Last July, I posted that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s adAPT NYC competition was seeking proposals for “micro-units,” meaning apartments less than the minimum 400 square feet normally required by zoning. On January 22, the city revealed the winners – a team composed of Monadnock Development LLC and nARCHITECTS , and the Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation. (Rumors that the team tried to celebrate with a pizza party in a mock-up of the micro-apartment, but realized a large pizza would not fit, were greatly exaggerated.)
While not everyone would want to live in a micro-apartment (although many do), they are a great way to meet several overlapping objectives. All else being equal, a smaller residence means less construction material and waste, lower energy use, and reduced consumption of things like furniture. Small apartments also help meet PlaNYC goals that attempt to determine how New York City can remain livable while accommodating the one million new New Yorkers expected to arrive by 2030. The competition will be a testing ground for some interesting concepts, such as a targeted zoning exception for micro-apartments and all-modular construction. And according to the city, 40 percent of the units in the building at 335 East 27th Street will be offered at below-market rates, increasing affordability in a tight market.
You can see the winning design, which actually includes surfboard storage (I am not making that up) at a Museum of the City New York exhibition on new housing options for the city. Bring a camera to take snap a photo of the brilliant new design for micro-units! (Macro lens suggested.)
Now in its second year, the EBie Awards from Urban Green Council, USGBC New York, are a nationwide juried competition for people working in Existing Buildings who have made great strides in improving environmental performance but whose accomplishments may otherwise go unheralded. Like the Oscars, there are multiple awards – but instead of Best Actor (or Best Key Grip) we have categories like Shine A Light On Me for the best lighting retrofit, and The Reformed Drinker for water savings. It’s sustainability in buildings, but sexy, with a glitzy awards ceremony (held at the Hard Rock Cafe Theatre in Times Square) for finalists and winners.
This year, we have added a new award for those people who work in multiple buildings: All Together Now, which recognizes the most improved portfolio across multiple sustainability categories, including water, waste management, stormwater, materials use, indoor environmental quality, and tenant engagement. The award is similar to the The All-Rounder, which is for a single building, but is designed for entrants who own, operate, or manage a group of buildings and improve their combined environmental performance. We expect that some of the biggest real improvements (not per square foot, but total water or energy savings) will come from portfolios, simply due to their size.
Working across a portfolio doesn’t mean you do different things, but it does change how you go about it. On the positive side, there’s lots of opportunity for lessons learned as conservation measures are repeated over and over (and over and over). Economies of scale come into play: once,when buying occupancy sensors for a campus-wide renovation, I found the price dropped by more than half when ordering 1,000 sensors instead of 100. Repetition can improve efficiency as project managers, purchasing agents, suppliers, and contractors develop good habits, and once-innovative processes become routine. And it’s much easier to get project approval from the right people – building occupants and top management – with a proven track record of success within the same portfolio.
Of course, it’s not always easy “scaling up.” Despite the benefits of experience, it can seem like every situation is unique in its own way. It can be very difficult to give individual projects the attention they deserve when trying to be effective across 10, 100, or even 500 buildings. And going big too fast can have real costs if inventory is purchased and then plans change or deadlines are missed. Finally, the sheer effort required to create change in multiple buildings at once can be daunting right from the outset.
That’s why we created the EBies All Together Now portfolio award – to recognize the special opportunities and challenges that come from managing a portfolio. We’re looking forward to honoring the people making it happen across a group of buildings. If that’s you, go to ebies.org to find more details about how to apply and the definition of award categories and portfolios. The deadline for submissions is February 26, and we’ll be honoring finalists and the winners in New York City on June 19, 2013. See you there!
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.
On December 20, 2012, NYC enacted Local Law 60 of 2012 that requires new residential buildings to provide adequate space to store and segregate refuse and recyclables, implementing the Green Codes Task Force proposal Resource Conservation 2: Provide Recycling Areas in Apartment Buildings. We are hopeful that this measure will help NYC get closer to its peer cities in rates of recycling waste.
In New York, space is always at a premium. Many buildings don’t have enough space to separate the various categories of recyclables, and to keep them separate from general trash. This makes it challenging for building residents and supers to manage the flow of recyclables, so the recyclables tend to get mixed in with the trash. Under the new law, buildings that go up after January 1, 2014 will have to make room to handle recycling properly.
