Benchmarking, Energy, Finance

Roundtable Recap: Money vs. Power

No Comments Posted on 16 April 2014 by Cecil Scheib

Benchmarking gives owners and buyers a better understanding of a building’s energy and water consumption, which helps the real estate industry increase efficiency. But there’s a stumbling block to using the benchmarking data effectively, and everybody knows it . It makes intuitive sense that simply comparing total energy use per square foot between different buildings omits important context, because it’s obvious that a data center uses more energy than a yoga studio, and an investment bank working three shifts will use more energy than an office only open 9 am – 5 pm. In “Money Vs. Power”, Steven Baumgartner (Buro Happold) wondered, “wouldn’t thinking about what the building is used for be a good part of the discussion?”

In theory, that’s the purpose of ENERGY STAR ratings: to make apple-to-apples comparisons by taking into account what the building is used for, how many people work there, how many computers there are, its hours of operation, and so on. But ENERGY STAR doesn’t cover every kind of building in New York, so many benchmarked buildings aren’t eligible for this more contextual rating. Baumgartner decided one way to help benchmark those missing buildings more accurately would be to compare building energy usage to another important metric: contribution to the economy.

Baumgartner used federal standard industry classifications to determine how each tenant in a benchmarked building contributes to GDP, adjusted by New York State indirect and induced benefits for each business sector. The result is an indication of each tenant’s contribution to the economy, without using any private financial data from individual businesses. After weighting each tenant’s economic impact relative to its floor area, the overall building economic impact can be compared to its total energy use per square foot.

This result is called the Building Economic Energy Coefficient, or BEEC. In this system, a building with tenants that have a larger contribution to the economy will have a higher BEEC than another building with the same energy use per square foot but with tenants whose business types provide fewer economic benefits.

For EUI, lower numbers are better. For BEEC, higher numbers are better.
Credit: Buro Happold

So in the absence of universal ENERGY STAR ratings, what would it mean to use BEEC to fill the gap? Well, it would accurately represent the real world in at least one fundamental way: money talks. For a city where economic development is a constant focus, it’s not enough to look at the energy use of a building without considering its economic benefits. As one audience member put it, while we all want buildings to save energy, “it’s a dangerous world to be in where NYC is pushing against bank headquarters.”

However, some say BEEC only tells part of the story. In the federal and state databases, a bank makes more contributions to the economy than a school, and a trading floor has greater economic impact than a nonprofit. These critics wonder whether we shouldn’t consider some other contributions to the city when benchmarking building energy use. What if we made the same type of calculation using a database that defines how each type of business contributes to education, or happiness, or future job creation? It sounds like a great idea, but that database doesn’t exist. For now, our tax dollars pay for federal and state government to measure how different business types contribute to the dollar economy. They don’t tell us how happy, healthy, or safe different businesses might make us.

From an engineering standpoint, BEEC presents a couple of challenges. While building energy usage is measured directly with meters, economic activity is calculated using only tenant business types, not actual financial data. Since the real-life density and productivity of tenants can’t be included in the calculation, a BEEC number is a general indicator, not a precise measure.

In addition, while attempting to solve the problem of comparing buildings of different use types, BEEC adds a layer of complexity that can obscure differences between buildings of similar uses. A building could improve its BEEC score by lowering its energy use; it could get the same result if during tenant turnover, low-contributing tenants move out and high-contributing tenants move in, whether intentionally or not. Is that the desired result, or is there some basic standard of efficiency we hope all buildings should reach, regardless of their tenants?

Can BEEC help NYC lower its carbon footprint? Baumgartner says that “BEEC hasn’t been put on the table to drive policy. It’s been put on the table to spark discussion.” But, since NYC’s interest is not for these high-contributing tenants to leave for other areas and instead to make buildings more efficient, the attempt to make benchmarking more useful is a worthy goal. Because ENERGY STAR doesn’t fully take other variables (economic or otherwise) into account, there’s a gap to be filled.

Until there is some way of comparing apples to apples, simply lining one building’s energy use per square foot against another will be difficult for even experts to interpret, and downright misleading for the general public. While tenant economic contribution seems like one important variable, it may not be enough on its own. What would you use?

