Looking Back at White Roof Painting
"As part of the citywide Cool Roofs program, which mobilizes volunteers to paint roofs to reduce cooling costs, the Long Island City Business Development Corp. is creating a network of participants in the borough to join the cause. Variety Boys and Girls Club members stand on newly painted, energy-efficient white roof in Long Island City with club executive director Terry Hughes. - NY Daily News, June 1, 2011
The NYC °CoolRoofs initiative encourages building owners to cool their rooftops by applying highly reflective white paint. Coated roofs are as much as 75 degrees cooler on hot summer days than standard black tar roofs, reducing the amount of air conditioning needed for the rest of the building, the owner’s electricity bills, the City’s carbon emissions, and the urban heat island effect which makes NYC 5 – 7 degrees F hotter than the surrounding countryside.
During 2008 - 2011, I spent a lot of time promoting white roof painting, both as a volunteer project at Sierra Club's NYC Group with John Kolp, and through my day job at LIC Partnership, to the commercial building community.
I thought it would be a good way to recruit volunteers who wanted to do something tangible and practical to slow global warming, while also lowering air conditioning costs and the urban heat island effect, which makes NYC even hotter in the summer than surrounding greener areas.
In figuring out how to explain the project to commercial building owners, I learned a few things. The cost of the expensive, highly reflective coating can be paid off through lower air conditioning costs in about three years, for a few buildings that meet certain criteria: owner-occupied commercial buildings of one or two stories that had black tar roofs and were not very energy efficient. For other types of buildings, it would take much longer for the investment in coating to pay for itself.
Business owners are more willing to invest in energy efficiency programs with a return on investment within three years, and more reluctant the longer it takes to get return on their investment. I can attest that as a voluntary program for building owners, despite the offering of free volunteer labor to paint the roof, NYC CoolRoofs had limited appeal. There was not enough in it for them. (See below for details.)
Even if nonprofit organizations were more environmentally concerned, they were even more reluctant to pay for the paint. Sometimes NYC CoolRoofs could sweeten the deal by bringing in corporate sponsors willing to pay for the coating in addition to the free volunteer labor already offered by the City.
While that was an easier sell, even free paint, free labor and a green marketing opportunity did not guarantee the consent of nonprofit groups to having strangers tramping on their roof and hopefully not causing any damage. Using my day job connections in the western Queens business community, I was able to contact many nonprofit facilities, and referred about 20 buildings to NYC CoolRoofs.
How much rooftop space has been painted white?
According to the NYC CoolRoofs 2011 annual report, since the program’s launch in 2010 it has coated 2.5 million square feet of rooftop across 288 buildings. In 2011, 1.3 million square feet was coated. Building owners coating their own roofs accounted for about 600,000 s.f. of 2011’s figure. Cause for enthusiasm?
How much of the City’s total rooftop space is that?
Columbia’s Urban Design Lab, looking at available space for rooftop agriculture (p. 40), found that NYC has approximately 1 million buildings, with a total of 38,256 total acres of rooftop area. Columbia University’s study on green roofs and stormwater retention cites a figure of about 1 billion square feet of rooftop space in NYC.
So to put things in perspective, NYC CoolRoofs has been able to coat around 1/1000th of the City’s roof space white each year. It's fair to say that it's more important as an educational and organizing tool than a mainstay of the City's energy conservation efforts. Recognizing that reality can help guide NYC's white roof painting efforts, and the work of its advocates.
As a voluntary program, white roof painting has a very limited impact: it’s like pushing a rope. It will only appeal to a small number of volunteers and businesses large enough to be concerned about promoting their image as a green company. As I explain in my report “Engaging Community Groups to Promote Energy Efficiency, Solar Power and Local Agriculture,” it’s easier to promote voluntary sustainability initiatives if they provide financial benefits to New Yorkers.When sustainability initiatives don’t provide those benefits, they must be required by law in order to be adopted as standard practice.
The NYC building code has been changed so that for new construction or replacement of existing roofs, owners had to use roofing materials meeting minimum standards of rooftop reflectivity. Here's the NYC Council bill. Here's the new text for the NYC Building Code.
Its legacy, the building code change, is mundane and to most New Yorkers virtually invisible. However, it's extremely significant. A small percent of NYC roofs get built or replaced every year. By requiring reflective roofs as a matter of law, NYC's roofs will gradually and inexorably become much cooler. The lesson here is simple: where neither incentives nor free market solutions will work, sensible government action is required. Kudos to the NYC officials who raised the bar.
Not enough cost savings in white roof painting for building owners
Summer heat waves generate the maximum electric demand on the City’s electric grid. More City buildings cooling their roofs with white and gray coatings, or installing green roofs, will lower the risk of summer blackouts. Cooling roofs is certainly good for the City, but what’s the benefit for the individual building owner? If a building’s roof passes a free survey, NYC CoolRoofs will provide a recommended coating type, an estimate of how much the owner will have to spend on coating, and will send a supervisor and volunteer crew to apply the coating for free. Removing the labor costs – about 50 cents per square foot – is a big help. The owner still has to buy coating, which ranges from $70 - $140 per five gallon container.
