Electricity production generates 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Photo: NASA via Unsplash.

This interview originally appeared in our March 2022 Escape Club Newsletter. We’re sharing for Earth Day, in hopes that it inspires some future and present homeowners be better stewards of the Upstate NY region.

Erin Lindsey, Founder & Creative Director at Escape Brooklyn, talks with Robin Jones of Catskill Mountain Houses about how we might become better stewards for our planet, beginning in our own homes.

Erin Lindsey: I want to preface this by saying that, as a friend but also occasional-colleague, I’ve found your research and passion on this topic really inspiring.
And, Robin, you’re going to preface this by saying you’re “no expert” and that you’re an “aspiring environmentalist.”

But as our friends at podcast How to Save a Planet (check out episode “How Screwed Are We?” and see our list of resources below) tell us, one of the most powerful things we can do as individuals to combat climate change, is to (1) take inventory of your own skills and resources and network, then (2) identify what environmental work that needs to be done within a chosen category or topic (preferably one that you’re passionate about or brings you joy ) – and then (3) hone in on the intersection of those things, really educate yourself on your chosen topic, and then spread the word using your unique set of skills and resources.

So I’d argue that between the research you’re doing, sharing what you’ve found – plus dropping a much-needed pep talk at the end – you’re definitely right on track. Thank you in advance on behalf of our readers and myself! Let’s get into it.

EL: On the whole, what would you say the impact of real estate industry is on the environment? What’s the biggest concern?

RJ: The main culprit as homeowners is our level of carbon emissions – electricity and heating.

Electricity production generates 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Approximately 62% of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas.

In the Catskills, many of our homes are heated by oil and propane. We can do our climate a huge favor by figuring out how to replace or offset our use of these with clean electricity and clean energy.

You and I were recently talking about a recent episode of This American Life called Apocalypse Creep, in which cliff erosion in California was causing homes to plummet into the ocean – just one example of what be to come in an impending climate driven housing crisis.

What kind of environmental dangers are we facing in the Catskills and Upstate NY area?

Luckily the Catskills seems to be a bit of a safer place to own real estate from a climate perspective. We’re not seeing too many houses sinking off cliffs into the ocean… I know that’s anecdotal, but it does represent the larger issue that climate is going to displace a lot of people. I think this region is going to be hit hard by climate migration.

You and I likely won’t be around to see it in full, but I’m seeing data that says by the time my nieces are my age, billions of people will be displaced due to climate making large portions of the earth uninhabitable.

In terms of what’s happening today, Catskill Mountainkeeper is a good local resource to get involved with environmental dangers specifically in our region, like fossil fuel extraction and protecting our rivers and reservoirs.

What kind of internal dialogue, as a real estate professional, are you having around this?

The internal dialogue is tough.

Eventually, prioritizing climate will also make good business sense in real estate, but we have a few obstacles to overcome before those two priorities align. So in the meantime, advocating for climate forward initiatives is at times counterintuitive to good business in real estate.

For example, retrofitting old homes for energy efficiency is expensive and time consuming. Many of the climate initiatives being put on the table today would make it very hard for me, my colleagues and our clients to sell homes. Some real estate professionals are even advocating against some of these climate positive platforms in order to take care of realtors and their clients in the near term. While that approach is short sighted at a high level, on the ground it’s super complicated and I don’t think anyone has a solution at scale quite yet.

It’s easy to want to focus on aesthetic updates first, but you’ll save money in the long run if you tighten up your home’s energy envelope before you choose paint colors.

What kind of simple upgrades can current homeowners do to minimize their environmental footprint?

Well, service providers are so backed up right now that this is easier said than done, but homeowners can invest in double pane windows, good insulation, and energy efficient mechanicals like your furnace and water heater.

A lot of the homes in our area are like Swiss cheese, mine included. We need to insulate! A few years ago I bought this charming little hunting cabin from the 1940s that had been renovated over the years. Even being in the industry, it took me a couple years to install new windows, re-insulate, upgrade my mechanicals, and I still have projects to tackle. The simplest upgrades are to install a smart thermostat and use energy efficient light bulbs.

I’m really excited about the Climate Roadmap that Catskill Mountain Houses just launched, and you can check out our Green Starter Kit for five easy steps to make your home more sustainable.

I would particularly call on my niche market – the secondary and co-primary homeowners – who may be in a more privileged position to make these climate based home upgrades.

Check out NY’s clean energy options, readily available from your service provider. Photo: Karsten Würth via Unsplash.