Making something more convenient often means that it will be done better and more often. With space, recycling efforts become more convenient. Currently, New York recycles about 33% of its waste, while Los Angeles recycles over 60% of its total waste and Chicago over 55%. San Francisco, an unsurprising champion in this field, recycles almost 70% of its waste. Making recycling easier in New York’s residential buildings should improve our rates!
For more details about the new requirements, check out the Legislation at a Glance.
One of the most encouraging developments in the real estate community over the last ten years has been the stark realization that advances in technology must be accompanied by advancements in the education, training and engagement of the people that will be interfacing with that technology. You can’t just plug in a new, highly efficient widget and flip the switch. We’ve seen this understanding inform the design community through the increasing prevalence of more integrated design processes. We’ve seen it inform the construction industry in efforts to break down barriers between the trades and designers and operators (in which Urban Green Council’s GPRO training plays a significant role.) And we’ve seen it, perhaps most dramatically, completely transform our sense of the importance of engaging both building operators and building occupants in the goals and aspirations for a given project. As is often said, designing and constructing a really green building only makes sustainability possible. It is the occupants and operators that will ultimately determine the success of your project.
So it is fascinating and heartening to see a similar understanding developing among folks responsible for urban infrastructure. As a case in point, I direct you to an excellent piece by Eric Klinenberg in the current New Yorker, titled Adaptation: How can cities be “climate –proofed?”
Klinenberg covers the basic hard infrastructure proposals that most of us in this field are familiar with (smart grids, ecology that accommodates storm events, etc.) and also points to successful efforts in places like Holland and Singapore to prepare for future sea level rise. But perhaps most interestingly he also surveys the importance of “social infrastructure” to successful responses to disasters and extreme weather events. In a remarkable anecdote, he compares two relatively poor neighborhoods in Chicago during the devastating heat wave that killed more than 700 people there in 1995. The two neighborhoods are almost identical demographically and physically but had death rates during this disaster that varied by a factor of 10. The basic difference between the neighborhoods? One had a robust community infrastructure of “sidewalks, stores, restaurants and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors.” The other had seen businesses and residents flee over the preceding 30 years and as a result lacked the social cohesion that might have helped them help each other during an extreme event like the heat wave.
More evidence that we have to engage people as forcefully as we deploy technology in the face of climate change.
Update: If you prefer listening to reading, Eric Klinenberg discusses his Adaptation article with NPR here.
At the request of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Urban Green Council has convened a special Building Resiliency Task Force of leaders in the NYC real estate community. The Task Force is taking an in-depth look at how to better prepare our buildings for future extreme weather events and infrastructure failures, and the grand kickoff was this morning, with Task Force members assembled for the first time.
Held in the Council Chambers at City Hall, over 100 Task Force members gathered to hear Speaker Quinn, Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, and Commissioner of Buildings Robert LiMandri welcome them and describe the urgency of their work. Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability Director Sergej Mahnovski described some of the challenges facing New York City infrastructure and how this may affect buildings during future extreme events.
Members also learned more about the purview and structure of the Task Force. As described by Russell Unger, Urban Green Council’s Executive Director, the Task Force will consider both direct effects of extreme weather on buildings, such as flooding or wind damage, as well as secondary effects on buildings caused by infrastructure outages like loss of electricity and water. The Task Force will be fully focused on buildings, both new construction and potential retrofits to existing structures. The Task Force will not take up the important issues of infrastructure or zoning, which are being considered simultaneously by other city groups; as the city’s overall response to Sandy and preparation for other potential risks develops, the Task Force will adapt its process to fit in harmoniously with the larger effort. The Task Force will also include a “rapid rebuilding” component, to fast-track the review of policy proposals affecting buildings currently under consideration by City agencies and the City Council.
My role was to explain the inner workings of the Task Force itself. The main technical efforts will take place in Working Groups, organized by functional area and expertise and co-chaired by designers (architects and engineers). With input from cost, code, and legal experts, the Working Groups will develop proposals based for all types of buildings. These proposals will then be considered by Committees, organized by building type (Residential, Commercial, and Critical buildings, the latter including hospitals, senior centers, shelters, fire stations, and so forth) and co-chaired by owners. The Committees will consider what parts of the technical proposals should apply to which buildings, with the most stringency likely given to Critical buildings, then Residential, and finally Commercial buildings, with the latter perhaps leaning more towards suggested best practices rather than new requirements. Put simply, Working Groups work in their technical area of expertise to describe what could be done, and Committees work in their building type area to decide by should be done.
