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.

NYC Local Laws, Planning, Water

Keep Your Stormwater to Yourself!

No Comments Posted on 05 March 2014 by Tiffany Broyles Yost

On February 20, Urban Green Council hosted a salon about the new stormwater rules from the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP) and innovative design strategies for compliance.  NRDC’s Larry Levine recently wrote about the new rules on our blog, which reduce allowable stormwater flow by 90% in some cases.

Deep reductions certainly make sense. According to Riverkeeper “more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewage overflows (CSOs) into New York Harbor alone each year.”

James Garin and Angela Licata (NYC DEP) provided background on the new rules and their goals.  In addition to reducing CSO, the DEP is trying to encourage co-beneficial strategies that increase biodiversity, reduce heat island effect, lower energy use, and add value to properties. One way to do this is by increasing green infrastructure (natural processes that filter water such as green roofs and bioswales) and decreasing grey infrastructure (traditional stormwater and waste water treatment like pipes and sewers).

A big topic at the event was how most compliance is being achieved through detention (holding the water back for a little while so the sewer system isn’t overwhelmed, but ultimately still sending it back to the treatment plant or river) as opposed to retention (holding it onsite and either using it or letting it evaporate, putting no strain on the sewer system). Some would argue that the greater benefits of retention mean we should be doing more to encourage it.

Michael Nilson (Langan Engineering) and Jeff Miles (Kiss + Cathcart Architects) shared recent projects on which they’ve of applied a mix of green and grey strategies. At Bushwick Inlet Park, rainwater is collected from paved surfaces on the hill to irrigate the green roof slope. All other rainwater infiltrates into the ground or passes through a tidal wetland landscape at the river’s edge; no stormwater is sent to the city’s combined stormwater system.

Solar 2, a green energy arts and education center, meets the new stormwater requirements and features a high-tech grey strategy, a “smart tank.”  These tanks use internet-based predictive weather data, tank level sensors, and other controls to switch a rainwater harvest tank (retention) into a detention tank when needed to manage stormwater, saving both money and space on the site.

The increased cost of installing larger tanks has been one of the primary criticisms of the new stormwater rules. Architect Jeff Miles argues that the cost difference between green and grey strategies is spurring innovation like smart tanks and vegetative systems. “We’re constructing the future so we should be developing new ways to think about old problems like stormwater,” he says. According to Jeff, early collaboration between the client, architects, and engineers is crucial to a project’s success.

There is a lot of potential for these new rules to bring value but we need to hear more success stories where green infrastructure is used. A tax credit for green infrastructure retrofits available from DEP should also aid innovate owners.

Climate Change, Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, NYC Local Laws, Planning

Best Hope to Solve Climate Change? Cities.

No Comments Posted on 26 February 2014 by Russell Unger

In 2009, the country’s major environmental groups were focused on the Waxman-Markey bill that would have established a carbon emission trading plan. The bill passed in the House, but then lost in the Senate. It followed a now decades-old pattern of hopes raised and dashed for federal climate change legislation.

A different story unfolded that same year in another white-domed building: New York City Hall. In 2009, NYC enacted the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, the most ambitious effort to date in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. While perhaps the most important installment of PlaNYC, GGBP was just one of over 30 major energy or climate initiatives advanced by the city.

Last month, NRDC and IMT jointly launched a major new initiative: the City Energy Project. The program’s goal is to dramatically improve building efficiency in 10 major U.S. cities. Participating cities get funding for staff and the expertise of the City Energy Project staff, particularly Laurie Kerr, who drove policy at the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability during the Bloomberg Administration.

The City Energy Project was  inspired by New York City and PlaNYC. But beyond a testament to New York’s successes, the project reflects a shift in environmental leadership and philanthropic resources to cities rather than the federal government and statehouses.

The country and world took notice of the work going on in NYC. Countless cities and states from across the U.S. and abroad sent delegations to learn about the sustainability advances taking place here, and half a dozen major cities followed our lead by enacting benchmarking ordinances.