In most cases, the amount that building owners save from lower air conditioning costs is much lower than the cost of the coating – so even with the City’s offer of free labor, it’s not perceived as a good investment. We found that for owners of commercial buildings, savings will pay for the cost of a white roof project within about three years, under these circumstances: (1) The building is owner occupied; (2) It was built before 1980, and is not energy-efficient or well-insulated; (3) It has a standard black tar roof; (4) It is only one or two stories tall, with more surface area than mass.
Such owners could be found and induced to sign up for the program, but by whom? Identifying the owners or managers of commercial buildings in NYC is a difficult and time consuming job. NYC’s 67 Business Improvement Districts have such lists for their commercial areas, but the Cool Roof program is not a priority of the NYC Dept. of Small Business Services. Through our campaign and community outreach, we connected about twenty buildings with the CoolRoofs program – mostly nonprofits able to access donated coating, and individual owners wanting to do the right thing.
The point is that even though white roof painting is good for the City as a whole, and it is supported with very respectable City incentives and staffing, the return on investment to the building owner is only mildly appealing in a small number of cases – and without any City staff or partners required or incentivized to find those owners and pitch the program to them, very few New Yorkers have enough financial motivation to get involved.
Painting roofs white can keep buildings cooler in summer,
cut costs, and connect neighbors
Traditional black asphalt roofs retain the sun's rays as heat, getting as hot as 190° F on summer days. Applying highly reflective white coatings make roofs much cooler, lowering internal building temperatures by up to 30% in summer. By cutting demand for air conditioning, this simple, inexpensive roof treatment reduces energy costs, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.
White Roof Campaign is a project of Beyond Oil NYC. In October 2010, our consortium of volunteer groups, in partnership with the NYC CoolRoofs program and the NYC Department of Buildings, painted the roofs of four non-profits: the Bowery Mission on the Lower East Side, Fountain House in midtown Manhattan, the Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem, and SCO's Ottilie Campus in Briarwood, Queens. Much of the work took place in conjunction with www.350.org's Global Work Party.
Beyond Oil NYC's drive to recruit more roofs for the program in 2011
We promoted the program to western Queens nonprofit organizations and commercial building owners. We encourage NYC sustainability activists and local economic development groups to use our materials, presented and linked below, in their own communities.
What's in it for neighborhood leaders, and nonprofit and religious facilities
Since a white roof coating project is an appealing and newsworthy story, local leaders can:
recruit their own volunteers and constituents to raise the cost of the coating and join in applying it;
invite their elected officials and media to attend and cover the event;
think about other existing sustainability initiatives can be brought in to benefit their neighborhood, like Con Ed's free energy efficiency surveys and GrowNYC's greenmarket and recycling programs.
Any individual sustainability initiative can be a grassroots organizing tool for a portfolio of other initiatives, and the larger vision of enhanced NYC sustainability, for anyone who cares to connect the dots.
What's in it for commercial building owners and tenants
Since altruistic appeals won't satisfy commercial building owners, we researched costs and benefits, and determined the categories of commercial building owners that would find a profitable return on investment. We created a detailed, step by step set of guidelines on using the NYC CoolRoofs program.
Below is a outreach letter sent to civic and business leaders, and a news release about the program.
To get your roof coated, contact BeyondOilNYC, or NYC CoolRoofs.
Sample letter sent in spring 2011
Dear Civic and Business Leaders,
We’re writing to introduce you to NYC˚CoolRoofs, a City program that will allow your constituents to set up an appealing project that will cut their electric bills, and earn them recognition as neighborhood green leaders. Feel free to customize this letter and distribute it to your community, along with LICBDC’s attached guide to using the program, and a promotional flyer targeted to businesses.
Black asphalt roofs hold the sun's rays as heat, getting as hot as 190° F on summer days. Applying highly reflective white coatings make roofs and buildings much cooler, lowering air conditioning bills and increasing the life of the roof. As more roofs are coated, the entire City will be cooler in summer, use less energy, and lower both its carbon emissions and the risk of power outages. To coat as many roofs as possible, NYC Service and the NYC Department of Buildings launched NYC˚CoolRoofs. It was piloted in Long Island City, Queens in 2009, with Mayor Bloomberg and Al Gore coating the roof of the LIC YMCA. Other LIC buildings that have coated their roofs include LaGuardia Community College, Sunnyside Community Services, and the MoMA warehouse. The program coated over 1 million square feet citywide in 2010, and is seeking new roofs to coat in 2011.
It’s a great offer. For all building owners who agree to share before and after energy bills with the City, NYC ˚CoolRoofs will provide a free roof inspection, discounted purchase of roof coating, and will send a team of volunteers under professional supervision to apply the coating.
Benefits for businesses: Although anyone that wants to help the environment and support the City’s sustainability should consider this program, whether they own or rent space, business people are primarily concerned with their return on investment. They’ll be glad to know that under the right circumstances, their purchase cost for white roof coating will pay for itself in less than 3 years through lower air conditioning bills, if their buildings are: one or two stories tall, owner occupied, not well insulated, and have black tar roofs.