Energy, Envisioning Low-Carbon Cities, Green Codes

New DEP Rules Will Reduce Air Pollution

No Comments Posted on 09 April 2014 by Cecil Scheib

Emissions from the burning of Numbers 4 and 6 heating oils. Credit: Environmental Defense Fund / Isabelle Silverman

Hats off to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection for passing new, more stringent rules for boilers efficiency. These changes will really make a difference, since boilers are responsible for much of the city’s air pollution. Yet some related recommendations of the Green Codes Task Force proposal remain unimplemented.

The new rules will help cut overall carbon pollution, as well as the particulates that cause childhood asthma. Oil boilers have had their efficiency standard raised from 80% to 83%, an improvement that could save tens of thousands of dollars each year in a big building. And for the first time, natural gas boilers must be tested instead of just fuel oil ones.

Testing quality control will be improved now that it must be performed by a qualified technician using a calibrated, up-to-date device. And in accordance with the Green Codes Task Force recommendation, tests will be conducted annually instead of every three years, which is in line with best industry practices for clean boiler operation. Together, these changes mean we should see fewer black clouds belching from city chimneys next winter.

The rules also remove barriers to more efficient boilers and make it easier for owners to do the right thing. Some boiler applications can be filed online instead of on paper, a welcome improvement. And it will be easier to install condensing boilers, which are super-efficient but require different types of venting than the original permitting process was designed for. These are great strides in making the new rules more user-friendly while boosting efficiency.

However, the rules do miss a few low-cost opportunities for owners to cut pollution. One is specific to gas boilers, which have two main types: small  “atmospheric” boilers, and all others, including the large ones in buildings over 50,000 square feet that are responsible for about half of all energy use in the city. The Green Codes Task Force recommended specific efficiency standards relevant for each type of gas boiler: 79% for the small atmospheric ones, and 81% for the big ones. But the new DEP rules don’t distinguish between the types, holding all gas boilers to the same 80% standard. By choosing not to use a customized standard, the rules make it harder for atmospheric boilers to pass the test, while not holding the larger boilers to a high enough standard. One percent may not sound like a big difference – but since these boilers are so big, it adds up.

Other quibbles: owners would save time if they were allowed to submit test results electronically, instead of transferring results onto a city form. And inexplicably, the city actually increased the amount of smoke boilers may legally produce. These issues may be dealt with when the city updates its Air Code, which according to DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd will be later this year.

These are big changes that will make a real difference to NYC, so kudos to DEP, and we look forward to further improvements. And if you’re keeping score at home, this brings the total number of green codes proposals implemented to 48. You can read the full details about this and all the other proposals on our Green Codes Proposal Tracker.

Building Envelope, Energy, Improving Building Envelopes, Residential Buildings

Event Recap
Roosevelt Landings: NYC’s Largest Envelope Retrofit

No Comments Posted on 24 March 2014 by Cecil Scheib

Flashback: 1973. Just as Miller Lite is being introduced to an unsuspecting American public, the finishing touches are being put on Roosevelt Landings’ 10 buildings and 1,000 apartments on Roosevelt Island in NYC. Designed just before the oil crisis, there’s nothing “lite” about the buildings’ energy use, as they’re master metered and served by electric baseboard heat. It’s hard to believe, but that’s how we did it 40 years ago. In 2012, its energy bill was upwards of $3 million.

Now flash forward: NYC in 2050, with an extra million people but only 10% of the carbon emissions we have today. It sounds farfetched, but 90 by 50 shows it’s possible. To get there, buildings must cut their energy use by close to 60% so they can run entirely on electricity, with a small enough demand to be supplied by a carbon-free grid.

They couldn’t have known it in 1973, but Roosevelt Landings may be leading the way towards our low-carbon future. The irony is obvious, but at Roosevelt Landings: NYC’s Largest Envelope Retrofit, we heard why this actually makes sense.

