Change Maker Series: Interview with Chris Helmuth of Hands on Phoenix

Reflecting on a Cool Roof Program Concluded We recently spoke with Chris Helmuth from Hands on Greater Phoenix. Hands on Greater Phoenix is a civic engagement program that matches volunteers from across the city with community organizations and government agencies in need of service.

They supplied volunteers to Phoenix’s Cool Roof Initiative, a program that kicked off last year. Phoenix Cool Roofs targeted public buildings, which were coated by neighborhood volunteers. At the program’s inception, Mayor Greg Stanton told local news that, “the city’s 1,500 buildings and 600 recreation centers account for nearly half of overall greenhouse gas emissions in Phoenix.” The goal of Phoenix Cool Roofs was to change that statistic and make the city more sustainable.

Phoenix Cool Roofs was a one-year initiative funded by former Mayor Bloomberg’s philanthropic organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies. The program ended this April. Bloomberg has been a major proponent of New York City’s Cool Roofs program and his charity has helped support cool roofing in other cities across the United States. Phoenix received a one-time grant of $100,000 to run its cool roofing operation. Now that the program is over, one administrator reflects on its successes and the hurtles to implementing a city-wide cool roofing initiative. The city collected statistics to track their progress as rooftops were coated. We don’t have those here, but they’ll be posted shortly. Check back soon.

WRP:Tell me a bit about yourself and what goes on at Hands on Greater Phoenix?

Chris: I’m getting ready to celebrate 15 years with Hands on Phoenix. I’m originally from the Midwest and moved to Phoenix with my her husband. I was looking for a job and found Hands on Phoenix. They schedule volunteer projects; and I was new and looking for a way to get connected. Hands on was a way to volunteer. I noticed that they had a job opening and applied at the last minute. They gave me a temporary job and 15 years later I am still here. It has been a great job and a great way to learn about Phoenix – and get to know it. Hands on Phoenix is a small nonprofit that started 20 years ago. We do not focus on any one issue area. We learn about the needs of the community and schedule projects around that. It’s great to go to work and feel like you are doing something for someone else. It’s not curing cancer but making life a little better.

WRP: How did you end up being a part of Phoenix Cool Roofs?

Chris: Roof coating was something very new. We had never done it before. We tend to just jump in and figure it out later. That’ s what makes the job interesting. We always try to be innovative. Our biggest focus is on children, families and education due to Arizona’s low rankings. We probably spend about 10-15% of our time on environment. However, this is growing and we are trying to do more. The cool roofs program seemed like a good opportunity. Living in Arizona, people love the outdoors. They care about their environment. Cool roofing was a great experience for us. 

The majority of our volunteers are working and family people. Cool roofing also gave us a chance to get new volunteers, especially from ASU [Arizona State University]. They volunteered specifically to paint rooftops. There was a lot of support from professors and other academics who are interested in environmental work.

WRP: I know that your official cool roofs program is over, but do you think that there is a future for cool roofing in Phoenix.

Chris: I’m not sure about how cool roofs will play out. Some things do need to line up to use volunteers on a rooftop. Insurance issues and volunteer scheduling are some of the most difficult. Phoenix is a relatively new city. Most of our buildings have been built in the last 30 to 50 years. A lot of these buildings don’t meet the insurance specifications necessary to use volunteers. There are many rooftops that could have been done but there were no parapet walls. When you’re dealing with different corporate groups lawyers get involved and it can be difficult to get around these safety concerns. No one wants their people on a rooftop with no walls. You could just walk right off the roof. Also, our buildings are all over the place. Phoenix is spread out. There aren’t necessarily a lot of buildings in any specific neighborhood. That makes clusters difficult. Additionally, the cool roofing grant wanted us to show that we were working city-wide. This was challenging because not all parts of the city have eligible rooftops. This is a hurtle that we faced trying to fulfill the obligations of the grant and dealing with the realities of how the city was built. Building identification was a big challenge for this reason. 

The City Phoenix actually had a lot of rooftops replaced due to a damaging hail storm that we had a few years ago. The rooftops that the city replaced had all received a cool roof coating already. Therefore, I think that, even without an official cool roofs initiative, white roofing will continue. There is definitely an awareness of the need for cool roofs. I think that builders know about cool roofing out here. That said, there is still a need for more cool roofing. Moving forward, we need to work with other buildings not just city buildings. Outside of a cool roofs program, buildings can be selected based on need without the politics of grant administration. Again, we couldn’t always do buildings that we thought were good because of the restrictions of the program. Without these restrictions it would be easier to target certain buildings that probably won’t get a cool roof on their own. I don’t mean to say that the program didn’t work. It worked well. There are always caveats, but we have already seen some real return in terms of numbers. The city did a great job collecting these.

WRP: What about Do It Yourself for some of those buildings that couldn’t be done as part of the program? Could a DIY education initiative be the next step?

Chris: Many individual homeowners here have tile rooftops. I am not sure about a DIY program, but it may be a possibility. We’d get random emails from people who wanted to do their rooftops themselves. In fact, we knew nothing about coating when we started. With a brief training it is very doable. I think you would just need to tailor the program to the rooftops that you have here. Coating won’t work on many of them but other types of cool roofing would. 

WRP: Arizona has the most solar panels of any state. Do you think that incentives from power companies are a major reason for this? Is there any talk about cool roof incentives there?

Chris: Yes, incentives help a lot and there are many solar panels here. There better be. We have so much sun! Roof coating is a more minimal expense so I don’t know about a desire for incentives. I don’t really see a rebate or incentives as part of the public discussion now. However, power companies seem really supportive of environmental initiatives here. I think their concern with funding an actual cool roof program would be liability, but incentives might be different. 

WRP: Any last thoughts on administering Phoenix’s cool roof program?

Chris: We weren’t quite sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we are really glad that we know how to do it now. We will be looking for opportunities to do this in the future. We learned a lot in a short amount of time. We had the experience, the city made its buildings more efficient, and the community got to participate. In that sense, we think it was a win for everyone. 


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