Major environmental organizations and funders saw the potential of cites too. Urban centers tend to be progressive, with powerful executives and legislatures that can take bold action. After years of frustrated federal and state efforts, the environmental community realized major gains were waiting to be had in city halls. Now many major foundations and environmental organizations have new “city” programs.

Since 81% of Americans live in cities, these changes are some of the most important we can make. And they provide the environmental community with beachheads in many red states.  Thanks to the City Energy Project, we’re going to see successes replicated across the country. Let’s hope their 10 participating cities are just the first group of many!

Landscape, People, Planning

Author Talk: The Nature of Urban Design

No Comments Posted on 03 February 2014 by Cecil Scheib

Alexandros Washburn

“You can be the greatest designer in the world, but if you can’t work under the pressure of politics, or don’t understand the need for a profit motive, you will accomplish nothing. Urban design changes things.” So says New York City’s former chief urban designer Alexandros Washburn at Urban Green’s sold-out author talk. Three billion people live in cities now – a number that will increase to five billion by 2030. Washburn guesses only about 30,000 of them have any clue about how to improve urban quality of life, perhaps the smallest ratio of experts to stakeholders of almost any human endeavor. We need more people working to make cities better. But having a great vision isn’t enough; for change to occur, politics and finance have to align with design.

Washburn’s heroes include Frederick Law Olmsted (who not only designed Central Park, but actually got it built), Jane Jacobs, and even the controversial Robert Moses. All these urbanists share something in common with the evening’s audience of green building devotees: they strove to leave our city better than they found it. Washburn said it’s a lesson he learned directly from a beloved boss, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said about rebuilding Penn Station: “Make it inevitable.” The connection between the late, great NY Senator and NYC design was palpable, as Washburn paused and gathered himself after sharing personal memories from Moynihan’s funeral.

At his Red Hook home during Sandy, Washburn experienced firsthand how cities’ effects on the climate are coming back with a vengeance. And while some of his pictures of empty, waterlogged streets have an almost tranquil quality, he takes a darker view: “It makes you want to think of Venice. But it’s not like Venice, and it’s something we have to protect against.” There’ll be no retreat from climate change, just as New York showed no retreat when facing another citywide crisis caused by poor urban design: endemic disease in the 19th century. Just as this was solved by urban designers (and hygienists), we’ll do the same with climate change, he says. One exception: “Take the boiler out of the basement!”

Washburn says resiliency planning (like the work of the Building Resiliency Task Force) can be more than just a reaction to Sandy. New laws, buildings, and infrastructure “both reduce risk and offer an opportunity to improve civic life.” The changes to come can both strengthen and beautify our city, and provide other benefits as well. But there’s a management challenge.

Under our current complex system, it can take years from project conception to breaking ground – even longer if the project is really innovative. Will that work in the face of what’s coming? Washburn thinks not: “If climate change starts accelerating, we won’t have the luxury of a system that takes years to make well-considered changes. If we need change faster than our system can provide it, we are at risk of authoritarians. They will say we need it for the good of the city. I want to work on making the system faster while keeping it responsive and subtle.”

Washburn will now be undertaking this work at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and  he’s likely to find success motivating students there. Washburn has a unique talent to make the hidden underbelly of urban design a topic of vivid interest and beauty. Of course, not many speakers wax poetic about their favorite zoning law (he prefers the groundbreaking Zoning Resolution of 1916), so he doesn’t have a lot of competition!

Having seen him speak twice about his book, it’s clear his engagement with audiences about urban design goes deeper than just the strength of his personal interest. I was most moved by his description of how the High Line came to be. Proposed by unlikely champions and implemented by an even more unlikely coalition of private and public funds, he thinks Olmsted, Moses and Jacobs would all grudgingly endorse it, meaning politics, money, and design needs have probably been satisfied. Washburn is extraordinarily lucid in his description of the technical mechanism that allowed the High Line to happen in the face of opposition from owners of the land underneath the defunct railway, forever blocked from building their rightful five stories. The solution was air rights transfers, allowing those owners to sell the rights to build higher buildings a few blocks away and turning them “almost overnight from being enemies to friends of the High Line.”