There is also a separate Homes Committee, since the issues facing 1-3 family structures are unique. The Task Force will also have At-Large members, with wide-ranging expertise who will consult across all proposals, and a Steering Committee made up of the co-chairs plus representatives from Urban Green Council and New York City government agencies, the Mayor’s Office, and the City Council. The Task Force is blessed with an incredible array of highly experienced experts, including owners, property managers, architects, engineers, contractors, subject matter specialists, and representatives of utilities, city agencies, code consulting, cost estimating and law.
To dive in as deeply and as quickly as possible when meetings begin in the new year, it’s important that all members of the Task Force have a common understanding of what risks the city is facing, now and in the future. We were very lucky to hear remarks from Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University. Dr. Rosenzweig was able to compare current risks to those New York City may face in upcoming decades due to climate change. 100-year coastal floods may occur every 15-35 years by 2080, with flood heights increasing by 1-2 feet. Similarly, the risks of heat waves and intense rains will also increase. It was sobering to see the extent of the hazards we may encounter, but knowing the science gives the Task Force a firm base upon which to begin its work.
The Task Force will release a report in summer, 2013. Stay tuned for updates between now and then!
For many years folks in green building and sustainable development circles have questioned the logic of developing in coastal areas and flood plains. As the New York City region now knows firsthand, coastal areas are susceptible to harm and when development is pursued a loss of habitat (like wetlands) inevitably follows, directly or indirectly. LEED, for instance, provides credit to projects that avoid areas like wetlands, water bodies and habitat of endangered species. Notably, this is not a prerequisite to achieve LEED, but a voluntary credit (though making this a pre-req has been proposed in LEED v4, slated for 2013 rollout.)
Typically this issue is raised only when new developments are under consideration. Very few people in the mainstream conversation have advocated for retrenchment from established communities, no matter how vulnerable. Exceptions that come to mind include regions like the Mississippi River flood plain, where recurring floods have required an almost annual outlay of significant funds to reconstruct devastated communities, and post Katrina New Orleans- when many questioned whether there should be a city in that location at all (though presumably those people have never been to Mardi Gras.) After Katrina and the BP spill in the gulf there were spikes in conversation about the impacts of human development and how we had managed to remove 34 square miles of wetland habitat from Southern Louisiana EACH YEAR for five decades- habitat that might have softened the blow of Katrina and helped clean crude oil and other toxins out of the ecosystem. A similar discussion point has been heard after Sandy, with people pointing out that wetlands and oyster habitat used to be extensive in New York Harbor (and around Staten Island and the Rockaways) with lots of speculation about how the presence of these ecosystems might have mitigated the impact of the storm.
Among the most reproduced images post-Sandy was this rendering, by the design firms Architectural Research Office and dLand Studio, of New York Harbor redesigned to withstand dramatic sea level rise, for the Rising Currents exhibit at MoMA- a prescient examination of the impacts of sea level rise on the NYC waterfront in 2010.
But for the most part, no one questions the right of cities and towns to exist much as they are- mostly folks wonder what can be done to make our communities more resilient in the face of dramatic events, whether it be storm surges or heat waves.
But we may be witnessing a turn in this conversation.
Last week it was reported that City Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn asked Lightstone Development to withdraw their application to build a 700-unit housing complex alongside the Gowanus canal. For those not familiar, the Gowanus canal penetrates almost two miles into Brooklyn from New York Harbor and it suffered severe flooding during Sandy. Exacerbating the situation, the canal is a Superfund site–laden with myriad toxins and other nasties left over from its industrial past. The Gowanus is also an active outfall for our combined sewer system (in New York City, and most northeast cities of the same age, the sewer and stormwater systems are combined and when it rains the system can be quickly overwhelmed, resulting in raw sewage being diverted to surrounding waterways.) All of which makes the Gowanus quite a noxious body of water (sarcastically nicknamed Lavender Lake by the locals) but, property values being what they are in New York, there is significant pressure to develop around it. And Lightstone has responded that they intend to move forward with the project.