Do you have any renewable energy resources to share for Catskills/Hudson Valley homeowners?

Yes! If you’re not quite ready to install a solar panel on your roof, you can still take advantage of shared, co-op style clean electricity alternatives that link to your current electric account.

For example, if NYSEG is your provider, sign up for Delaware River Solar, or if your provider is Central Hudson, use their Clean Energy Marketplace. And I’m loving New Yorkers for Clean Power – you can sign up for a free clean energy coaching session or just reference their site for loads of good information. Sustainable Hudson Valley is the local organization that really helped give me a foothold in wrapping my head around climate and homeownership, highly recommend. And NYSERDA is a good state resource, especially to check out tax incentives for energy efficient home improvements and more.

Let’s say I’m in the market to buy an existing house, and I’m looking for something with a low footprint. What types of features should I be looking out for?

Your home inspector will be a good resource for this. Make sure you specifically ask them about the house’s insulation, windows, doors and the age of the mechanicals. If each of these are functioning, as a buyer you shouldn’t expect to negotiate with a seller on upgrades, particularly during a seller’s market like we’re experiencing now. But understanding the state of these items will help a savvy and climate forward buyer know what to plan on.

Newer homes tend to be built a bit tighter from a sustainability perspective. But most of the homes we’re working with in this region are older (with loads of character!) and are worth a little extra investment in energy efficiency.

It’s easy to want to focus on aesthetic updates first, but you’ll save money in the long run if you tighten up your home’s energy envelope before you choose paint colors.

Renovation is by far greener, and more cost effective – than building new homes.

Renovating can be excruciating, but it’s usually the more environmentally friendly option. Photo: Milivoj Kuhar via Unsplash.

Now let’s talk about new builds. Is building new – with all of the energy efficient options available – the better long-term option for the environment? Or does the bad (land development) outweigh the good (more energy efficient homes)?

Renovation is by far greener and more cost effective than building new homes. There’s actually a growing movement among architects and designers to put the same level of innovation and creativity that they put into new builds, into renovations. There’s already a massive housing stock of aging buildings that needs to be updated.

That said, I’m seeing an emergence of talented architects with a strong design-forward, climate ethos – like the Catskill Project, Edifice Upstate, and General Contractor Bruce Pollock. I’m really excited to see a few of these super efficient, low footprint homes being built in our area right now.

Speaking of renovations, are there any areas you see as having loads of potential: either with inventory or a lot of vacant, aging homes that need help?

I’m a bit biased perhaps, since this is my primary region, but Sullivan County does still have a load of potential. Despite increased prices and competition, this area is still more affordable, less competitive and often has lower taxes than regions closer to the Hudson River or to the city.

While we also have beautiful, turnkey homes, a lot of our housing stock has experienced years of deferred maintenance or even abandonment, and I’d love to see these properties come back to life. Also check out Delaware County or just across the border in PA and the Poconos.

Grappling with this subject can be bleak and overwhelming. But I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s not too late to fix things, and I know you feel this way too.

As one of the most positive, most resilient people I know, do you have any positive last notes for us?

Climate change is real, and no matter what we do today, the next generation will be living in a different world from the one we live in now.

But I do believe that if we act now and urgently, we can really minimize the effects of climate change, particularly in our region. Geographically we have a leg up, so now is the time to build our infrastructure.

Many thanks to you for speaking with us, Robin! Please check out the below resources & links we’ve put together.

Check Out These References, Resources & Links:

• This American Life (podcast): Apocalypse Creep

How to Save a Planet (podcast): How Screwed Are We?

Green Starter Kit: by Catskill Mountain Houses. View Catskill Mountain Houses’ Climate Roadmap.

Catskill Mountainkeeper: local organization whose mission is to “protect our region’s forests and wild lands; safeguard air and water; nurture healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities; empower environmental justice communities; and accelerate the transition to a 100% clean and just energy future in New York State and beyond.”

• Upstate Homeowners: switch to renewable energy! If NYSEG is your service provider, you can switch to Delaware River Solar. If Central Hudson is your service provider, use Clean Energy Marketplace. Feel free to share alternate resources in the comments below.

New Yorkers for Clean Power: sign up for a free clean energy coaching session, or reference their site for loads of good information.

Sustainable Hudson Valley local organization tackling climate action on a local level, with great information for homeowners.

NYSERDA is a good state resource, especially to check out tax incentives for energy efficient home improvements, and more.

• Renovation Inspiration: Escape Brooklyn Before & After Feature on Camp Caitlin.