90 by 50 describes how energy use can be cut dramatically with better insulation and air sealing. According to Grant Salmon (Steven Winter Associates), blower door tests showed that before its 2013 retrofit, Roosevelt Landings had cracks and gaps in the  façade of the entire complex that added up to a 200-square-foot hole. That’s about 30 square inches for each unit, so picture a hole the size of three iPhones side-by-side in the wall of your apartment! When these holes were sealed and windows were weather-stripped to stop drafts, energy use plummeted. While effective, the process wasn’t always easy to schedule and manage: “when you’re working in an occupied apartment squirting caulk and foam everywhere, you’ve got to be really careful.” The project also added insulation and fixed leaky air conditioning sleeves, and is enjoying a 26% cut in energy costs so far this year. And the project hasn’t yet captured all the savings possible.

Once loads have been downsized, 90 by 50 says it’s time to focus on the right  equipment. To cut greenhouse gas emissions, buildings must go all-electric, since any fossil-fuel burning equipment emits carbon regardless of its efficiency. Uncommonly, Roosevelt Landings is already heated electrically, so no conversion is necessary. David Davenport (Urban Greenfit), who managed the project, considered removing baseboard heaters and replacing them with energy-saving heat pumps, but decided it was too expensive. Instead, he added smart thermostats throughout the building. Previously, controls were located on the baseboard heater itself; with controls often inaccessible behind furniture, the heaters would run nonstop. When apartments inevitably overheated, residents would just open the windows. Now, all units have digital thermostats on the wall, which know when a window is open and cut back the heat accordingly.

This big energy reduction from air sealing, combined with all-electric energy usage, means the complex is prepared for a low-carbon future. But there were challenges. Adding sub-meters to apartments meant Davenport had to negotiate a regulatory and political gauntlet. Meeting air sealing requirements required constant supervision of work crews, including dismissing some who weren’t up to snuff. And despite the handsome 15% return private equity investors can expect on the project, the financing scheme for the project is a spaghetti chart of interlocking funding sources, including meager amounts from some public incentive programs because the giant complex falls somewhere in between a “commercial” and a “residential” building. To expand on these successes, we’re going to have to get financing right.

Nevertheless, Davenport (who manages a large portfolio) is pushing on. “In NYC, what can be done small can be done big,” he says, and undeterred by the challenges of megaprojects, “my next one’s going to be bigger.”

Energy, Improving Building Envelopes, Planning, Resiliency

Special Event Recap
Shelter From the Storm

No Comments Posted on 17 March 2014 by Cecil Scheib

“To a certain extent, the results of this study are obvious. If all you have to protect you from the elements is the building envelope, of course a better envelope will protect you more than a poor envelope. What’s startling is the huge difference between what existing buildings provide and what a high performance building is capable of.” – Nico Kienzl

It’s not just science fiction.

Nico Kienzl (Atelier Ten) got a chuckle from a full house at this special event with a computer-generated image of a frozen New York from The Day After Tomorrow. But it’s not just science fiction – his computer models used in Urban Green’s report Baby It’s Cold Inside show how the “massive holes” in the walls of NYC homes will put residents at risk if the next power outage comes during severe weather.

Developers like Paul Freitag (Rose Development) are responding by putting up safer buildings that incorporate both green and active design elements. Via Verde uses cross ventilation to reduce the need for air conditioning, cutting energy bills for residents and helping prevent overheating during a summer power outage. The community’s daylit, bright, colorful stairwells encourage everyday use, enhancing residents’ health – and are also usable when the power for stairwell lighting fails.

After hearing Via Verde’s virtues, moderator Bomee Jung (Enterprise Community Partners) asked:

Who doesn’t want to go hug Via Verde right now…but what about all of our old buildings in New York?

Via Verde uses cross-ventilation in every unit to increase resiliency against summer blackouts.

The most important improvement in existing buildings is to reduce infiltration, said Nico. “We’re talking about massive holes, not cracks.” High air change rates mean major heat loss, so closing holes makes a big impact and does not cost a lot of money. Increased resiliency doesn’t have to mean expensive window replacement – good news for NYC’s massive number of single-family homes. Basic weatherization does make a difference.

Romulus Petre (Urban Glass House) pointed out that we can’t count on multiple days’ evacuation notice before every power outage. So with all the competing demands to improve building resiliency – floodproofing, raising equipment, adding backup generators – where do improved envelopes fall in the priority list?