As he drew the audience deeper into the tale of this almost-impossible urban miracle, a hushed silence fell over the room as Washburn reverently intoned the name of the design solution that solved the problem: “Special West Chelsea District Rezoning.” This phrase might have seemed esoteric or even comical in another venue. But this evening, they acquired new meaning, summing up all by themselves the sacrifice and success of those who had left their part of New York better than they found it.

Climate Change, Planning, Resiliency

Could “Temporal Uncertainty” be Stifling Support for Climate Change Mitigation?

No Comments Posted on 20 November 2013 by Ellen Honigstock

A recent New York Times piece by Maria Konnikova regarding the psychology of self-control got me thinking about why we as a society have so much difficulty finding the “discipline” to address climate change.

Psychologists have long known that positive rewards influence behavior. However, Konnikova reports new research that the more uncertain the time frame of the expected reward, the less likely we are to act in pursuit of that reward. The classic “marshmallow study” determined the level of kids’ self control by measuring how long each 4-year-old would wait to eat one marshmallow for a reward of two marshmallows later on. It turns out that the study didn’t account for the uncertainty about how long each kid expected to wait because this “temporal uncertainty” can make the reward seem much less important.

Or, to put it in terms of sustainability, if we knew the exact schedule of the coming effects of climate change, we would actively prepare for them and then rejoice in our preparedness when the storm hit. However, given the uncertainty of when effects of climate change will directly affect us, we are much less motivated to prepare, or more importantly, to mitigate the effects of climate change that the scientific consensus says will occur within 25-40 years.

The effects of climate change are already happening.  While we saw people rushing to contribute to Sandy relief last year and Heiyan relief now, why don’t we see similar public urgency towards the adoption of mitigation strategies or even towards overarching disaster preparation?

New York City is to be applauded for the work it’s doing to both prepare for the coming effects of climate change and to mitigate its intensity, despite the uncertainty of when it may occur.  Factoring in “temporal uncertainty,” how can we more effectively persuade individual citizens to take action now? Another Superstorm will occur, or maybe it will be a catastrophic heat wave next time – just because we don’t know exactly when or where doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action now.

Energy, Homes, NYC Local Laws, Planning, Resiliency

Talking Transition:
Sustainable, Healthy, and Resilient Construction

No Comments Posted on 20 November 2013 by Cecil Scheib

On a bright and warm November morning, 100 people turned up at a pop-up tent in Tribeca to give advice to Mayor-Elect de Blasio. Urban Green and 16 (you read that right!) partner organizations led a 90-minute workshop to discuss the challenges to making homes more energy efficient, healthy, and resilient. After spirited cross-pollination, small groups of 6-8 presented their suggestions for how the new mayor can better engage homeowners and apartment-dwellers on these issues. These suggestions will be officially presented to the new mayor soon. But de Blasio transition team co-chairs Jennifer Jones Austin and Carl Weisbrod showed up just as the event was concluding, perhaps picking up a bit of a buzz from all the green building discussions.

There were a lot of common threads throughout the different tables’ conversations. Some were familiar, though still worthy of repetition: better education can reduce barriers to people taking action; more financing opportunities can help further energy retrofits and resiliency improvements; and as pointed out by Elizabeth Yeampierre of Uprose, many New Yorkers who may not own their homes or have access to high-tech retrofits still need healthy places to live with affordable lower energy bills. In some ways, it’s “A Tale of Two Cities” in terms of green building, a message that should resonate with the de Blasio platform.

There was an intriguing debate about regulation, where participants’ feelings were mixed but ultimately compatible. Some called for more laws as a necessary tool to ensure action to fight climate change and clean the air. Others pointed to the incredible complexity of permitting construction, seeing them as unnecessary burdens on both citizens and businesses. Combining those threads together, there’s a need for tougher laws to protect New Yorkers’ health and the fate of our grandkids – but we must streamline the permitting process so bureaucracy doesn’t interfere with economic growth and job creation.

