Building Envelope, Building Resiliency Task Force, Improving Building Envelopes, Lighting, Making Buildings Resilient

Task Force Mandate Extended

No Comments Posted on 31 July 2013 by Russell Unger

When is the work of over 200 people, spending 5,000 pro bono hours on a 200-page report officially presented to the Mayor and Speaker not done? Well, when they offer to do more – and we’ve just been taken up on our offer.

Three proposals of the Task Force recommended that further study and refinement occur through this fall:

#21 Keep Residential Stairwells & Hallways Lit During Blackouts

#26 Ensure Operable Windows in Residential Buildings

#27 Maintain Habitable Temperatures Without Power

We are honored to announce that Mayor’s Office and Speaker’s Office have requested that we continue our work on these three proposals and report back to them.

With 33 Task Force proposals in play, you may be wondering how you can keep track of them all. We’re here to help. Our Proposal Tracker just went live and will have up-to-date status information – what’s still waiting for action, what’s a bill, and what’s implemented, along with an at-a-glance summary of any new laws or rules.


A New Lesson Plan for Green Schools

No Comments Posted on 27 March 2013 by Jessica Joanlanne

Students at Explore Charter School in Brooklyn

Recently, Director of Programs, Tiffany Broyles Yost and I were invited to speak about sustainability in the classroom at Explore Charter School, a K-8 public school in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At Urban Green Council, most of our educational events are geared towards building professionals, so it was a nice change to meet with middle school students newly introduced to the world of green building.

We took the opportunity to speak with the students about USGBC’s Center for Green Schools’ Green Apple initiative to provide healthy and environmentally responsible schools. We wanted to discuss how schools with clean air and plentiful access to daylight have more engaged students and that better acoustics and more comfortable classrooms enhance productivity and alertness.

This information was not news to the 7th and 8th graders at Explore. Our first question to them was, “Why does it matter if your school is green?” The first student to answer said it mattered because schools need to be a healthy environment, so children can learn and take care of the planet for the future. I was impressed! As we presented images of “green” schools, the students immediately recognized the sustainable features, including everything from skylights to bicycle racks. The students also spoke of the difference between their school’s current location, in a large building with plenty of operable windows, and its previous location, inside an “old warehouse” with fewer and smaller windows. They described how hot it had been, which made it difficult to concentrate, or worse, made them tired.

Throughout our presentation, Tiffany and I emphasized the importance of conserving resources and how “using less” is really the first step to going green. By simply turning off lights, students can help lower the school’s energy use. The students also offered several ideas for renewable energy sources, citing biomass and geothermal among the more common solar and wind. To end our discussion, we talked about some innovative systems, such as soccer balls that generate power, solar backpacks, and energy producing sneakers. The response was fantastic!

In addition to being a nice change from the office, our visit to Explore was an extremely encouraging experience. The students already had a firm grasp on sustainable practices and how they can positively impact their environment. They are now more aware of the benefits of green buildings and will inevitably bring that knowledge home to their families. As they continue through school, they’ll want to attend green colleges and eventually work in green offices, creating a demand for sustainable building. That’s a good sign.

Construction, Energy, Lighting

Daylighting: Steps Big and Small Pay Off

No Comments Posted on 16 January 2013 by Cecil Scheib

On January 15 I had the bright idea to attend Let There Be Daylight, an event discussing a report (of the same name, released in December) showing that at least 114 million square feet of New York City office space can easily be retrofitted with advanced daylighting controls. The presentations and discussions took place at the New York Times Building, which actually uses this technology to cut both energy use and peak electric demand.

The report makes a persuasive case: since daylight is often strongest when needed most to cut building energy peaks (summer afternoons), and prices have dropped substantially (from ~$100/ballast 10 years ago ~$30/ballast now), daylighting can be accomplished cost-effectively. NYSERDA and Con Edison incentives can shorten paybacks further, reportedly in the 4-5 year range for new construction. Wireless sensors can help overcome the obstacles of working in existing buildings, where entering the asbestos- or insulation-laden ceiling cavity is to be avoided if possible. Since New York’s central business district has more office area appropriate for daylighting than Chicago and San Francisco’s central business district areas combined, this is a major opportunity that cut could NYC peak demand by 160 megawatts.

