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!
Across New York City, hazardous chemicals and other materials are stored in spaces that aren’t floodproof – even if the building is in the flood zone. When a surge like Superstorm Sandy’s inundates storage areas, the result is “toxic soup”: contaminated floodwater that can poison both people and the environment. New buildings built to code in flood zones must address this issue, but existing buildings may still be storing hazardous materials without adequate floodproofing.
Minutes ago, the New York City Council passed Intro 1102-A to help safeguard toxic materials stored in flood zones. Under the law, based on a recommendation of the Building Resiliency Task Force that Urban Green Council managed for the city, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will:
While we may never see another Sandy, NYC will face some future disaster, and our buildings need to be prepared. This law recognizes that it’s hard enough to rebuild after floods without have to wade through a contaminated mess to do it.
Since the release of the Task Force report in June, the City Council has passed 14 of its recommendations (get full details on our Tracker). In all, 16 of 33 report proposals have been implemented. We look forward to working with Mayor-Elect de Blasio and a new administration to continue to advance building resiliency, but NYC has already taken a huge step forward. So happy holidays – and lay off the toxic soup!
In Top Gun, a young-ish Tom Cruise called bars a “target-rich environment” for his principal hobby (let’s call it “dating”). His character, the hotshot Maverick, needed to determine which bar patrons were most interesting to him, so he used some sort of benchmarking tool – probably visual inspection – to determine how his fellow revelers stacked up. Then he could use this internal benchmarking data to figure out his next step. That’s harder to do for building energy use – you can’t always tell just by looking how well a building is performing. We’ve covered many of the ins and outs of Local Law 84 benchmarking here before, and this week’s sold-out technical roundtable brought the latest thinking up for discussion.
It turns out that despite some key differences in skillsets (Maverick: flying fighter jets; intrepid energy auditors: sticking their heads in dusty ducts), energy consultants can do a little bit of what Tom Cruise did. And not all consultants are created equal: Laurie Kerr (now with the NRDC City Energy Project, and an architect of the NYC benchmarking law) said that in the first year of benchmarking, just 30 firms performed 68% of all the benchmarking.
This reduced the benchmarking task “from a million buildings to a few dozen consultants,” as Laurie put it. Looking at the data submitted by this small pool, it came to light that the energy use reported by some consultants tended to be higher than the average. Maybe something was systematically going wrong, like excluding basements from floor area calculations, which would lead to artificially high reported energy use. The city decided to circle back to these consultants in an attempt to improve their accuracy.
When the city sat down with Steven Winter Associates (SWA), there was an interesting development. Roundtable moderator Erica Brabon (SWA), said there was no surprise that the buildings her firm benchmarks had higher energy use than average – they actually specialize in buildings with bloated bills. Why? Because after the benchmarking report is filed, these energy hogs are a target-rich environment, having the most need for follow-up audits and retrofits. Like Maverick, SWA knows exactly what they’re doing.
So in this case the city’s analysis that some benchmarking scores were artificially high was not borne out by reality, but still, score one for Erica as top gun. This is important not just for SWA’s bottom line, but for the city as a whole. According to Laurie, the worst quartile of multifamily buildings are creating almost as much carbon pollution as the entire office sector! Just bringing all NYC buildings up to the current average energy intensity would mean a 20% savings citywide. Laurie thinks that NYC, like Lake Wobegon, shouldn’t stop there: she’d like to see a city where “all of our buildings are above average.”
In some areas, though, we are still trying to understand what the benchmarking data is telling us. For instance, multifamily building energy usage increased for 80 years – but it’s declining in newer buildings. On the other hand, energy usage in offices has gone steadily upwards, to the point where new buildings are now at a level 40% above buildings built before the Great Depression. There may be many reasons for this, including more glass, more ventilation, and more data centers. Portfolio Manager, the tool used to submit benchmarking scores, is supposed to adjust for some usage factors when giving commercial buildings an ENERGY STAR rating, but it clearly can’t explain all the variation. So no one yet knows for sure.
To help understand this, Laurie mentioned a hot-off-the-presses metric that might help account for the range of energy intensity found in modern office buildings. At Greenbuild, Buro Happold/Happold Consulting tried to link tenant contributions to the economy to building benchmarking scores. The more economic activity a building contains (based on the mix of tenants it houses), the more energy use you might expect, since newer, high-end office buildings often contain energy-intensive activities like trading floors and data centers. It’s a worthy addition to the conversation on how building tenants can affect energy intensity. But as Laurie pointed out, it risks being interpreted by some as meaning “a nonprofit can’t use any energy, but a bank can use a lot.” Please don’t take away my laptop!
Throughout the audience discussion it was clear that we are at the beginning of new era of “big data” for buildings. Our tools are far from perfect – but are good enough to get started. While EPA and DOE have work to do to improve our tracking and reporting systems, Laurie says “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” The best of benchmarking is still to come.
This post was edited on December 19, 2013 to better describe the Buro Happold study.
Urban Green is eligible to receive nearly $600,000 from NYSERDA over the next two years to offset training costs for 2,700 students across New York State. GPRO courses will be discounted by 70% in 2014 and 60% in 2015.
With this funding, we will train 550 building operators to improve building efficiency and reduce waste; we will show 865 property managers and 670 construction managers how to improve indoor air quality and prevent pollution; we will teach 212 HVACR technicians about the role of mechanical systems in green building; and we will help 340 plumbers and 80 subcontractors understand how their direct actions on job sites affect the sustainability of the projects they are working on.
These workers will create healthier, more sustainable, and energy-efficient buildings across the state, in addition to increasing their job marketability due to growing demands for green building.
First come first served! If your company or organization is interested in offering discounted GPRO training for your employees, please let us know as soon as possible by contacting Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are an individual interested in GPRO training, please let us know by filling out this form, as discounted public classes will also be available.