Nico thought the emphasis on a strong envelope was key. To prevent widespread evacuation during a blackout, buildings need to provide heat and cooling in some way, either by relying on complex mechanical systems or by having a better envelope that can maintain indoor temperatures. The latter has two advantages: it saves energy all the time, so there is a much better payback because benefits accrue dependably over a long-term period, not just during emergencies. And, better insulation and air sealing keep expensive conditioned air from leaking out of the building. That means the building saves space and money, since it requires smaller generators and fuel tanks. Nico commented that “during the Building Resiliency Task Force, we discovered that some issues are purely about emergency management. But some have clear crossover into operational efficiency, and the façade is one of them.”

Speaking of operational issues, Romulus said as a superintendent he’s at the “lowest end of the food chain,” keeping people safe no matter what. He agreed with Nico:

I would give everything to have a better envelope.

He would prefer a better envelope to better mechanical equipment, both for resident energy savings and for ensuring resiliency. “You can play around with the equipment over time, but an envelope is built-in and saves you in an emergency. As a super you deal with what’s given to you, and I would love a better envelope.”

So if designers, developers and operators agree that improved envelopes are a no-brainer, what can the city do to help them become the new normal? Heather Roiter Damiano (NYC Office of Emergency Management) believes the city’s approach to emergency management may grow to include this issue over time. Within the OEM hazard mitigation unit, “the focus has moved from response, to preparedness, and now to mitigation and recovery. The code changes after Sandy are driving awareness of the nuance” of building resiliency. Perhaps in the future, OEM will take a similar role fostering and improving building resiliency codes as FDNY has taken with the Fire Code.

The code changes Heather refers to will aid resiliency. And Paul is working on innovative design solutions like community centers that double as “resiliency centers” during a crisis. But Nico pointed out a fundamental flaw built into the construction process. While complying with the energy code during design, buildings can escape envelope requirements by substituting better mechanical equipment. It’s a tradeoff of HVAC against insulation, but as Nico said: “that tradeoff doesn’t work when you have no power.” He left the audience pondering a hard question: “Should we start thinking more rigorously about building envelope tradeoffs, so we have a safe blanket when it gets cold outside?” Let’s not wait until the next disaster to answer.

Benchmarking, Energy, Greening Codes, Removing Barriers

When Good Things Become Easier: Benchmarking Update

No Comments Posted on 12 March 2014 by Jonce Walker

The Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability has updated the reporting process for Local Law 84, making it simpler for building owners to comply.  For example, building owners can now get energy data directly from their utility provider, eliminating the need to send cumbersome and expensive paper notices to individual tenants. Tenants will like the changes because they will no longer need to spend time answering data collection requests from building owners. Everyone wins.

Check out Urban Green’s updated Compliance Checklist & User’s Guide for complete details on all the improvements.

Climate Change, Commercial Buildings, Energy, Finance, Residential Buildings

Local NY Green Banks Clear the Way for Clean Energy Financing of Retrofits

No Comments Posted on 26 February 2014 by Susan Leeds

This post originally appeared on EDF Blogs

As New York City gets repeatedly hammered by snow, ice and the evil “wintry mix,” one could almost forget the world is warming at an ever faster clip. But the experts in the room earlier this month at the roundtable discussion on ‘Economics of Energy Retrofits’ at Urban Green Council (New York’s chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council) know the debate is over. Climate change is real and the window for action is closing. That’s why it’s more important than ever to work toward removing barriers to clean energy financing now.

As the de Blasio administration strives to build a more affordable New York City it’s important to note that clean energy building upgrades are central to this mission. By reducing energy use, building owners and their tenants can realize millions of dollars in annual savings while slashing dangerous carbon pollution for cleaner air and water.

Upfront Cost of Retrofits Presents Obstacle

The market barriers to implementing commonsense energy efficiency upgrades that pay for themselves in just a few years are plain. No one wants to dish out a dollar today for a dollar tomorrow. Upfront costs are a roadblock, no matter how short the payback period. Even when building owners decide to do the right thing, conventional lenders are not focusing on energy efficiency as a valuable service to their clients. This leaves building owners without easy access to clean energy financing.