Some contributors pointed out that Mayor-Elect de Blasio distinguished himself during the campaign as being more of an “average” New Yorker than some other well-known mayors or mayoral hopefuls. Now elected, this presents him with some exciting opportunities. Living in a Brooklyn brownstone, perhaps a Passive House retrofit of his own home (on his own dime, of course) is in order. That would truly be leading by example.

If you missed the event, you can watch the archived live stream and find the attendees’ recommendations here. Table reports with proposals start in at about the 44 minute mark.

Many thanks to our event co-hosts, the volunteer moderators, and to Talking Transition for providing the opportunity and the location.

Climate Change, Commercial Buildings, Construction, Energy, NYC Local Laws, Planning, Products & Materials, Residential Buildings, Resiliency

Greenbuild Speaker Highlights

No Comments Posted on 13 November 2013 by Ariana Vito

Headed to Greenbuild next week? Sign up to hear Urban Green staff, board members, Task Force members, and supporters speak at educational sessions throughout the week.

Developing Resilience Action Plans for Cities
Russell Unger, Urban Green Council
November 19, 2:30-3:30pm 

“Green Regs & Ham” – A Greenbuild Policy Breakfast
Russell Unger, Urban Green Council
November 20, 7:00-10:00am 

Bring the Outside Inside: Using the Outdoors to Create Indoor Comfort
Daniel Nall, Thornton Tomasetti
November 22, 8:00-9:00am 

Creating Resilient Communities: Building (and Rebuilding) Affordable Housing Projects to Endure the Impact of Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events
Pat Sapinsley, Build Efficiently, LLC
November 19, 4:00-5:30pm

EBOMing Your Portfolio: Process Mastery to Inspire Innovation
Yetsuh Frank, Green Light New York
November 22, 9:30-10:30am 

Evaluating New York City’s Energy Benchmarking Policy
John Lee, Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability
Jonathon Flaherty, Tishman Speyer
November 21, 3:30-5:30pm 

Highrise Residential Trends and Strategies for Success
Adrian Tuluca, Vidaris Inc
November 21, 9:30-10:30pm 

Insights on Multifamily Benchmarking from EPA & Fannie Mae
Michael Zatz, US Environmental Protection Agency
November 20, 2:00-3:00pm 

International Summit Opening Plenary – Collaboration and Commerce: Environmental Architecture of the Future
Shanta Tucker, Atelier Ten
November 19, 9:00-10:00am 

LEED v4 Tools: Finding Products (and your Footing) in LEED v4
Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen, Inc.
November 21, 11:30-12:30pm 

Let There Be Daylight: Deploying Advanced Daylight Controls
Richard Yancey, Green Light New York
November 22, 8:00-9:00am 

Linking NYC Energy Database to Tenant Contribution to Economy
Steven Baumgartner, Buro Happold
November 20, 3:30-4:30pm 

Midcentury (Un)Modern: The1958-73 Office Building
Bob Fox, Terrapin Bright Green
November 22, 8:00-9:00am 

Motivating Green Building Around the World
John Mandyck, Carrier Corporation
November 21, 9:30-10:30am 

New York City in 2050: Two Views
Marc Zuluaga, Steven Winter Associates
Dick Leigh, Urban Green Council
Laurie Kerr, Natural Resources Defense Council
November 21, 8:00-9:00am 

Resiliency in the Eye of the Storm: Lessons from Sandy
Aine Brazil, Thornton Tomasetti
Alex Wilson, Resilient Design Institute
November 20, 3:30-4:30pm 

Stories from the Field: Lend Lease as an Integrated Solutions Partner
James Stawniczy, Lend Lease US Construction LMB Inc.
November 20, 1:00-2:00pm 

Transforming Buildings Through Product Innovation
Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen, Inc.
November 21, 9:30-10:30am 