Benefits for non-profits: This is an easy way for non-profits, government agencies, religious institutions, hospitals, schools, and low-income housing facilities to show their support for the environment, and the City’s sustainability program, while getting their constituents involved. To make best use of the program’s educational benefits, groups should recruit their own members and neighbors to help buy and apply the coating. CoolRoofs is a great introduction to many other City programs that save money, slow down climate change, and improve quality of life. Civic groups can easily take the lead in bringing these programs to their communities.
To find out about getting your roof coated, contact Again, we encourage you to customize these materials and distribute it them to your community. If you have any questions, or would like me to come out and speak to your group about sustainability for businesses, please contact me at 718.786.5300 x 27 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Miner, SVP
Long Island City Business Development Corporation
PS - You may also want to look at LICBDC’s Going Green Guide for Business. It’s a primer on going green in straightforward, non-scientific language. We prepared it ourselves to provide a step by step road map for businesses that want to cut their energy costs, become more efficient, and lower their impact on the environment. Substitute the word “home” for “business,” and the Guide is a valuable resource for property owners, apartment dwellers and homeowners as well.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NYC white roof coating program goes forward in western Queens
Volunteers coat roof of Sunnyside Community Services; LICBDC promotes program to businesses to cut summer air conditioning bills
Contact: Dan Miner, LICBDC
718.786.5300 X 27
Long Island City, NY - May 5, 2011 - Dozens of volunteers at Sunnyside Community Services (SCS) spent Saturday, April 30 applying highly reflective white coating to its 14,000 square foot black tar roof. SCS collaborated with NYC oCoolRoofs, NYC Service, NYC Department of Buildings, Green City Force, and Long Island City Business Development Corporation (LICBDC) in an effort to cool New York City’s rooftops, and cut air conditioning costs.
Standard black tar roofs get as hot as 190° F on summer days. Applying highly reflective white coatings make roofs much cooler, lowering internal building temperatures by up to 30% in summer – as well as air conditioning bills. Because cooler roofs expand and contract less, they last longer than typical roofs, and have lower maintenance costs. NYC ˚CoolRoofs, piloted in Long Island City in 2009, coated over 1 million square feet of roof around the City in 2010. SCS joined other LIC facilities that have coated their roofs, including the LIC YMCA, LaGuardia Community College, and the MoMA warehouse.
LICBDC, as part of its mission to promote government programs and assist businesses, has worked closely with NYC oCoolRoofs since the inception of the program. LICBDC’s outreach to local nonprofits recruited Sunnyside Community Services to the program.
“We could never achieve our ambitious goals for coating New York City’s rooftops without the power of volunteers,” said Diahann Billings-Burford of NYC Service. “Last year, we coated more than 1,000,000 square feet of rooftop to improve the quality of life throughout New York City, and we’re not stopping there,” said Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri. “We are thrilled that Sunnyside Community Services is coating their rooftop, which will reduce their energy usage and help to cool our City.”
“Your building can be next. NYC ˚CoolRoofs will provide a free roof inspection, discounted purchase of roof coating, and best of all, volunteer labor to apply it, for all building owners who agree to share before and after energy bills with the City,” said Dan Miner, LICBDC’s SVP.
“Although anyone that wants to help the environment and support the City’s sustainability should consider this program, whether they own or rent space, business people are primarily concerned with financial returns. They’ll be glad to know that under the right circumstances, the investment in white roof coating will pay for itself in less than 3 years through lower air conditioning bills, and permanently lower bills after that.”
The City’s research showed that applying a white roof coating to older buildings can save up to 8 or 9 cents in electricity per square foot per year, and both costs and savings are likely to rise in the future.
“If you own the building that your business occupies, it was built before 1980, is only 1 or 2 stories tall, and has a black tar roof, you fit the profile. You will get return on your investment within three years, so call today to sign up,” said Miner.
LICBDC created a short but comprehensive guide, walking building owners and tenants step by step through the NYC ˚CoolRoofs program. LICBDC has distributed the guide, and material about the program, to other Queens business groups. For a copy of the guide, and to apply for the program, contact LICBDC at 718.786.5300 x 27. For more information, visit http://www.licbdc.org.
“As a City-designated Cooling Center, we at Sunnyside Community Services certainly know the importance of ‘keeping our cool,’” said Judy Zangwill, executive director at SCS. “This exciting initiative will not only reduce our energy use and save money, but also help improve air quality so that everyone in the community can breathe easier. And I would like to thank those who worked ‘behind the scenes’ to give us this opportunity to green a little more of Queens -- Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer for recommending SCS as a oCoolRoof site, and LICBDC for getting out the word about initiatives like this to the residents and businesses of western Queens.’ Sunnyside Community Services (SCS) reaches over 18,200 individuals of all ages with a wide range of programs. For more information, visit
NYC oCoolRoofs is a partnership of NYC Service—the Mayor's initiative to promote volunteerism in NYC—together with the NYC Department of Buildings and Green City Force. For more information, visit their web site at http://www.nyc.gov/coolroofs
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