Sometimes the barriers are even more basic. Despite years of wonk talk about energy efficiency as “low-hanging fruit,” building owners, contractors, and project developers are still in the dark about options, benefits, and appropriate partners to help put talk into action.

State and City Green Banks Clear the Way for Clean Energy Financing

New York City and state have been lucky enough to have prescient authorities who are aware of the large role of financing in addressing climate change. The city-run New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC) and the recently-launched New York state green bank are working to become solution centers for clean energy financing in New York City and state respectively. These institutions are able to leverage expertise and financial muscle to transform inefficient buildings into clean, high-performing investments. By offering custom-built financing at attractive terms, building owners will have no more excuses to leave money on the table.

One project that has taken advantage of the city’s new energy finance offerings is Franklin Plaza, a Mitchell-Lama housing co-op in East Harlem. Franklin Plaza recently closed on the first tranche of its $3.8 million loan through the NYC Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) Program for Energy Retrofit Loans, a program enabled by HDC’s partnership with NYCEEC. The loan for this project will help reduce Franklin Plaza’s energy use by 15%, cut carbon emissions by 30%, and result in energy savings that are equivalent to averting a 10% rent increase. “The development and preservation of affordable housing is the core of our mission at HDC and the salvation of Franklin Plaza epitomizes this work,” said Marc Jahr, former President of HDC.

NYCEEC recently announced $50 million in financing available through a range of products and partnerships, including equipment loans, mortgage lending, credit enhancements and energy services agreements. This new deployment of private capital is a shot in the arm for clean energy financing and supports:

- Energy efficiency improvements, such as smart lighting, heat pumps, energy management systems, boilers, chillers and more.

- Fuel conversions, under the City’s Clean Heat Initiative, from #6 or #4 heating oil to ultra-low sulfur diesel or natural gas.

- Combined heat and power systems.

- Clean distributed generation, including solar and other renewable energy sources.

NYCEEC’s offerings and the example of Franklin Plaza can be part of a strategy for keeping the new Mayor’s promise of increasing affordable housing in NYC. Clean energy improvements can drive costs down for tenants and guarantee a greener, cleaner and more comfortable living experience.

Visit to learn more about how we are remaking New York City buildings for a cleaner, greener and more affordable tomorrow.

Susan Leeds is the CEO of the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC)

Energy, Finance

Roundtable Recap:
Show Me The Money

1 Comment Posted on 13 February 2014 by Cecil Scheib

Greg Hale, Susan Leeds, and Rory Christian“Show me the money.” I guess a lot of people feel that way, because the roundtable event Economics of Energy Retrofits quickly sold out, was moved to a bigger venue, and then sold out again. But once you get a room full of people together, can you explain financing to them in terms they can understand?

Greg Hale (NY Governor’s Office) and Susan Leeds (New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation) tried mightily. They are seasoned veterans and hold senior positions in key institutions, but both found it hard to describe how money gets from bank coffers into project budgets without using terms like “securitization” and “back leveraging.” (I checked, but no, it’s not a yoga pose.)

Maybe understanding the deeper financial machinations isn’t the point, though. The real problem is that the largest barrier to energy efficiency financing is complexity (or as Leeds puts it, “perceived complexity”; maybe people are making it worse than it has to be, although I perceived it as pretty complex myself). To get the gears of energy efficiency loans turning, we’ve got to make it seem easy, normal, and routine. Since energy efficiency is solid business, it should be the darling of private markets, right? Nevertheless, for now, there’s a role for government and nonprofit lenders in the process. By showing how it’s done, again and again, they can prove the concept and make it commonplace. Then the private sector will (hopefully) take it from there, says Leeds.

Moderator Rory Christian (Environmental Defense Fund) wanted to get a better handle on New York’s Green Bank, a state-sponsored investment fund. Hale explained in clear terms the visionary thinking behind this new institution. Traditionally, 80% of state incentive programs have been spent on one-time projects. Hale said that the state’s goal with Green Bank is to “migrate away from a perpetual incentive structure at ratepayer’s expense” to a sustainable financing model. The state gets much more leverage from loans than from one-time incentives, since the funds are returned to be loaned again. 

