaye Symington and Will Lathrop.