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!
In the last several years, NYC has stepped up as a national leader in the use of green infrastructure. A multi-agency effort led by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), smarter (and more cost-effective) stormwater management keeps runoff out of overwhelmed city sewers and helps reduce the overflows that regularly plague all five boroughs.
DEP’s technical guidelines allow for two compliance paths: slow-release methods (such as subsurface vaults and blue roofs) or volume-reducing green infrastructure practices (including rain gardens, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting) – or a combination of two approaches. (Although DEP’s current guidelines don’t address permeable pavement, a new city law requires DOT and DEP to develop recommendations on that topic.)
So why should property owners choose the greener path to compliance? Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a report, The Green Edge: How Commercial Property Investment in Green Infrastructure Creates Value, detailing a wide range of benefits that green infrastructure can provide to commercial property owners and their tenants:
• Increased rents and property values
• Increased retail sales
• Energy savings
• Local financial incentives (such as tax credits, rebates, and stormwater fee credits)
• Reduced infrastructure costs
• Reduced flood damage
• Reduced water bills
• Increased health and job satisfaction for office employees
• Reduced crime
Real dollar values can be put on many of these benefits:
On any given property, these benefits can add up to big money over the long-run. The Green Edge includes three examples that show the potential cumulative value of a suite of green infrastructure retrofits to the owners and tenants of medium-sized office buildings, midrise apartment buildings and retail centers. In both the office building and apartment building examples, the total present value of benefits approaches $2 million over 40 years; for the retail center, benefits exceed $24 million, including nearly $23 million of increased retail sales for tenants.
So when it comes to stormwater compliance in NYC, why not invest your compliance dollars in ways that create value, instead of just adding to the cost side of the ledger? Green infrastructure can actually make the difference in having a project pencil out, as illustrated by this case study in the Jan/Feb. issue of Urban Land. In other instances, lower life-cycle costs can be compelling.
In virtually every case, though, putting your stormwater management dollars towards “gray” infrastructure, rather than green, carries an opportunity cost of not using those dollars for something that creates real value beyond mere regulatory compliance.
This big-picture thinking about green infrastructure also applies to existing developed sites, where investments in retrofits can improve older properties and create value, while contributing to the city’s green infrastructure goals. Property owners should check out DEP’s incentives for green infrastructure retrofits, including a green roof tax credit, and a green infrastructure grant program.
The report doesn’t offer a single formula for calculating return on investment. But it does show why the commercial real estate industry should think broadly about the benefits of green infrastructure in order to make wise investment decisions.
So instead of asking “Why green infrastructure?” ask yourself “Why not?”
For more on this topic, see these recent articles:
Larry Levine is a senior attorney in NRDC’s Water Program. He focuses on promoting the use of green infrastructure as a sustainable solution to polluted urban runoff and raw sewage overflows.
“Show me the money.” I guess a lot of people feel that way, because the roundtable event Economics of Energy Retrofits quickly sold out, was moved to a bigger venue, and then sold out again. But once you get a room full of people together, can you explain financing to them in terms they can understand?
Greg Hale (NY Governor’s Office) and Susan Leeds (New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation) tried mightily. They are seasoned veterans and hold senior positions in key institutions, but both found it hard to describe how money gets from bank coffers into project budgets without using terms like “securitization” and “back leveraging.” (I checked, but no, it’s not a yoga pose.)
Maybe understanding the deeper financial machinations isn’t the point, though. The real problem is that the largest barrier to energy efficiency financing is complexity (or as Leeds puts it, “perceived complexity”; maybe people are making it worse than it has to be, although I perceived it as pretty complex myself). To get the gears of energy efficiency loans turning, we’ve got to make it seem easy, normal, and routine. Since energy efficiency is solid business, it should be the darling of private markets, right? Nevertheless, for now, there’s a role for government and nonprofit lenders in the process. By showing how it’s done, again and again, they can prove the concept and make it commonplace. Then the private sector will (hopefully) take it from there, says Leeds.