Hale was honest about his initial doubts that NYSERDA, sometimes noted for its bureaucracy, could make the Bank work. But he says the authority has “embraced the Bank, and senior management is working hard to make it happen smoothly.” The Bank will take loan applications on a rolling basis, without a deadline, and Hale says that the Bank won’t operate under what he called the NYSERDA “cone of silence” – loan officers will be able to work with applicants to improve their application at every step of the process.

Unlike Green Bank, NYCEEC (now spun off from New York City government) deals directly with customers as well as other lending institutions. A growing focus is on reaching owners, especially co-ops and condos, when they are financing other building improvements and engaging with lenders. Doing so allows energy efficiency to “tag along” on larger projects. An example is the M-PIRE loan product, offered in conjunction with Fannie Mae. “We can do a lot, but we have to focus on the capital event in the building,” Leeds said. That’s code for “they’re doing a renovation already” but I’ve heard that from my friends on co-op boards, too. And she had the most reassuring words of the whole event: “If you have a project, bring it to us.” How simple is that?

Ultimately, the whole point of Green Bank and NYCEEC is to overcome barriers to energy efficiency lending. As Hale noted, energy savings are not the main goal of the real estate community, so “even if it makes financial sense, it’s a distraction.” He mentioned other barriers to improvements, including working with co-op boards, split incentives between landlords and tenants, and a lack of experience with technologies like cogeneration. Do you think these new lending schemes will help? Let us know in the comments.

Energy, Homes, People, Products & Materials, Residential Buildings

Putting the Rad in Radiator

No Comments Posted on 12 February 2014 by Richard Leigh

My grandmother had a tea cozy. Woven from wool of subdued colors (probably the only wools available), her tea stayed warm all afternoon because (wait for it…) the cozy kept the heat inside the pot!

In overheated New York City apartments, it would be great to be able to keep some heat inside steam radiators. Of course the super has to turn the heat up enough to quiet the noisier tenants in colder apartments. But once he does, most of the other apartments in the building are overheated, and “double-hung thermostats,” aka windows, are regulating temperatures by exchanging cold air for heat and wasting lots and lots of fuel. What to do?

One answer is thermostatically controlled radiator valves (TRVs). These keep the steam out of the radiator unless they sense a room temperature below an adjustable set point. They work well on hot water and two-pipe steam systems, and they’re OK on one-pipe steam if the super knows enough to keep the system steam pressure down. BUT they require plumbing work to install, the resident has to let the owner in to install the system, and given the hassle, the owner may prefer to let the residents stew in the steam. (There are owners who do not seem to be tempted by devices that pay for themselves in fuel savings in a few years – surprising numbers of them.) What can a tenant sweltering in an overheated apartment do?

Soon, urban winter heat-stroke victims, you may have an option that does not depend on the cooperation of the building owner! A New York City startup with a big idea is coming to your rescue with the radiator cozy, a device that will imprison the heat in your radiator, only releasing the modest amount needed to maintain the temperature you choose to set1. With your mobile phone!

Any technology that puts decision-making power on a comfort-inducing item completely in the hands of tenants is a game changer. If you’re overheated, you don’t have to even talk to the owner to install a radiator cozy, and in NYC rental world, that’s often a plus. But if you did, it’s hard to see what an objection could be, since you’ll be lowering demand for fuel.  In fact, owners who are reluctant to bring in the professionals needed to install TRVs should consider paying for cozies themselves. At $300 each, a five-year payback2 seems easy to come by if the cozies are installed in overheated rooms with windows that are often open.

Disclaimer: Urban Green Council does not endorse companies or products, and since this product is not yet available, it would make no sense to do so even if we did. But we totally endorse the idea of better tenant control of heating systems, so please consider this a “heads up” to potential progress in this area.

My only complaint is that the developers felt they had to bad-mouth TRVs in some of their material. Since I live in an apartment that is made totally comfortable by TRVs, and has been for years, I found that set of complaints unconvincing. And they don’t need them: the cozy’s ease of installation is a very big deal. Nana would have liked it.

Note 1: The technical stuff: The cozy is an insulated box that covers the whole radiator. It has a fan that comes on when the room temperature drops below the set point, blowing air through the radiator and out, bring heat to the room. When the room warms up, the fan shuts off. Maybe it could be simpler, but I don’t see how.