Valuing Green: Working with Tenants, Appraisers, and Lenders to Capture the Value of Green Buildings
Charlotte Matthews, Related Companies
November 22, 9:30-10:30am

Ventilate Multifamily Buildings Successfully in Eight Steps!
Maureen Mahle, Steven Winter Associates
November 21, 9:30-10:30am

Building Resiliency Task Force, Making Buildings Resilient, Planning

City Tells Agencies & Owners to Get Ready For Next Emergency

No Comments Posted on 30 October 2013 by Cecil Scheib

Do we know when the next hurricane, flood, or heat wave will occur? No. Do we know that one will happen eventually? Yes. Despite this certainty, it’s all too easy to continue thinking “it can’t happen to me” and remain in a state of blissful denial. Yet, experience has shown that emergency planning is a low-cost way to prevent a natural disaster from turning into a citywide emergency. By having a plan to take quick action before and after an event, the people who operate buildings (as well as the people who live and work in them) can protect the building from wind and flood damage, prevent mold, get the power back on, and even save lives.

Recognizing this need, the City Council passed Introduction 1085-A minutes ago. This bill requires the Office of Emergency Management to coordinate with other agencies (including Department of Buildings, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the Fire Department) to develop guidelines for residential and commercial buildings to prepare for weather emergencies and extended utility outages. These recommendations can then be used by building owners and residents to get ready for events that are unfortunate but inevitable.

The bill doesn’t stop there. It also directs residential building owners to post temporary signs in common areas with emergency preparedness information, including hurricane zones, important government and building contacts, and what services will be provided during an extended power outage. The signs can follow a template the city will publish, and will be posted before the expected arrival of a storm, or after the owner is informed of a utility outage that is expected to last over 24 hours.

The City Council also passed three other bills that implement recommendations of the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force, which Urban Green convened and managed for the city:

BRTF 3 – Relocate & Protect Building Systems (Int. 1096-A)
BRTF 4 – Remove Barriers to Elevating Buildings & Building Systems (Int. 1089-A)
BRTF 11 – Prevent Wind Damage to Existing Buildings (Int. 1099-A)

During and after Superstorm Sandy, inexpensive preparations like stacking sandbags and removing furniture from rooftops and balconies during high winds kept some buildings operating while others were forced to close. But emergency planning is not hard to do, and so its benefits should be enjoyed by all.

You can read more about Urban Green’s past event on Emergency Operating Procedures on our blog, and see the latest status on the Task Force recommendations and read summaries of new laws on our tracker.

Building Envelope, Construction, Planning, Products & Materials, Residential Buildings

Salon Summary
Green Affordable Housing Pros Share Lessons Learned

No Comments Posted on 30 July 2013 by Urban Green Council

On July 25, Urban Green Council hosted Keeping it Green: Operating Affordable Housing. The three Salon panelists spoke about the green affordable housing buildings they work in and the challenges of operating and maintaining them.

Davidson Headley (Building Director, Common Ground Community) and Ely Sepulveda (Maintenance Supervisor, Common Ground Community) discussed two of Common Ground’s LEED Silver supportive housing residences: The Hegeman, a 161- unit building in Brownsville and The Brook, a 190-unit building in the South Bronx. Both buildings use an electronic Building Management System (BMS), and each tenant has a swipe card to activate the electricity and air conditioning in their apartment, which automatically switches off when they leave.

David and Ely shared some of the operational challenges they faced. The Brook was built with dual flush toilets, so the flush handle could be pulled up to use less water, and down to use more water. However, as most of the tenants were accustomed to pushing the flush handle down all the time, minimal water savings were made despite efforts to educate tenants on the new system. In addition, the internal mechanisms of the dual flush toilets were fragile and up to 20 replacement parts would need to be ordered every few months. For newer construction projects, the dual flush toilets were replaced with single flush ultra-low-flow toilets, saving the same amount of water with less maintenance and user training required.