New York City is a place that revolves around, and is largely defined by, real estate. Property ownership is sacrosanct, in some circles probably considered more fundamental than access to oxygen. The Lightstone proposal is essentially “as of right”- meaning they are not requesting any variances to zoning or codes like more bulk or more square footage than allowed by the baseline codes, and therefore will not have to go through extensive environmental reviews. Whether you agree or disagree with a new housing complex being located alongside the Gowanus, it is a significant change in the conversation for a public figure to openly request that the developer withdraw their proposal. Will Lander be suggesting a wholesale review of the zoning around the Gowanus? Or will the city be reviewing proposals near water bodies with a renewed scrutiny? The former seems complicated and the latter seems a little vague, and probably unfair. That said, Lander raises good questions about the ability of the project to withstand storm events. There are not easy answers to these questions, and I’m certainly not suggesting solutions here. But the conversation has started. We should all take note.
There is no doubt that we need to transform our entire consumer process. The question is: How? Most of the focus is on simple reductions in the amount of consumption, but folks like Michael Braungart of Cradle to Cradle fame are imagining a different path.
There are many ways to look at this issue but the first step is understanding the scale of problem we are dealing with. The environmental impact of our consumption is staggering, but rather than bury you in the raw data on our depletion of global resources and our poisoning of the planetary ecosystem, I will simply point to some of Chris Jordan’s photographs- among the most effective means of communicating the terrifying scale of our impact that I have seen anywhere. I’ve posted these before on this blog, and if you have visited the offices of Urban Green you’ll see some of these hanging on the walls.
Again- the above looks like colored pixels but is actually a composite of 38,000 shipping containers- the number that move through U.S. ports every 12 hours.
It’s clear, I think, just from looking at these images that something has to give. The planet simply can’t produce enough precious metals, fossil fuels, wood pulp and other raw materials to sustain this wild orgy of consumption. If the photographs aren’t compelling I recommend you spend a few minutes with Annie Leonard’s short movie, The Story of Stuff.
So what do we do? Those of us that care about this subject spend most of our time getting people to use less- a simple message of conservation. It’s a natural response to the problem of over-consumption- but maybe there’s another way to frame the problem. As William McDonough (co-author of Cradle to Cradle) has said, being “more efficient” with resources is like a driver whose destination is Mexico finding that he is heading north toward Canada and responding by driving slower. You haven’t really corrected the fundamental problem. You need to turn the car around, 180 degrees.
In terms of our material cycle this would mean rethinking what we mean by “resources” instead of simply displacing a small percentage of raw materials with down-cycled product waste. (The classic example here is turning copy paper into newsprint and newsprint into cardboard and . . . . cardboard into landfill waste. You’ve spared using raw wood pulp twice, which is great, but that is all.) In nature, these questions have been answered. Millions of years of evolution has produced almost perfectly balanced ecosystems in which all waste is essentially food for the rest of the system. A tree falls in the forest. Whether anyone hears it or not, it is now food. The tree is not sent to a landfill. It is not shredded into 10,000 tiny pieces and distributed around the globe so that it is unrecoverable as a nutrient.
Along these lines, Michael Braungart has an article on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website encouraging us to treat CO2 emissions, that bogeyman of global warming, as a valuable resource. Now, the message from Braungart isn’t that we shouldn’t be trying to curtail our CO2 emissions- but that in the absence of federal and global leadership in this arena there is no reason we shouldn’t be finding ways to encourage industry to use those emissions. And there are uses for CO2. Examples Braungart provides include industrial greenhouse agriculture that introduces huge quantities of CO2 as a nutrient for plants, and similar applications of CO2 to support the growth of algae for biofuels. As our political system remains ineffective in the face of such a complicated set of problems, reorienting our thinking along the lines promoted by McDonough and Braungart might be just what is required.
Greenbuild kicked off on Wednesday with a great welcome from San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee and an inspiring presentation about the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools. Arguing that “where we learn matters,” Geraud Darnis (President & CEO, UTC Climate, Controls & Security, and Urban Green 2012 Gala Honoree) and Rachel Gutter (Director, Center for Green Schools at USGBC) spoke about the educational and social benefits of healthy schools. We worry about what our children eat and what they watch on television, but we often neglect to think about the buildings in which they learn. The Center for Green Schools is trying to change that. In New York, Urban Green Council’s Emerging Professionals have been involved in sustainability-focused curriculum development at a Manhattan green school under the GELL program, so we’re well aware of the benefits of this type of work.