The report contains a fantastic roadmap for future installations. By focusing on occupant comfort first, mostly by reducing glare, buildings maintain light quality and views while managing heat gain and energy savings. Best of all, the research included actual energy monitoring of existing installations to prove the savings, and polled occupants to ensure satisfaction with their daylighting systems. Since New York City buildings will have to upgrade their lighting in accordance with Local Law 88, it’s worth considering cost-effective additions to basic upgrades at the same time.

While daylighting control may be near-future technology, it still takes commitment, capital, and good design and installation. That makes it worthwhile to consider some easier and cheaper strategies that don’t include daylighting controls: implementing lighting schedules, reducing overlighting through retrofits and task lighting, and installing simple occupancy sensors. In fact, the report’s results show that daylighting controls play a smaller overall role in savings than these inexpensive, straightforward, and proven ways to greatly reduce lighting loads. Don’t wait for advanced controls to hit your block to start staring at the lights!

Many thanks to Richard Yancey of Green Light New York (which hosted the presentation and panel, co-sponsored by Urban Green) and his co-authors Stephen Selkowitz (Berkeley Labs) and Adam Hinge (Sustainable Energy Partnerships) for a great event.

Energy, Lighting, Products & Materials

To Save Energy, Sensors May Save Us

No Comments Posted on 08 August 2012 by Cecil Scheib

Friends tipped us off to a study recently featured by the Garrison Institute. Researchers from Fraunhofer’s Center for Sustainable Energy Systems found that user-friendliness and energy savings don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with programmable thermostats. They called these results “both surprising, and suggestive.” (The presentation can be found here.)

Surprising? Not really. Anyone who has every tried to convince their family to try CFLs, or heard their friends discuss how they leave the AC on all day so their home will be cool when they return in the evening, knows that the ease of making a simple change often has little effect on getting people to do it. . Even when people care about and understand the importance of energy savings, they still forget to turn things off when they leave the room. It’s not at all surprising that they don’t set a programmable thermostat, no matter how intuitive it may be.

But suggestive, yes. The presentation covers the three basics of behavior change: motivation (the user wants to change something), ability (the user has the power to change it), and a trigger (they are reminded to actually do it). Programmable thermostats supply the ability, but not necessarily the motivation or the trigger.

In the end, the authors come to the correct conclusion themselves, in the very last bullet point of a 25-slide presentation: “Have technology replace motivation and triggers.” Automation. That’s right, humans, you’re being taken out of the loop and replaced with a computer. Nowadays, occupancy sensors can tell a smart thermostat when a room is empty, and the thermostat can use that information to control AC units, radiators, and lights.

While convincing occupants to manually program their thermostats is a long shot, using occupancy sensors successfully is a slam dunk; current technology can automatically set back heating and cooling temperatures when spaces are unoccupied. These devices originally came from the hotel industry, but are well suited to offices, dorm rooms, small apartments, and any space with single-room HVAC zones, making them a great fit for vast swathes of New York City real estate.

For wall- and window-mounted AC units and for radiators, these devices have been shown to have a 2-3 year payback in NYC. About half the savings is in the heating bill and half in the cooling bill – savings that can amount to up to 30% of the total in the first year after installation.

Using a passive infrared sensor to detect when the room is occupied, the devices don’t turn off accidentally when an occupant is sleeping or still. When a room is empty for a certain time, perhaps 15-30 minutes, they set back the temperature for energy savings. Good ones can also be programmed for an even deeper setback after 24 hours of vacancy, assuming the occupant is gone for the weekend or on vacation. Savings are guaranteed, regardless of occupant behavior or whether they care about energy use.

When the room is reoccupied, the control turns the heating or cooling on again to return the space to the desired setpoint. In summer, occupants may notice the temperature is not what it was when they left, but since the AC is already blowing cold air, they are generally satisfied. The AC may cycle on occasionally to prevent humidity from building up that could cause mold or other issues. In winter, the heat turns back on again as soon as a person comes into the room, and the unit maintains a specified minimum temperature even during long vacant periods.