Moderator Rory Christian (Environmental Defense Fund) wanted to get a better handle on New York’s Green Bank, a state-sponsored investment fund. Hale explained in clear terms the visionary thinking behind this new institution. Traditionally, 80% of state incentive programs have been spent on one-time projects. Hale said that the state’s goal with Green Bank is to “migrate away from a perpetual incentive structure at ratepayer’s expense” to a sustainable financing model. The state gets much more leverage from loans than from one-time incentives, since the funds are returned to be loaned again.
Hale was honest about his initial doubts that NYSERDA, sometimes noted for its bureaucracy, could make the Bank work. But he says the authority has “embraced the Bank, and senior management is working hard to make it happen smoothly.” The Bank will take loan applications on a rolling basis, without a deadline, and Hale says that the Bank won’t operate under what he called the NYSERDA “cone of silence” – loan officers will be able to work with applicants to improve their application at every step of the process.
Unlike Green Bank, NYCEEC (now spun off from New York City government) deals directly with customers as well as other lending institutions. A growing focus is on reaching owners, especially co-ops and condos, when they are financing other building improvements and engaging with lenders. Doing so allows energy efficiency to “tag along” on larger projects. An example is the M-PIRE loan product, offered in conjunction with Fannie Mae. “We can do a lot, but we have to focus on the capital event in the building,” Leeds said. That’s code for “they’re doing a renovation already” but I’ve heard that from my friends on co-op boards, too. And she had the most reassuring words of the whole event: “If you have a project, bring it to us.” How simple is that?
Ultimately, the whole point of Green Bank and NYCEEC is to overcome barriers to energy efficiency lending. As Hale noted, energy savings are not the main goal of the real estate community, so “even if it makes financial sense, it’s a distraction.” He mentioned other barriers to improvements, including working with co-op boards, split incentives between landlords and tenants, and a lack of experience with technologies like cogeneration. Do you think these new lending schemes will help? Let us know in the comments.
My grandmother had a tea cozy. Woven from wool of subdued colors (probably the only wools available), her tea stayed warm all afternoon because (wait for it…) the cozy kept the heat inside the pot!
In overheated New York City apartments, it would be great to be able to keep some heat inside steam radiators. Of course the super has to turn the heat up enough to quiet the noisier tenants in colder apartments. But once he does, most of the other apartments in the building are overheated, and “double-hung thermostats,” aka windows, are regulating temperatures by exchanging cold air for heat and wasting lots and lots of fuel. What to do?
One answer is thermostatically controlled radiator valves (TRVs). These keep the steam out of the radiator unless they sense a room temperature below an adjustable set point. They work well on hot water and two-pipe steam systems, and they’re OK on one-pipe steam if the super knows enough to keep the system steam pressure down. BUT they require plumbing work to install, the resident has to let the owner in to install the system, and given the hassle, the owner may prefer to let the residents stew in the steam. (There are owners who do not seem to be tempted by devices that pay for themselves in fuel savings in a few years – surprising numbers of them.) What can a tenant sweltering in an overheated apartment do?
Soon, urban winter heat-stroke victims, you may have an option that does not depend on the cooperation of the building owner! A New York City startup with a big idea is coming to your rescue with the radiator cozy, a device that will imprison the heat in your radiator, only releasing the modest amount needed to maintain the temperature you choose to set1. With your mobile phone!
Any technology that puts decision-making power on a comfort-inducing item completely in the hands of tenants is a game changer. If you’re overheated, you don’t have to even talk to the owner to install a radiator cozy, and in NYC rental world, that’s often a plus. But if you did, it’s hard to see what an objection could be, since you’ll be lowering demand for fuel. In fact, owners who are reluctant to bring in the professionals needed to install TRVs should consider paying for cozies themselves. At $300 each, a five-year payback2 seems easy to come by if the cozies are installed in overheated rooms with windows that are often open.
Disclaimer: Urban Green Council does not endorse companies or products, and since this product is not yet available, it would make no sense to do so even if we did. But we totally endorse the idea of better tenant control of heating systems, so please consider this a “heads up” to potential progress in this area.
My only complaint is that the developers felt they had to bad-mouth TRVs in some of their material. Since I live in an apartment that is made totally comfortable by TRVs, and has been for years, I found that set of complaints unconvincing. And they don’t need them: the cozy’s ease of installation is a very big deal. Nana would have liked it.
