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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Greening the Apple

Twenty-five years ago, an architecture firm called the Stein Partnership had a novel idea: why not do an energy model of New York City-owned tenement buildings to see where the city could save on fuel costs? The suggestion, coming on the heels of the oil shocks and brownouts of the 1970s, was enthusiastically greeted, and the study, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, went forward. It took several months of modeling and lots of scribbled calculations but finally it was done. The results were almost stunning in their simplicity.

“What we discovered was that most of the energy loss was coming through windows and doors, which at the time were all wood,” says architect Murray Levi, who worked on the project, known as the Old Law Tenement Energy Conservation Study and is now vice president and general manager of Liro Architects. Fuel costs were also affected by the failure to keep the boiler properly running and the overall use of incandescent lights. If a property owner wanted to save money, he had to keep the building envelope sealed and the boiler well-tuned and replace incandescent lights with fluorescent ones – things that still hold true today.

While the Stein Partnership was modeling energy waste, the construction industry was also crunching numbers, looking for ways to build more energy-efficient homes. By the end of the 1970s, solar panels were introduced, as were the first generation of double-paned windows.

“We learned by doing,” recalls Nancy Anderson, an urban environmental advocate and executive director of the Sallan Foundation, which promotes green cities. At that time, being “green” was sort of a catchall phrase. It meant you were anti-nukes and pro-solar power. You tried to grow your own vegetables, or at least buy organic. A car was not a necessary possession. Twenty-five years ago, “I would argue we were accidentally green,” says Anderson of her fellow New Yorkers – green by virtue of living in cramped, vertical buildings, shopping on foot, and traveling by public transportation.

 

Taking the LEED

The Stein project findings were arresting and an energy conservation manual, Stay Warm and Save Energy, disseminated information among the city’s superintendents. Time passed, the oil shocks of the 1970s receded, the cost of gasoline went down, and mainstream America moved on to other pursuits.

“Demands for energy efficiency and thermal efficiency fell back into a lower priority,” recalls Anderson. It was almost as if the light of innovation was simply turned off.

Or maybe just dimmed.

For while innovation petered out in New York City, the baton was carried forward elsewhere. By 1993, a coalition of architects, builders, land-use experts, and developers had formed the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), based in Washington, D.C., to promote sustainable development in the construction industry. The need for it was pressing. With energy markets becoming increasingly volatile, and concerns about climate change heating up, there was clearly a need to find new ways to save costs in construction and to recycle materials.

By 1998, the USGBC had come up with a rating system to encourage the use of innovative energy-saving techniques in new and existing construction. The rating system, known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), assigns numeric points for materials and systems used in a building, and then grades the building on its sustainability goals and “green” performance – in air quality, water quality, materials and resources, design, and energy savings. For example, a building gets certain points for using nontoxic wallpaper and carpeting, for recycling grey water, and saving storm water runoff. Buildings get points for using chemical-free solutions for cleaning, switching to biodegradable paper products, and using energy star appliances.

So, what are the benefits of a LEED certification? Depending on where you live, they include tax incentives, faster permitting, energy savings, and higher marketability of the buildings.

While the USGBC rates the city of Seattle as the leading LEED-certified city, with the greatest number of “green buildings,” other cities are quickly catching up. In 2001, Portland, Oregon, adopted a “green-building” policy requiring that new construction and major renovations of all city facilities meet the certified level of LEED.

That same year, the Portland Development Commission began requiring LEED certification for projects over 10,000 square feet for which its financial assistance was at least 10 percent of total project cost. In 2005, the city policy was expanded to cover all city facilities, including existing buildings, and raised the requirement for new construction and major renovations to LEED Gold. Simultaneously, the Portland Development Commission requirement increased to LEED Silver.

Also in 2005, 22 new city buildings, including fire stations, schools, and libraries, registered for LEED certification under a Chicago city law requiring that all new city construction be LEED-certified. In 2006, Chicago authorities estimated that if it did lighting retrofits of all 105 fire stations, it would save $250,000 in annual electricity costs and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 3,515 tons. This past year, St. Louis passed a law that all city-owned new construction and major renovation must be LEED-certified. And Boston now requires private sector buildings of over 50,000 square feet to be LEED-certified.

In short, what USGBC set out to do in 1993 – change and improve best practices in the construction industry – is slowly coming to pass. “Ultimately, what LEED is about is helping you take a project that might be done conventionally, and doing it in such a way that you reduce the environmental impact and you improve the bottom line,” says Levi, both in terms of the finances for operating the buildings, in the reduction of energy costs, and in the better health of the building employees and its tenants.

 

Where Are We Now?

So, 25 years after the Old Law Tenement Conservation Study first recommended that people switch to fluorescent bulbs and keep their buildings better maintained, where is the Big Apple on the sustainability spectrum? It depends on who you ask. According to the website of SustainLane Government (sustainlane.us), an online resource that ranks sustainability programs, policies, and practices for the largest 50 U.S. cities, “New York City has many of the qualities that make many foreign cities livable. It’s densely populated, with an exceptional subway and rail system and a diversity of local businesses that are most easily accessed by foot.”

