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Green Building News

Missing the Sun in Washington, D.C.

When row houses get an extra story or two, solar panels that had been in full sun may suddenly be shaded

Vertical expansions of Washington, D.C., townhouses, locally called "pop-ups," have residents with rooftop solar arrays worried about a loss of their access to the sun. This pop-up is on Shepherd Street in the northwest part of the District.
Image Credit: Karen Griffin

A real estate boom in the District of Columbia is causing unexpected problems for homeowners who are pinning their hopes for lower power bills on rooftop solar.

According to an article in The Washington Post, high demand for housing is making it profitable for developers to rebuild and enlarge rundown townhouses to the maximum height allowed by zoning regulations.

These renovated townhouses, called “pop-ups,” are a boon for developers and real estate agents but a headache for nearby neighbors whose photovoltaic (PV) panels are suddenly in the shade, and as a result producing less electricity.

“Instead of benefiting from the sun rays, my electric bill is going to go up,” said Karen Griffin, a retired school administrator whose two-story house on Shepherd Street is right next door to a house that will soon get a third story.

PV system owners seek restrictions on height

Renovated townhouses are springing up in both residential and commercial neighborhoods. Zoning laws permit two-story row houses in residential areas to grow to 40 feet with a third story, The Post said, while homes in commercial areas can go up as high as 90 feet.

On Shepherd Street, Griffin and some of her neighbors are fighting back. They’re calling for amendments to construction and zoning regulations that “support solar energy sustainability.”

In a PowerPoint presentation designed to gather more community support, the group proposes amending a 2012 ordinance to require an environmental impact assessment before building permits are issued. The assessment would include a review of solar access.

They also want the mayor to issue a moratorium immediately on construction until an impact assessment is conducted. And the group wants an emergency meeting that would address renewable energy issues.

Griffin said in a telephone interview the problem is not with developers who are acting within the law. “You can’t blame them,” she said, pointing to hefty profits for builders who convert single-family townhouses into three-condo buildings. A two-story, single-family townhouse worth $500,000 can triple in value when it’s transformed into a three-story building with three condos.

The real problem, she said, is a conflict between the city’s sustainability act and building codes that allows renovated townhouses to block the sun. Diminished solar access affects both solar panels and the private gardens that abound in her neighborhood, Griffin continued. “Our argument is with the regulations and the laws,” she said.

PV systems lower electric bills

Griffin has 15 PV panels on the roof of her townhouse under a lease agreement with SolarCity. Since they were installed about a year ago, she said, her monthly electric bill has dropped from as much as $200 or $300 to $32.

A developer’s proposal to add a story to the townhouse next door would likely change those numbers, and the prospect of lower savings may deter others from adding PV systems of their own.

Shepherd Street resident Michael Halpern, for example, has been considering a deal with PV installer SolarCity that would have lowered his electricity bill from $71 to $27 for 20 years with a $4,500 down payment for the PV equipment, according to The Post. Now, he’s not so sure it’s a good idea.

He told the newspaper that a house two doors down, not even on the market when he signed up for the panels last year, is about to become a pop-up.

The new owner, who lives in Great Falls, Virginia, is planning to renovate the building into three condos and then sell it. She said neighbors complained incessantly and had delayed the project by four or five months, but the issue of solar access wasn’t on their list of grievances.

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs told The Post he was aware of the uproar on Shepherd Street, but added that as long as the pop-ups meet construction and zoning regulations there isn’t anything the city could do about it.

However, the city’s planning office has proposed modest changes in building regulations that would lower the maximum height of pop-ups in one part of the city, and block the conversion of family row houses into buildings with three or more units in the same zone.

Losing a sense of community

While losing sunlight is worrisome, says Griffin, so is the changing fabric of the neighborhood. Houses tend to stay in families a long time. Griffin’s parents bought the townhouse where she now lives in 1959, and she moved in as a 9-year-old.

The tight-knit neighborhood has planted trees and installed hanging flower baskets on the street, and the street is closed once a year for a neighborhood Halloween party.

Construction projects are not only disruptive to gardens, homeowners and even pets, but the townhouses-turned-condos alters their sense of community.

“We have deep roots,” Griffin said.


  1. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #1

    Dig around...
    Many places have zoning regulations that would not allow anyone to block the sun on his/her neighbor. Check your zoning department.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Armando Cobo
    If you read the article more carefully, you'll discover that your advice doesn't apply to Washington, DC. Scott Gibson reported, "A spokesman for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs told The Post he was aware of the uproar on Shepherd Street, but added that as long as the pop-ups meet construction and zoning regulations there isn’t anything the city could do about it."

  3. DEnd2000 | | #3

    I think there is a fairly important lesson here
    That lesson would be neighborhoods change. If you are counting on your neighborhood to be static then you are going to be disappointed. The solar access for the PV panels is fairly easy to solve, just raise the PV panels... maybe by adding an income suite. The garden solar access however will probably be more of a challenge, as addressing that then changes historical development norms for the city. Those norms are important for not just developers but also property valuations (part of the value of any property is what can be done with it, adding more restrictions lowers the value of a property).

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