Note 1: The technical stuff: The cozy is an insulated box that covers the whole radiator. It has a fan that comes on when the room temperature drops below the set point, blowing air through the radiator and out, bring heat to the room. When the room warms up, the fan shuts off. Maybe it could be simpler, but I don’t see how.
Note 2: If a radiator services 300 square feet, and an NYC building uses 15 Btu/ft2-HDD, lowering demand by 10% will save 2.2 million Btu of fuel, worth about $65 at $4.00 per gallon. That’s less than a five-year payback. But will it save 10%? The developer says “up to 30%,” but we all know what “up to” means. If they are only installed in overheated rooms with presently open windows, I think 10% (for that radiator, not the system) is a pretty sure bet.
OK, it’s not exactly the Olympics. But for those of you keeping score at home, the New York League of Conservation Voters recently released a scorecard that tracks the votes of NYC Council members on 17 environmental bills from 2012-2013.
Five of those bills* were recommendations of the NYC Green Codes and Building Resiliency Task Forces. While of course I’m incredibly proud of the work of the hundreds of experts and community members who worked on giving strong legislative proposals to the Mayor and Speaker, let’s also give credit where credit is due: all five were enacted unanimously by the Council, a performance worthy of a gold medal.
It’s an encouraging reminder of the widespread support enjoyed by green building and resiliency. And there’s more good news – many of the bills’ sponsors and supporters remain on the Council. We look forward to helping them run up the score.
* Called Recycling, Biodiversity, Green Zoning, Emergency Plans, and Toxic Materials.
It may sound crazy, but I’ve actually enjoyed my bike commute during the polar vortex and other cold weather this winter. There’s less traffic, and it really makes me appreciate coming into a warm office or apartment at the end of the ride. But pedaling down Water Street before dawn, with the vestiges of Superstorm Sandy lurking in the rear view mirror, a thought keeps coming back: what if there was a another blackout and I didn’t have a warm place to go?
Baby It’s Cold Inside, an Urban Green study released today, answers this question. In a blackout, typical buildings would get cold fast. During a weeklong winter power outage, typical buildings would be between 32°F and 43°F indoors. Some would freeze. New buildings are a little better, but still not resilient.
This is a real problem: the Building Resiliency Task Force found that NYC has had seven blackouts in just the last 10 years. We didn’t have really severe temperatures right after Sandy, but our luck may not hold forever. And since we all depend on electricity for heating (even gas- or oil-fired systems can’t operate without it), one incident can instantly cause whole sections of the city to become uninhabitable.
It’s a different story when buildings are designed for daylight and views and include well-insulated solid walls, triple-paned windows, and air sealing to minimize drafts. Without power, these high-performing buildings would stay at 54-66°F in winter for a week or more.
We don’t have enough shelters for the whole city if there’s a multi-day power failure. The difference between 60°F and 40°F indoors isn’t just about comfort, it’s about safety. Two hours at 54°F raises blood pressure and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, and below 41°F hypothermia is a significant risk.
Interestingly, despite today’s cold temperatures, some of the press coverage for the study focuses on summer overheating in glass buildings. The full story is quite a bit broader. All buildings, including those with a lot of glass, can benefit from high-performing features. The story wasn’t meant to be divisive, since the opportunity to improve their insulation and air sealing is something all building types share.
Some people can afford this resilient construction more than others. But everyone deserves the protection of a resilient building. This is true not just in NYC, but any place where it gets hot or cold. We have many tools to make this happen: building codes, a focus from city government, NYSERDA grants, energy-aligned clauses in leases, and energy-efficient mortgages. And these improvements often pay for themselves, so we can much better prepared while saving energy and money. High-performing buildings need to become the new normal.
“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.
In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, “far too many gas stations had plenty of gas, but had no power to pump it out,” says Senator Charles E. Schumer. That’s why the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force recommended gas stations install generators or be pre-wired to accept temporary ones, in order to stay operational during a blackout. Now, New York Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have announced $5.1 million in federal funds to help gas stations install backup power generators.