Tenants would also try to circumvent the BMS. For example, if they wanted to leave the air conditioning on while they are out, they would swipe out and quickly swipe back in. This required modifications to be made to the BMS to work like an unlimited Metrocard – after a successful swipe out, tenants could swipe back in and enter the building, but the power wouldn’t turn back on for a few minutes without intervention from building staff. Ely also commented that many of the green products used at the Brook are often difficult to source, and when replacements are needed urgently, a standard product is sometimes substituted instead.

Max Ruperti (Senior Property Manager, Phipps House Services Inc.) spoke about  Via Verde, a new LEED Gold co-op and supportive housing facility in the South Bronx.

The operational challenges at Via Verde mainly relate to building design issues. Via Verde has a combined ventilation system, and the bathroom exhaust fan only operates when the bathroom light is on. If a tenant is smoking in their apartment and the exhaust fan is off, smoke will enter the combined ventilation system and other apartments. Since the building was tightly sealed to prevent air infiltration, as new construction should be, building staff discovered that it was essential to keep ventilation fans running in order to prevent condensation on the windows during certain seasons. There has also been flooding of the outdoor elevators and problems with the heating system. Max’s opinion is that often the architects and the design team are focused on obtaining LEED certification and do not always consider operational or maintenance issues at the design phase, and that the rental income achieved from supportive housing does not always cover the costs of operating and maintaining elaborate green design features.

The key message from the panel was that there must be a clear dialogue between the design team and the operations team in the design phase. This will prevent unnecessary expenses being incurred by the operations team later down the track, who must manage a tight budget and a larger number of tenants per square foot than most residential buildings. Tenant education on the green features of a building is essential, as tenants are more likely to maintain their apartment and amenities if the building management also takes it seriously. This also helps create a sense of community amongst the tenants, which is the key to providing effective supportive housing.

Climate Change, Construction, Planning

Two Degrees

No Comments Posted on 27 March 2013 by Yetsuh Frank

We are surrounded by recommendations.  Everywhere we turn we find grand solutions to the grand problem of climate change. Many of the visionaries around us insist on broad policy moves, like a carbon tax, which has little chance of implementation when numerous politicians choose not to accept the simple facts of climate change.  Others have focused their resources on battling signature projects like the Keystone pipeline- a battle that might be incredibly important but is largely symbolic.  So we do not lack for big pronouncements.  What we lack are nuts-and-bolts solutions that we can, each of us, deploy today, while the larger political and geopolitical battles are waged.  In this context, it was with great expectations that I picked up Two Degrees, a remarkably practical book by a stellar team at Arup including Fiona Cousins, Alisdair McGregor and Cole Roberts, and 10 additional contributors.  Fiona Cousins is on the USGBC Board of Directors and an Urban Green Board Member Emeritus.

It seems likely that Two Degrees will become a definitive resource on the role of the built environment in producing, mitigating and adapting to our changing climate.  The book is divided into three broad sections; Fundamentals, Mitigation and Adaptation. Since Sandy, everyone has been talking about resilience and adaptation but as this book was started roughly four years ago the strong emphasis on those subjects has to be counted as relatively prescient.

The Fundamentals section includes a review of the science of climate change and new findings since the most recent IPCC Report in 2007.  (And the source of the book’s title.)  It’s a strong summary, but for me, this focus on the science tends to obscure the singular content of the book- which are strategies for the built environment- and might even play into the hands of climate change deniers with the inherent assumption that the science needs to be reiterated or bolstered in some way. (And if you’re reading the book, you probably aren’t among those that need convincing about the now fantastically obvious science of climate change.)  These early chapters also outline the role of the built environment in greenhouse gas emissions, the major policy prescriptions being pursued at different scales and the basic synergy between mitigation and adaptation.  The content of this opening section is first rate, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. I couldn’t help wishing the authors had spent time further deepening the exemplary solutions featured later in the book rather than review and update science that is dealt with in so many other places.

