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Aiming for Net-Zero

It sound like science fiction, but in a Bronx pilot project, the future is about to become reality: the five-story, 42-unit, pre-war building at 300 East 162nd Street will get renovated and retrofitted with the goal of reaching net-zero, meaning it will generate all the energy it needs. 

This is the initial step for RetrofitNY, an initiative by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). “The program is intended to create standardized, scalable, deep energyefficient retrofit solutions that can be replicated throughout the entire housing industry,” explains Alicia Barton, president and CEO of NYSERDA. The architecture firm Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP) is now halfway through the schematic design. “Soon we’ll start drawing the construction documents,” says Sara Bayer, senior associate at MAP. “Next year, we’ll hopefully start the actual work, and it should be fully
constructed in 2021.” 

“There will be solar panels on the roof,” says Marion Ligneau, an energy-efficiency expert with Bright Power, which was awarded $75,000 for the design phase work by RetrofitNY. “We’ll inject blown insulation into the cock-loft [the space between top-floor ceilings and the roof membrane]. We’ll add about six inches of insulation outside the exterior brick walls, install a new heating system, double- or triple-pane windows, as well as LED lighting, motion sensors in common areas, and energyefficient appliances and fixtures.” “The reason we’re doing this particular building is because it’s due for significant renovation,” Bayer says of the brick structure. “We’re already replacing all the kitchens and bathrooms.” 

A heating system called Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) will replace the huge boiler and the heating pipes running through the building. VRF units work only at the needed rate and are far more efficient than any other system. “It’s based on a condensing liquid, like a refrigerator,” says Bayer. “It’s used a lot in Europe and Japan. We’ve started to use it in our new constructions. The added benefit is that it can also provide cooling.” 

The building will save additional energy with a new ventilation system. “It’s sucking out the air of the kitchens and bathrooms into a heat-exchanger unit,” says Bayer. “That gets the old air outside and the new fresh air gets preheated with the extracted heat. We save a lot of energy that way, and we get filtered fresh air.” 

Even though NYSERDA’s Barton is hopeful that these energy-saving measures will be replicable throughout the housing industry, Bayer expresses some doubts. “It is possible to retrofit or newly construct a netzero multi-family building,” she says. “But without grants and significant incentives, these drastic energysaving measures might not work for most co-ops and condos, [because] they won’t pay for themselves in an acceptable time period.” 

Low- or moderate-income buildings have the best chance of winning NYSERDA RetrofitNY grants. There is a 10-year, $5.3 billion Clean Energy Fund available. It is part of New York State’s commitment to accelerate the use of clean energy and energy innovation, while driving economic development.

The manufacturing of energysaving technologies is still a relatively untapped market in the U.S. “With the cladding [that covers the exterior insulation], we’re trying to emulate what’s happening in the Netherlands,” says Bayer. “They have products that provide quick solutions, and the cladding can be done in only a few days. They come with these huge prefabricated panels, sized to fit any building with laser measuring technology, and they put that jacket over a building really fast.” 

With a boost from such technology, the Bronx pilot project might indeed be replicable throughout the entire housing industry. And that’s good news for co-ops and condos.

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