Note 2: If a radiator services 300 square feet, and an NYC building uses 15 Btu/ft2-HDD, lowering demand by 10% will save 2.2 million Btu of fuel, worth about $65 at $4.00 per gallon.  That’s less than a five-year payback. But will it save 10%? The developer says “up to 30%,” but we all know what “up to” means. If they are only installed in overheated rooms with presently open windows, I think 10% (for that radiator, not the system) is a pretty sure bet.

Building Envelope, Energy, Improving Building Envelopes, Making Buildings Resilient, Resiliency

Baby It’s Cold Inside

No Comments Posted on 05 February 2014 by Cecil Scheib

It may sound crazy, but I’ve actually enjoyed my bike commute during the polar vortex and other cold weather this winter. There’s less traffic, and it really makes me appreciate coming into a warm office or apartment at the end of the ride. But pedaling down Water Street before dawn, with the vestiges of Superstorm Sandy lurking in the rear view mirror, a thought keeps coming back: what if there was a another blackout and I didn’t have a warm place to go?

Baby It’s Cold Inside, an Urban Green study released today, answers this question. In a blackout, typical buildings would get cold fast. During a weeklong winter power outage, typical buildings would be between 32°F and 43°F indoors. Some would freeze. New buildings are a little better, but still not resilient.

This is a real problem: the Building Resiliency Task Force found that NYC has had seven blackouts in just the last 10 years. We didn’t have really severe temperatures right after Sandy, but our luck may not hold forever. And since we all depend on electricity for heating (even gas- or oil-fired systems can’t operate without it), one incident can instantly cause whole sections of the city to become uninhabitable.

It’s a different story when buildings are designed for daylight and views and include well-insulated solid walls, triple-paned windows, and air sealing to minimize drafts. Without power, these high-performing buildings would stay at 54-66°F in winter for a week or more.

We don’t have enough shelters for the whole city if there’s a multi-day power failure. The difference between 60°F and 40°F indoors isn’t just about comfort, it’s about safety. Two hours at 54°F raises blood pressure and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, and below 41°F hypothermia is a significant risk.

Interestingly, despite today’s cold temperatures, some of the press coverage for the study focuses on summer overheating in glass buildings. The full story is quite a bit broader. All buildings, including those with a lot of glass, can benefit from high-performing features. The story wasn’t meant to be divisive, since the opportunity to improve their insulation and air sealing is something all building types share.

Some people can afford this resilient construction more than others. But everyone deserves the protection of a resilient building. This is true not just in NYC, but any place where it gets hot or cold. We have many tools to make this happen: building codes, a focus from city government, NYSERDA grants, energy-aligned clauses in leases, and energy-efficient mortgages. And these improvements often pay for themselves, so we can much better prepared while saving energy and money. High-performing buildings need to become the new normal.

Building Resiliency Task Force, Energy

Money Flowing to Keep Gas Stations Open During Blackouts

No Comments Posted on 29 January 2014 by Cecil Scheib

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, “far too many gas stations had plenty of gas, but had no power to pump it out,” says Senator Charles E. Schumer. That’s why the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force recommended gas stations install generators or be pre-wired to accept temporary ones, in order to stay operational during a blackout. Now, New York Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have announced $5.1 million in federal funds to help gas stations install backup power generators.

But Senator Gillibrand says it’s not enough: “As we learn the lessons of the storm, we must develop a national, storm-resilient strategy to ensure that communities from the Rockaways to Long Beach are armed with innovative practices to protect New York from future disasters.” Since buildings can’t store enough heating fuel to stay warm during an extended blackout – and since gas and oil heating systems probably won’t work during a blackout anyway – a good start would be making building envelopes more resilient with better windows, insulation, and air-sealing.

It’s encouraging to see federal money being put towards this use, as well as the support it’s getting from New York’s top pols. Only one thing has been left out of the state law that requires gas stations to be prepared for blackouts. The Task Force proposal recommended that onsite emergency generators be fueled by one of the motor fuels dispensed by the station, whereas the state law would allow a diesel generator to be installed at a gas station that doesn’t pump diesel. Oops! Hopefully gas station owners will avoid this obvious pitfall while complying with the law.

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