I say this partially because the solutions portion of the book is excellent.  To date, most of  the work in this field has been approached from two distinct perspectives.  On the one hand you have the pied pipers, like Al Gore in the film An Inconvenient Truth and Ed Mazria with Architecture 2030, who have focused almost entirely on challenges at the expense of solutions. This can be pretty frustrating and has left a lot of folks on the sidelines- folks that might have engaged in the fight if they’d been handed some tools.  On the other hand, among those who have focused on overcoming those challenges. the overwhelming emphasis has been on individual technical widgets that can be plugged into any given project.  From solar panels to high efficiency equipment, there is a huge amount of marketing and salesmanship driving what I cannot help but call green Band-Aids. 

Two Degrees avoids these pitfalls by largely focusing on the design/decision making process- and then providing a few key examples of successful outcomes from that process.  How you approach lowering the impact of a building or community- the actual steps you take, the questions you ask, the tools you use to answer them, and the stakeholders you involve- has a remarkable effect on the results of any project.  This focus on the process of decision making (there is even a chapter on how humans make choices, and how irrational we are about them) is commendable and much needed.  Following the critical path thinking outlined in various ways throughout this book should improve any project, regardless of  scale.  They describe, for instance, the importance of 1) reducing loads (both internal and external), 2) developing passive strategies (like natural ventilation or thermal mass) to the extent feasible, prior to 3) developing active strategies to condition the environment and counter the much reduced loads that remain.  Only then do they recommend the introduction of renewable energy and offsets.  Such a process will allow most teams to optimize buildings as whole systems rather than discrete parts, and understand the multiplied savings that ensue when you pay for one system to solve multiple problems (or, to put it another way, to produce multiple efficiencies.)  One of the primary examples the authors offered in support of this process, the subject of an entire chapter, are the efforts over the last decade by Walmart to dramatically reduce its environmental impact.  The systems and thinking deployed in this effort are described in great detail, from passive building strategies like daylighting to active systems like a cogeneration plant.  Perhaps most notably they don’t shy away from the various challenges the project faced, including commissioning complicated systems, lower-than-expected performance of some equipment, and the prohibitive cost of deploying some of the most successful upgrades, like solar PV panels, across their entire portfolio.

The authors address both the design of buildings and communities, and quite sensibly devote a separate chapter to the particular challenges of existing buildings. (There is a nice case study of a UC San Francisco project in which simple monitoring of airflow rates produced savings in fan power, heating and cooling energy.)  Although I wish the community design chapter in the mitigation portion of the book was more granular, the authors do an admirable job of describing the different challenges faced by inland and coastal communities in adapting to climate change.  The book excels at describing solutions that address both mitigation and adaptation and they boldly address the cost and economy of climate-positive solutions (a topic most design and engineering professionals avoid.) They also outline the risks for communities in hotter, drier climates as opposed to warmer, wetter climates.  These chapters break strategies down in to items that must be done now, like increasing professional capacity and selecting the right places to build, and things like the Thames Barrier in London that must be done in certain long-term timeframes of 25, 100 and 200 years. I will be surprised if these chapters do not become required reading for everyone, including policy makers, looking at adapting to anticipated changes to regional climates.

I have a few quibbles with the book.  There are some strong visuals but some of the graphics leave the reader guessing as to the message being conveyed, and some images are not particularly educational or are given a prominence at odds with their importance.  There is a fair amount of overly technical language that will limit the book’s appeal to lay people (including chapter titles like Low Carbon and Climate Positive Communities which I had to think about for a second to gather what they were talking about.)

Today, most project teams understand that sustainability is something that they must address in some way.  But many still leap from ill-defined green goals to a list of technological widgets that have been incorporated into projects that are not otherwise impacted by green thinking.  For those looking to dislodge projects from this typical track, Two Degrees will be an incredibly valuable resource.  It goes a long way to helping those folks to, as Amory Lovins says in the introduction, “. . . create abundance by design, through practical transformation, in a spirit of applied hope.”

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