Further, notes the website, “in many ways, New York City is an anomaly in the United States. The limitations of the city – its geographic boundaries and population density, which at 25,000 per square mile is more than six times that of Portland [Oregon] – have forced it to be more sustainable than most U.S. cities. Without an excellent public transportation system, plenty of parks, and forward-thinking planning, it’s hard to imagine so many people coexisting so successfully.” Despite the flattery, SustainLane gives the city mixed reviews: ranking New York second in city planning, fourth in commercial green building initiatives, and thirty-ninth in LEED certification.

But that’s all right for architect Chris Benedict, principal in Architecture and Energy, who believes that buildings could go a long way toward being green in New York City without having to conform to LEED specifications. Benedict, who plans new construction, credits, among others, two people as her “green teachers”: forward-thinking John Straube, a Canadian engineer and building scientist who is the founding principal of Balanced Solutions, a building science consultancy, and Joseph Lstiburek, a founding principal of Building Science Consulting.

“My buildings are using 85 percent less energy than typical apartments for no additional costs,” says Benedict. Her techniques include controlling the thermostat room by room, sealing apartments to eliminate the stack effect (hot air rising through the structure and sucking cold air after it), and constructing an air-tight building envelope. “There are a lot of claims out there” about green buildings, says Benedict. “So far, no one’s showing fuel bills, except Les Bluestone [at Blue Sea Development].”

According to Benedict, the LEED rating system is not weighted toward one of the most important factors in a building – energy efficiency. Take the trend in construction of glass buildings. “Glass buildings are an energy atrocity – heat will move through the glass very readily. There is little thermal protection and you need to use excessive amounts of energy to make those apartments comfortable,” says Benedict. In other words, what does it matter what green cleaner you’re using on the floor if the building’s carbon footprint is destroying the atmosphere?

Full Spectrum was awarded a New York State Green Building Tax Credit for 1400 On Fifth, one of the first green condominiums in New York City. The building is heated geothermally through ground-source heating and cooling exchanges (i.e., no boiler). It uses 37 percent less energy through fluorescent lighting, a tighter building envelope (made of panels that were constructed off site), and Energy Star appliances. It has bamboo flooring and recycled drywall. And while Benedict doesn’t believe LEED certification says much about a building’s energy efficiency, “LEED has shaped the debate on how to set a standard [of green building],” maintains Full Spectrum project manager Julia Lynch. “It is a start. It frames the issues.”

While Benedict may not believe that New York City is very far along the green-building spectrum, in fact, according to many markers, the city and the state are doing better all the time. In 2000, the New York State legislature passed a new law providing $25 million in tax credits for LEED-certified construction. In downtown Manhattan, the Battery Park City Authority requires LEED certification for all commercial and residential building construction in Battery Park City.

So far, New York City has the first platinum-ranked, LEED-certified building in the country: One Bryant Park, the 54-story skyscraper built by the Durst Organization. And this past January, Local Law 86, which was passed in October 2005, finally went into effect. Under the law, all new city construction using $2 million or more of city funds has to meet sustainability standards that are at least as strict as the LEED silver certification. For those who believe in LEED certification as a benchmark of green building in New York, the Big Apple is on its way.

 

Green Grows the Future

The big question is: where will New York City and New York State be on the sustainability spectrum 25 years from now? Already the costs of LEED-certified construction are dropping. As the market for recycled materials continues to open up, costs should continue to drop even further. When it goes online in 2008, One Bryant Park will have a state-of-the-art cogeneration plant, waterless urinals, toilets using rainwater, and full-length windows that permit sunlight while dissipating heat. Battery Park City’s Solaire, the Helena in Hell’s Kitchen, and Tribeca Green all use photovoltaic cells and electrostatic filter systems. Is that the path of the future, or will these technologies continue to be too expensive for regular retrofits?

People who want to retrofit don’t need to shell out a lot for expensive, recycled materials. Other than paying more for cellulose insulation and special glazing on windows, there are relatively easy steps co-ops and condos can take to go green, such as building a roof garden or switching to fluorescent lighting.

On December 12, 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg outlined his green goals for the next 25 years. At the heart of them is a long-term plan for sustainability: reducing the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent. To do that, New York’s building stock must “be made really, really green,” points out Sallan’s Anderson. “It’s estimated that buildings are the source of 40 percent of global emissions – more of a source than even cars and trucks.” To reduce such emissions, there are inexpensive steps that homeowners can take, starting with an energy audit.

F.L. Andrew Padian, director of multi-family programs with Steven Winter Associates, an energy, environmental, and green architecture and engineering firm, has been doing energy audits for the past 25 years. “None of the bells and whistles [of the current green movement] is going to be worth anything unless you are reducing fuel usage and making buildings more efficient,” says Padian. “Make the building less leaky. Then, when you turn the thermostats down, turn the lights off, check the boiler. Stop the overuse of everything.” That’s the way to start to go green.

Benedict agrees. In her view, more energy can be saved by designing buildings well than could ever be saved by plopping solar panels on top of the building. It’s easy for people to learn to accessorize a building. It’s not easy, says Benedict, to crunch “all the numbers to make sure you have a good, low-energy building.”

There are many things that people need to know about being green. And once the industry has been re-educated, people will come on board, say the experts. Part of it will take a massive education effort by the mayor’s office. Another part of it will require building design experts to talk with the construction industry. And the final part of it will need a public willingness to learn the intricacies of being green. And once they know, they will get on board. Says Anderson: “They’ll want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

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