Three things to look for when you’re shopping for occupancy-based HVAC controls:

1)   Recovery-time based setbacks. Rather than set back a fixed amount (say, 10°F), a good system will let you set the amount of time it will take for the room to reach a setpoint after it’s reoccupied (say, 10 minutes). A microprocessor decides how much to let the temperature “drift” during vacancy periods, so that a shaded room on the north side of a building might be set back more deeply than a sunny south facing room. This allows for the greatest energy savings – and the least discomfort for the people in the space.

2)   Networked controls. Modern units will “talk” to a central system, with a dashboard allowing analysis and control of units remotely. This allows management to troubleshoot problems before tenants complain, for even greater energy savings and fewer maintenance headaches. For example, AC units that run 100% of the time but can never bring the room to setpoint probably need maintenance. (Or, the window might be open. Luckily, these systems can be “interlocked,” so that the AC turns off automatically if the window is open).

3)   Good smart thermostat design. Yes, the study shows that people don’t use their programmable thermostats, even if they are easy to use. But in occupancy-based systems, the automatic controls do the energy-saving heavy lifting. A clean interface and easy-to-understand controls make it easier for a tenant to turn the AC and heat on and off, and set their desired temperature. That saves everyone headaches.

This technology might be difficult to implement in single-family homes, large apartments, or anyplace with a central system serving the whole space. In that case, homeowners might use something like the Nest Learning Thermostat, and commercial owners might try a computer-based Building Management System (BMS) or Energy Management System (EMS).

But for simple spaces with simple heating and cooling systems, bring on the robots.

Energy, Lighting

Why You Shouldn’t Invest in T-bills and Certificates of Deposit (CDs)

1 Comment Posted on 25 July 2012 by Richard Leigh

I was working on my income tax return last spring when I noticed something new: the banks in which I had stuffed my pitiful savings were not bothering to send me forms indicating how much interest I had earned. It was so little it was not worth reporting!  Look at any savings account and you’ll see you are getting 0.02% annual interest (or something like that). Even CDs and most T-bills are around 1%. What’s a thoughtful, savings-minded person to do? You can go into the stock market and see higher returns, but you can also lose your shirt, which will make retirement chilly.

For homeowners and coop and condo boards, as well as solvent building owners, there is a reasonably secure alternative, and (of course) it’s energy efficiency, which amounts to a CD returning real interest, just like the old days, of 3% to 10% or more.

To see how this works, think about a CD.  You invest some amount of capital, say $1000, at some specified interest rate, for some fixed period of time, normally a few years. You can’t touch the money during that time without penalties, but at the end you get back your capital plus the earned interest. The only problem is that these days the earned interest isn’t worth your time going to the bank.

With energy efficiency, the structure’s a little different, but the result is much better. You invest some amount of capital, say $1000, in better lighting that will use less electricity. Because it uses less electricity, you save money on your electric bill every year. If your bill is $200 less than it would have been without the improvement, we say there was a simple payback period of $1000/$200 or five years.   So after five years you have gotten your investment back. But the new lights are still working and still saving $200 per year (or more if the electric rates go up). Suppose the lights will last for ten years – you will pick up another $1000 in the second five years of their life, for a total of $2000 in savings on a $1000 investment.  Ask your banker (or check the equations below) and you’ll see you got a 10% return on your investment over the ten years.  It’s not taxable, and you can’t get a return like that anywhere without selling your immortal soul.

Here’s the general formula: suppose you have an energy efficiency investment that pays for itself in P years. (P= payback period.) And suppose the installed system has a life expectancy of at least L years. (L = minimum system life.) Then the equivalent after tax interest is I = 1/P – 1/L.  This includes the obvious requirement that you get your capital back, just like with a CD.

Got CFLs? Payback P = 1 year, often. Lifetime L = 3 years. The interest rate on these 3-year CD equivalents is 67%!!  (I = 1/1 – 1/3 = 0.67.)

Of course, to actually end up with money, the way you do with a CD, you must have the fortitude to stick the savings into a bank and let them add up over the “L” years of the technology you have chosen. Even better, take the savings and invest them in some other energy efficiency improvement, and you will be compounding your interest in a way CDs can’t possibly duplicate. But I digress.

Again, maybe the nicest feature is that there is no 1099-INT, despite the serious levels of interest being earned!