No presentation about green schools is complete though without a video of adorable children in day-lit classrooms. Gutter obliged and, by the end of the video, the audience at the Opening Plenary seemed fully convinced by the tiny voices that told us ”where I learn matters.” Now with a young child of my own, those cute little kids totally got me – I was ready to to run out of the conference hall and get to work designing and building a great green school for every child everywhere!
That sentiment would have to wait though, because Rick Fedrizzi was next. I’ve heard USGBC President and CEO Fedrizzi speak on several occasions, and even had a chance to chat with him at Urban Green’s Gala. Had he not founded USGBC, he could have been a motivational speaker. Fedrizzi’s talks are often inspirational, but this speech at Greenbuild was one of the most rousing I’ve seen. He seemed fired up and ready to go in a new way. Fedrizzi called on the green building community to collaborate more with other groups and to talk not just to each other, but also to those outside of our circle. Here I was reminded of Urban Green’s conference, Cooling on Climate Change. This concept was exactly what we were arguing there; panelists spoke about climate change messaging and how to better communicate with those concerned about carbon pollution versus those indifferent about mitigating or adapting to a changing climate.
Fedrizzi linked the green building movement to social justice campaigns from women’s suffrage and civil rights to today’s gay rights and marriage equality efforts, all of which required hard work, lots of discussion, and time. Like these movements, widespread acceptance of healthy and sustainable building is not a question of if but of when. The USGBC leader argued for collaboration and, referencing Majora Carter’s sentiment about improving one’s neighborhood, stated “you don’t have to leave this country to build a better one.”
That’s good news and it’s up to us to make the change we want to see. As we learned at Cooling on Climate Change, to do so requires that we speak about the issues we are concerned about to a variety of audiences. Fedrizzi also reminded us that our mission (healthy buildings, neighborhoods, and cities) is not only a just cause, but also supports a strong economy and offers a sound business case. He called on us to get to the hard work of reaching out and making green building standard building and left us with this mantra to remind us why we are working so hard: “We are right.”
The Staff and Board of Directors at Urban Green Council wish you and your families the best during this trying time in the tri-state area. We know many of you have been without power in your homes and offices since the storm hit, and some have suffered far worse.
Among other things, this storm has left us at Urban Green thinking about how personally buildings affect our lives. We have also been considering, from the range of issues we tackle as an organization, what the right emphasis is to place on maintaining the habitability of buildings during a major infrastructure failure. The NYC Green Codes Task Force struggled with this question back in 2008 when it was somewhat in the realm of the hypothetical. The consensus on the Task Force at that time was that it didn’t make sense to impose any major requirements on buildings to improve their resilience.
We recommended fairly limited code changes like requiring toilets and sinks to be able to operate in a blackout, water tanks to be retained in buildings that already had them, and that protective measures be taken for hazardous materials stored in flood zones. One significant exception is that we proposed flood maps be based on projected future flooding that takes into account climate change instead of historical flooding. In an article published in the Gotham Gazette on Monday, advocacy director Cecil Scheib and I discuss the challenge of addressing building resilience through public and private efforts, but it’s an uphill battle.
It’s breathtaking to witness the destructive scenario now unfolding in lower Manhattan. Countless high-rise buildings have been rendered inoperable due to the power outage now in its fourth day. For most of these buildings, especially public housing, this means there has been no water to flush toilets unless it was carried upstairs by hand, no water to wash dishes, and no water for showers. And it’s dark. New buildings are required to include backup generators for elevators and water. In light of Sandy, we (and many others) will be thinking hard about potential new requirements for existing building stock.
Was Sandy climate change in action? The technical answer is that no particular weather event can be ascribed to climate change, but the increased frequency of extreme weather events has been predicted by climate scientists for years. Governor Cuomo nailed the general sentiment with his comment this week: “We have a 100-year flood every two years now.” About the only good thing that can be said about Sandy is that it may prompt more serious discussion about climate change.
This terrible storm is a good reminder of the critical importance of the work of the green building movement and Urban Green Council. We are hoping to minimize the number of storms like Sandy through our efforts to reduce carbon pollution, but we nevertheless need to prepare and adapt for more of them in the future. If you are interested in volunteer opportunities to help in the aftermath of this storm please visit NYC Service.
Please note that our office in lower Manhattan remains closed until power and access is restored but most of the staff remain available via email. Again, we hope this message finds you safe, and we look forward to working with you on the many lessons to be learned from Sandy.
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