Last month, the New York City Council approved a broad-spectrum green building law, in what could be considered a clarion call to the legislative bodies of other large cities. According to the Council, any municipal or privately-owned large buildings must reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80 percent by 2050. While an exciting step for New York City, the movement to build or retrofit healthier and less environmentally impactful buildings has been underway across the country for a decade.
New York’s Counter-GHG Plan
One of the truisms in sustainability is the phrase, “the most environmentally friendly building is one that is never built.” That is why new NYC legislation will require retrofitting of existing structures to increase the proportion of environmentally-friendly buildings in New York instead of wastefully constructing new ones. According to the Urban Green Council, there are 50,000 total structures which fall under this new legislation. This includes municipal buildings, which will need to reduce greenhouse gases 50 percent by 2030, and over 2,400 buildings – housing over 400,000 residents – overseen by the New York City Housing Authority, which is now required to reduce GHG emissions by 80 percent by 2050. That amounts to 70 percent of total pre-1969 housing. As vibrant and modern as New York City appears, much of its carbon consumption lies in its aging, inefficient buildings. As just one example, exemplifying the task to come, forty three percent of New York’s office space was built before World War II.
The template for GHG-reduction and improved usability of New York’s large building space has already been underway at the urging of building tenants and owners. In 2009, the Empire State Building ownership group embarked on a multi-year retrofit campaign to improve energy efficiency and indoor air, light, and sound quality. Five years later, the Empire State Building ownership reported $7.5 million in energy savings, beating an energy-efficiency target by almost 16 percent. In 2011, the smaller 125 Maiden Lane building undertook a $3.8 million energy retrofit, resulting in over $500,000 in energy savings annually and GHG emissions reduced by 27 percent, according to the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation.
As New York City’s new legislation is focused on large commercial buildings, smaller residential construction remains exempt until lawmakers can hammer out rules appropriate to scale. Touted as both climate-friendly and a job creator for blue-collar workers, New York City’s new rules nonetheless codify and scale similar efforts pursued in smaller municipalities from Minnesota to Maryland.
A decade ago, the Minnesota Sustainable Housing Initiative was established as a broad-spectrum review and test of new construction and retrofit techniques, not unlike those needed to meet the NYC regulations. In 2007, Minnesota’s Viking Terrace program saw 1970s-era apartments retrofitted to modern green standards with, among other things, geothermal heating, mechanical ventilation, and improved roofs and window systems.
More recently in 2015, the city of Baltimore created a green overlay of municipal building codes that required new construction or that large modified buildings meet LEED Silver standards or other applicable green building certification systems. As New York moves to craft wider-reaching green legislation, Baltimore’s efforts here to retrofit its iconic rowhouses are relevant to New York City’s approximately 434,000 rowhouse-style buildings, per Urban Omnibus.
Not an Easy Fix
Retrofitting buildings to reduce their GHG footprint does not come without its challenges. One criticism of new energy-efficient buildings is that there is an “energy performance gap,” meaning realized savings are not what models predicted. A similar issue arises when the pursuit of certification goals collides with a lack of understanding of how and by whom the building will be used – for instance, when users open windows to seek cool air, it disrupts the building’s balanced mechanical systems. However, design problems and end-user circumvention of efficiency technology can be remedied by a clear communications framework during the proposal and design phase, as well as user engagement during the initial building livability phase and post-construction.
Another criticism comes from President of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) John Banks, who, despite lauding GHG reduction in a press release, condemned “rigid” carbon emission caps on buildings over 25,000 square feet and the exemption of some buildings, such as houses of worship or buildings with a rent-regulated unit. Cost and availability to grow the housing stock in New York are at the heart of the REBNY position, with Banks arguing that the cumulative cost (estimated at $4 billion) and inability to grow buildings with increasing usage demands detract from New York City’s new GHG reduction legislation.
Urban Green Council CEO John Mandyck similarly noted at the December 2018 City Council hearing that the bill represented the city’s largest real estate disruption in his lifetime, and that meeting the challenge will require new thinking for retrofits within the city.
New York City’s ambitious GHG regulation is at a scale which pales most municipalities. Perhaps the lessons learned are not those of technological revolutions or environmental ambition, rather in how policymakers can introduce building codes and laws that disrupt traditional, well-established, and influential sectors like real estate or construction. Recognizing that New York City’s legislative style differs from many American metropolises is the first lesson learned. Combine local lawmaking with spectacular international economic and business interests and an intense property market, and it becomes clear that GHG reduction standards are not the issue, but rather the politics that ushered in their passage.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 9, 2019.