The math:

K = capital cost ($)

A = Annual savings ($/year)

P = Payback period (years) = K/A

L = System lifetime (years)

Total income = L x A = L x K/P

Net income after capital = L x K/P – K

Net income after capital per year = (L x K /P – K)/L = K/P – K/L

Interest = net income after capital per year as fraction of capital

Interest = (K/P – K/L)/K = 1/P – 1/L

Construction, GPRO, Lighting

Local 3 Electricians, Gensler and the new EITC

No Comments Posted on 19 October 2011 by Brian Wennersten

Brian Wennersten, LEED BD+C, O+M, GPRO:CM is an Instructor and Principal of SKYed Eco Education & Consulting, and a certified GPRO Instructor. The following is derived from an interview with Anthony Brower, LEED AP BD+C, ID+C, Sustainable Design Director at Gensler.

GPRO continues to expand its reach in teaching green building practices to those working in the construction field with its recent release of GPRO Electrical Systems course.

Local Union 3, I.B.E.W NYC, longstanding supporters of GPRO, will continue their commitment to green building practices by teaching GPRO Electrical Systems and Operations & Maintenance Essentials to their apprentices and journeymen this fall. Topics will include: fundamentals of green building and sustainability in electrical systems, lighting, heating and cooling, renewable energy, green job management and other work practices that will assure high building performance.

The electricians union will also soon begin construction on their new Electrical Industry Training Center (EITC) building in Long Island City, which is aiming for LEED certification.  The space will provide an innovative and technologically advanced learning environment for union members to continue their professional development. In addition to GPRO courses, Local 3 will offer hands-on training for solar and wind power at their custom designed training installation on the roof of the new building.

Local 3 electricians joined in the integrated design process with the architects at Gensler which enabled the team to provide a more holistic approach to the project.  We had the opportunity to speak with Anthony Brower, Sustainable Design Director at Gensler.  Mr. Brower said that from an electrician’s perspective, reducing energy consumption was at the forefront in the design of the building.  He noted that the training center will allow end users to learn about the latest technology in Advanced Lighting Control systems as well as benefitting from improved indoor environmental quality.   With all of these energy efficient features, GPRO students will not only be able to learn in an amazing setting, but they will be taught by example from how the building was designed and constructed while continuing to meet the increased demands to train electrical professions in energy efficient technologies.

Energy, Green Codes, LEED, Lighting, Products & Materials

Of Codes and Apologies

No Comments Posted on 01 February 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Credit: Pro Europa

It would seem that I owe Frank Gehry an apology or, since it is unlikely that Mr. Gehry is aware of my existence, that I at least owe our readers a follow up to my post last year in which I condemned certain aspects of his work.  You may recall that Gehry was quoted last year in Business Week, disparaging both the cost and effectiveness of LEED.  I had a pretty strong reaction to this, and I wasn’t the only one.  More recently Gehry tempered his stance on LEED in an interview with PBS. It’s worth reading the whole thing but he basically says that he would prefer increasing the thresholds of codes rather than legislating the point-based system of LEED.  It’s a fair point, though I would argue we need voluntary standards like LEED or the Living Building Challenge to demonstrate what is possible before we can begin to mandate individual elements within codes.  In any case, what caught my eye in this interview was his reference to his Novartis building in Switzerland.  He is quoted as follows:

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Energy, LEED, Lighting, Products & Materials

Living Building Challenge

1 Comment Posted on 25 January 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Credit: Flansburgh Architects

If LEED is a careful balance between the pressing need to reduce our environmental footprint and the harsh reality of our risk-averse real estate culture, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) can be seen as an effort to simply look past the hurdles of reality to the ideal buildings.  It’s an inspiring exercise to imagine buildings that produce energy, water and nutrients rather than consume them; buildings that are largely devoid of the toxins and carcinogens that typically foul the air and soil in and around any human development.  Where LEED measures how much you’ve reduced your estimated energy use, LBC tells you not to use any at all.  Where LEED gives credit for using percentages of recycled materials, LBC has a long, long list of toxic materials (materials commonly found in virtually everything we purchase) that you simply can’t have anywhere in your building.  Of course, setting such high standards means that only a very few projects can even attempt to meet them, which leads some to ask: What’s the point?