But Senator Gillibrand says it’s not enough: “As we learn the lessons of the storm, we must develop a national, storm-resilient strategy to ensure that communities from the Rockaways to Long Beach are armed with innovative practices to protect New York from future disasters.” Since buildings can’t store enough heating fuel to stay warm during an extended blackout – and since gas and oil heating systems probably won’t work during a blackout anyway – a good start would be making building envelopes more resilient with better windows, insulation, and air-sealing.
It’s encouraging to see federal money being put towards this use, as well as the support it’s getting from New York’s top pols. Only one thing has been left out of the state law that requires gas stations to be prepared for blackouts. The Task Force proposal recommended that onsite emergency generators be fueled by one of the motor fuels dispensed by the station, whereas the state law would allow a diesel generator to be installed at a gas station that doesn’t pump diesel. Oops! Hopefully gas station owners will avoid this obvious pitfall while complying with the law.
Charles Dickens may have written A Tale of Two Cities, but Mayor Bill de Blasio has famously made the term his own. Superstorm Research Lab extends his language – and his message – in A Tale of Two Sandys, a nuanced analysis of how the storm affected New Yorkers. They find that while Sandy was a standalone event that affected everyone, rich and poor, it was also a magnifying glass, amplifying pre-existing disparities among neighborhoods and individuals.
One poignant example from the paper: when housing was provided for those displaced by Sandy, homeless people weren’t eligible – they didn’t have evidence of storm damage to their homes! But Superstorm Research Lab says being fair can be tricky, since the boundary between “equality” and “equity” is fuzzy. The paper quotes a university administrator tasked with providing food to community members in a neighborhood without power post-Sandy:
“This guy says, ‘I really think you should plan to bring food to the people in outlying areas.’ So I said to him, ‘Well, where do you live?’ He said, ‘I live in the Bronx.’ And I said, ‘But you had power in the Bronx. Why…why would we have brought you food?’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s just fair. If the people down here are getting food, why wouldn’t we?’”
The report references Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE (and who facilitated at the Talking Transition event co-led by Urban Green on Sustainable, Healthy, and Resilient Construction), saying “poor people of color were disproportionately affected by the direct and indirect impacts of Sandy and need to take leadership, not just in building a community-wide movement, but also in pushing the U.S. climate movement in general to be more diverse.” That makes a lot of sense – in the end, neither rich, poor, nor any group will escape climate change, though the consequences may be more heavily borne by those of lesser means.
“Climate change is now in the city’s DNA,” says an NYC government disaster relief officer quoted in the report. Maybe, maybe not, because researchers found that a change in beliefs doesn’t necessarily entail changes in behavior: “…for the most part, people who were already concerned about climate change continued to be so, and those who were not, continued not to be even if they were persuaded that climate change played a role in the storm. Careful attention to the problem was largely restricted to government actors and other policy experts.” So the people who may be most affected by upcoming problems are not necessarily being included in finding solutions.
Some of the recommendations of the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force would cut carbon pollution, make buildings more resilient, and save money (gas-burning micro-cogen is a great example). Those who can take these steps to address both climate change mitigation and adaption help themselves as well as future generations, even if public engagement on climate change is spotty. New York City becomes more prepared for the future even if only some people take action now. It may not be complete equity, but it’s an important start.
Long in the making, New York City’s updated building code was enacted just before the final buzzer on December 30, 2013. While the bill was over 2,400 pages long, there’s an easily overlooked provision (literally, a footnote) that will help NYC reduce its carbon emissions from concrete.
Cement, a key ingredient of concrete, produces its own weight in CO2 and is a giant contributor to global warming. It helps if concrete incorporates recycled ingredients in place of new cement, but there’s a limit set by the building code. The new code will increase by 40% the amount of fly ash or other recycled materials allowed in concrete exposed to de-icing chemicals (like sidewalks). This was recommended by the Green Codes Task Force as “Reduce CO2 Emissions From Specialized Concrete”.
This means concrete with the same strength but less carbon pollution. The next step: getting the 50,000 cubic yards of concrete used each year subject to this law to increase their recycled content.
Congrats to the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and Department of Buildings for completing this triennial building code update. We look forward to more sustainable sidewalks along with the many other benefits of the new code!
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