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This Startup Wants to Retrofit Your Home Through Your Phone

A homeowner who wants to retrofit their home with green, energy-saving technology usually has to hire inspectors, engineers and contractors — a long and costly process. 

This Earth Day, a green startup is releasing an update to its green retrofitting app that let users' phones scan their property to assess how a feature in their home or business like a boiler can be upgraded, and how much it could save.

It's one of three new features being launched on BlocPower's retrofitting app that crowdsources funding, construction and jobs to retrofit properties across low- to moderate-income communities. The New York-based company's CEO says the updates put the ability to green a property directly into the property owners' hands, to cut out the red tape. 

Green building "is a highly technical and expensive skill set and we at BlocPower are trying to make that available for the common property owner,” said Donnel Baird, BlocPower's co-founder and CEO.

Two years old, BlocPower takes on retrofitting projects by invitation and connects home- and propertyowners with investors, local communties or even crowdfunding websites. Among the retrofits it's completed is Trinity United Church of Christ, which Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey have attended, on Chicago's South Side. 

There are a few steps to get through the green process that the app tries to make easy: grouping properties for bigger, more cost-efficient projects; financial analysis; engineering analysis and financing and payment options. After a project is finished, the retrofitted building might have soalr panels, energy-saving windows or a boiler or greener insulation.

Baird grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where hearing gunshots and having no heat was normal. His childhood experience pushed him to become a community organizer and he went on to join Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

After the elections, he spent a few years as a community organizer in Brooklyn, which led to his role as contact director for Obama For America. He went on to manage a national Laborers' International Union of North America campaign with the Department of Energy to manage energy efficiency financing to create green construction jobs throughout America under the Obama administration’s Better Buildings Initiative.

After working with the White House, he connected with the Washington Interfaith Network to help gain government funding for underserved communities in Washington, D.C.

But for Baird, the initiative, funded by Obama's Great Recession stimulus package, was not cost-effective enough for his community. The missing ingredient gave birth to BlocPower, he said.

“There is an engineering problem, there is a financial problem, there is a customer problem and an acquisition problem — these are all super hard and expensive to solve. We solve that in a transparent way,” Baird said.

The three new mobile features being launched — visual recognition, progress tracking tools for city governments and crowdsourcing for houses of worship or community-based properties — streamline the BlocPower app, said Baird and chief engineering officer Tooraj Arvajeh, speaking in Microsoft's tech hub in Manhattan.

"A customer can take photo of a boiler then it goes into our visual recognition technology to find out which boiler it is. We can also recognize building [materials] like brick or stone or concrete," said Tooraj Arvajeh, BlocPower's head of the engineering team.

Baird added, "A high-end engineering company might charge $40-50 thousand dollars for doing an analysis for a small building and so we are trying to bring that cost down for free by using machine learning, visual recognition technology and big data. These [services] that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for an engineering analysis, we are trying to make that basically a free commodity."

BlocPower is not first tool of its kind but it does have a niche, its community-based resources.

“What is interesting is its crowdsourcing [financial] model,” said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University. “That can help lower the costs, or there won’t be any costs at all.”

Typically there are two ways to finance green building projects, Reicher said, either through investors or taking on loans. Usually investors look at smaller buildings as risky.

Reicher said investors look at credit risk, what kind of building it is and whether the investment would actually improve the value of the property.

Those risk factors make it difficult for community-based organizations to make small but effective changes. For example, BlocPower's New York City pilot program is in the middle of helping the Fordham United Methodist Church in Bronx change its boilers, among other energy-saving features, so it can save money and reinvest back into the community.

“There are many factors that can deter investors: if it is lower quality, less attractive and there are tenants, it’s not an attractive investment,” said UCLA professor Magali Delmas, who has studied Los Angeles green building programs.

"Over $10,000 to $200,000 investment can be a real hurdle for property owners," she said. They "look at the initial investment rather than the long term benefits."

Delmas said upgrading a building or a home really benefit the larger community, not the individual, because it improves the local environment. But it can be difficult to do if a building- or homeowner doesn’t have extensive knowledge of engineering or finances.

In Brooklyn, BlocPower was assigned by the New York City government to help retrofit buildings that were eating up power and led to brown-outs, when lights dim due to ebbing power. Retrofitting buildings prone to brown-outs in the area would help keep the lights on during extreme hot or cold weather.

“We are trying to make that a free commodity so people learn about their buildings and the sustainability opportunity each building has,” Baird said.

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