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Commercial Buildings, Construction, Energy, Envisioning Low-Carbon Cities, Improving Building Envelopes, LEED, Lighting

HOK Unveil Net Zero Office Building Prototype

No Comments Posted on 22 November 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

Designed for a challenging site in relatively cloudy St. Louis this intriguing office building prototype features 73% energy use reduction, with the remainder provided by PV and solar thermal systems- and no offsets.

This is made possible through careful massing, a solid R-40 insulated envelope, integrated daylighting solutions and careful application of energy recovery and demand control ventilation.

The key seems to be, surprise, early integration of strict performance parameters to inform all phases of the design.  None of these emphases’ are revolutionary (the basic components of a net zero office building have been known for some time) and although the tenant modeled does not seem to be as energy intensive as, say, the trading floor of a bank it IS excellent to see the model confirmed once again.  If you don’t have ridiculously high energy intensity and you pay careful attention to these issues we can see huge reductions in energy use rather easily.

And now for the caveats.  The project utilizes the roof of a parking structure to house a 17,000 PV array.  And it’s not clear from the data I see on the website that peak demand is always met by peak supply of their PV system.  Is this building off the grid?  Or is it net zero on an annual basis?  Still an impressive study if the latter is the case, but an important point to clarify.

There’s a piece in Contract from October on this study, here.

My favorite quote from the piece:

Myth #1: All glass buildings are the future of low-energy and low-emissions design.
Although daylighting is the single-most important way to reduce electricity and carbon emissions, carbon neutral design requires a precise balance of light and heat. To determine the right combination of energy-efficient glazing and insulated wall panels, we modeled the daylighting savings offset by the energy penalty of increased floor-to-floor and glass area. These calculations told us how much glass we should use.

Commercial Buildings, Construction, Energy, Envisioning Low-Carbon Cities, Green Codes, LEED, Lighting, Making Buildings Resilient, Planning, Products & Materials, Resiliency

Urban Green Expo Top Picks

No Comments Posted on 22 September 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

Now that most of the planning for our annual conference – Urban Green Expo – is out of the way, I hope to be back to regular blog posting again.  And what better way to start than a survey of the highlights of the conference that has taken so much of our attention these last months.

2009 was the inaugural year of Urban Green Expo and was, by most any measure, a resounding success.  We made a few rookie mistakes, of course, but the atmosphere was fantastic and the educational sessions were extremely strong, something I’ll always be proud of.  While we were confident we could put together a great conference for 2010, the panel presentations last year were so strong that a little voice in my head often wondered if we had maybe tapped out our community.  Were there enough great subjects to fill 40 slots in 2010, and were people energized enough to submit them?  With that concern as context I am delighted to report that the panel presentations and speakers are even stronger in 2010.  In addition to attracting big names like William McDonough, we have green building experts from Europe, Canada and several States outside the northeast US presenting next week, alongside a slate of local experts that should be the envy of every green building community in the nation.

The headliners, of course, are our Keynote speakers.  William McDonough is a truly singular, visionary individual – an architect that has moved beyond mere buildings to address the root problems of our industrial economy and has worked to not just improve, but totally transform the way we manufacture the products and systems our society relies upon.  In 1984 (let me write that again, 1-9-8-4), McDonough designed what are considered the first green offices in the United States – the NYC headquarters of the Environmental Defense Fund.  That was 14 years before the LEED 1.0 Pilot was published.  Next week he returns to New York to describe his path to reorienting our design and industrial processes.  We are beyond delighted to have him.

With an international visionary opening the conference, we thought it would be appropriate to close the show with something hyper local.  That in mind- we are really very excited that the Closing Keynote will be delivered by David Bragdon, the newly appointed Director of the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning & Sustainability. As you all probably know, OLTPS is the office responsible for guiding the strategic vision of plaNYC.  Mr. Bragdon has an incredible track record from his tenure as Metro Council President in Portland, Oregon and we are excited that our conference will be among the first opportunities for our community to hear his perspective on the challenges that lay ahead for the implementation of the initiatives of plaNYC.

In even the earliest discussions about planning an annual conference, we were clear about one thing – we wanted to separate ourselves from the many green events that try to be all things to all people and which, in our opinion, can result in a watered down educational experience for most of the audience.  We wanted to recognize the intelligence and high level of technical expertise within the NYC green building community, and focus on the very specific set of challenges faced by NYC and other dense, urban places.  When selecting the theme for the 2010 conference, Pushing the Envelope, we looked closely at the issues of greatest current relevance and settled on a subject that is gaining increasing traction; the performance of building envelopes.  As a result, roughly half of our educational sessions deal directly with building enclosure issues and all the sessions deal with innovative systems or processes.

The Liquid Wall Prototype System

It’s always exciting to watch the development of a product that has the potential to dramatically alter the green building industry, and the “Liquid Wall” curtain wall system seems just such a product.  The system, which recently won the AIA New York/Center for Architecture Innovative Curtain Wall Design competition, has mullions made from a concrete material from LaFarge called Ductal and includes massive thermal breaks and a tremendous amount of design variation.  It has the potential to heavily improve the performance of  glass dominant building skins and free designers from the relatively limited options currently available in curtain wall systems.  Two other systems recognized by the Innovative Curtain Wall jury will share a session at the conference; the HelioTrace and Helioptix systems will be presented in a 120 minute session moderated by Rick Bell, ED of AIA New York.

The Inland Steel building, Chicago

As exciting as new products and systems are, we have to focus on existing buildings to have any hope of reducing the environmental impact of a densely built city like New York.  Two sessions stand out to me on this point.  The first is a session moderated by Susan Szenasy, Editor of Metropolis, on the recent retrofitting of two mid-century modern buildings.  The Inland Steel building, in particular, stands out as an icon of high modernism (the interior looks like a set from Mad Men) and a prime example of greening a sensitive modernist landmark.  On the other side of the pond another landmark building has received similarly delicate treatment, though in this case it is the renovation of a classical landmark in central London to house the UK headquarters of Unilever.

Financing green projects is a subject that generates lots of questions in our community but not many answers, and even fewer solutions.  Despite the fundamental, symbiotic relationship between lending and building, the finance and building industries still speak very different languages and have not taken the time to build the lines of communication necessary to foster real change on both sides of the equation.  We are doing our small part to grow the conversation at Urban Green Expo 2010 with several panels dealing directly with financing green buildings.  Don’t miss the discussion of valuation and underwriting of green projects led by Daniel Winters of Capital Markets Partnership.  Greg Hale from NRDC will lead a separate discussion of the current state of the somewhat beleaguered but still very promising PACE financing model as well as the NYC Energy Efficiency Corporation.  Lastly, and perhaps most exciting, Candace Damon from HR&A will lead a discussion of their study (with Steven Winters Associates) on behalf of Deutsche Bank examining the relationship between pre-retrofit savings projections and actual savings in multifamily projects.

Without some really radical changes to the way design and construction teams are structured, and how they work together, we won’t realize anywhere near our current potential for positive change in the building industry.  A great panel, Integrated Design Case Studies: Europe, that includes representatives from RFR Consulting in Paris and Morphosis Architects, will outline a series of pioneering European projects that have successfully utilized an integrated, holistic design process.  Another panel will discuss recent efforts to “move beyond Appendix G” for more accurate performance modeling of design proposals, and yet another features a discussion from European and American experts on the current state of the Passive House standard and the challenges to implementation that lay ahead.

It was no easy task to pull out just these few sessions from the 40 on offer at the conference.  I could have listed any of the other 30 panels with equal enthusiasm.  Including sessions that include original research and that breakdown the carbon emission reduction progress for NYC.  Check out the full slate of sessions here.

None of these incredible sessions would be possible without the support of our sponsors and our partner and supporting organizations.  Our 2010 Sponsors are:
Carrier Corporation
Rebecca Cole Grows
Association for Energy Affordability
Battery Park City Authority
Green Mountain Energy
and Whole Foods.

There is one final area in which we expect to show remarkable improvement over last year.  Coffee.  Last year, there wasn’t any available on site.  I know this was a huge blow to many of you so this year we’ve made sure that free coffee will being provided in the morning and afternoon of each day, compliments of Whole Foods.  It’s as clear an indication as any of the growth and professional stature of our conference.  I hope to see you all there.

Free Coffee

© 2010 Urban Green Blog.