Thirteen Building Resiliency Task Force (BRTF) proposals have already been passed by the City Council this term (you can learn more about them on our tracker). It’s impressive that the city acted so decisively after Sandy to improve the building code for both sustainability and resiliency – but it also means some new requirements that owners and building professionals must contend with. Thankfully, these laws provide new options for building design and retrofits, as several barriers to resiliency and sustainability have been removed. Last week, experts from the Task Force got together with a lively audience to discuss challenges and opportunities arising from these new laws.
Angela Sung Pinsky (Real Estate Board of New York) believes there have been changes in the way owners think about the chance of flooding, saying “in Manhattan, there has been an increased consideration of barriers in flood zones.” BRTF 5, now Local Law 109 of 2013, allows temporary flood barriers or shields (and their supports) to extend a short distance into the public right-of-way – good news for owners trying to protect their buildings. However, owners should be aware that permits for these barriers are “revocable consents”; as Angela put it, owners are essentially “renting space back” from the city. She said the city is considering a streamlined process to make these permits easier to obtain.
Though the public water system remained functional during Sandy, there was no way to get water in upper apartments in many tall buildings, because as Artie Klock (Plumbers Local Union No. 1) pointed out, “the pump is located in the cheap real estate – the basement.” So the physical damage from inrushing water created a secondary problem as people were forced to evacuate from a lack of potable water. When building water tanks ran out, buildings quickly become uninhabitable. BRTF 23, now Local Law 110 of 2013, requires that buildings over five stories have faucets available to supply water only from street pressure during emergencies. This is a retrofit requirement – within eight years, both new and existing residential buildings must install one faucet for every 100 people who live there. An audience member expressed disbelief that people would carry water upstairs from the accessible fixture – but Artie pointed out the overlap between sustainability (water savings from low-flush toilets) and resiliency (water availability to flush toilets during a power outage), saying “Carrying 1.6 gallons up the stairs to flush your toilet is a lot easier than carrying 5 gallons up.” Good point.
Jon Weiskopf (Steven Winter Associates) mentioned a sea change that happened in the city after Sandy: “The building code was designed to get people out of buildings; now we are trying to keep people in.” Instead of focusing solely on evacuation after an emergency, extended habitability has become another goal. Jon credited the Department of Buildings, Con Edison, and particularly FDNY with their creativity on the Task Force, saying they were “very active in coming up with solutions.” Some of these solutions remove barriers, including BRTF 17, now Local Law 111 of 2013, which allows natural gas to be used much more broadly for backup generators. Along with burning more cleanly and not requiring fuel deliveries, natural gas may be available when diesel fuel tanks have run dry. Jon said that since the same generator may now be used for both emergency purposes and to strategically reduce loads to save on utility bills, the new law gives “a huge range of design possibilities” for engineers.
To guard against flooding, vulnerable equipment must be moved higher in the building. BRTF 3, now Local Law 100 of 2013, requires electrical services, fire protection systems, compressed gas or hazardous material tanks, and vent piping to be located above the flood line. Paradoxically, building code provisions had prevented raising some other building systems such as fuel oil storage and telecommunications equipment. These barriers have been removed by BRTF 4, now Local Law 98 of 2013. John D’Angelo (NewYork-Presbyterian) says moving equipment out of the basement may sacrifice some more valuable real estate. Owners can’t just swap things around space-wise, since (as he put it) “no one wants to go down into a dark dank basement for high-end retail.”
Nevertheless, John saw resiliency improvements as necessary. “NYC has so many lives in such a small space, with so many interdependencies, that without resiliency we face cascading emergencies after an event.” Hopefully, as these new laws become standard practice, our city will be both greener and better prepared for emergencies to come.
A glance at the New York City skyline tells an instant story: glass is in. More windows translate into higher rents for both commercial and residential buildings, say owners and brokers. But looking up at all-glass buildings, it often seems that a lot of the blinds are closed, blocking out the beautiful cityscape.
Seduced by the View observed how people who live and work in all-glass buildings use their windows after move-in day. With help from volunteers, we took pictures of dozens of buildings and found that on average, blinds or shades covered about 59 percent of the window area. And over 75 percent of buildings had more than half of their window area covered. As the study puts it, “Tenants are moving into these rooms with a view, but more often than not, can’t see out the window.” (Read coverage of the study in today’s Daily News.)
Our results were unambiguous, but the reasons for this widespread behavior are far less obvious. My first assumption would have been that shades are pulled to stop glare. To check this, we specifically compared how much blinds were pulled on windows facing east (towards the rising sun) in the morning, and facing west (toward the setting sun) in the afternoon.
I expected that more blinds would be shut in the side of the building facing the sun’s bright rays, but that wasn’t the case. Results didn’t change based on this factor. In fact, none of the factors we observed changed the results. Window coverage was about the same regardless of the time of day, direction the window faced, and whether the building was commercial or residential.
So glare can’t be the only reason blinds are pulled. Because the study observations are so consistent, I suspect that blinds aren’t getting moved up and down much at all. My guess is that that they get pulled due to glare, for privacy, or other factors, and then just left down most of the time.
But answering the why wouldn’t change reality: for whatever reason, New Yorkers are paying for more glass and then pulling down the shades. Of course, that’s their choice. But along with whatever loss of privacy, increased noise, and uncomfortable temperatures tenants experience, the city suffers too. Because they insulate poorly compared to walls, windows waste energy and cause carbon pollution. They have lower resiliency during power outages, since the glass doesn’t hold heat in winter or keep it out in summer. And it’s not easy to harden your heart against what glass buildings do to birds, killing 90,000 annually just in NYC.
All-glass facades are a long-term problem. Twenty, thirty, or even fifty years from now, when the equipment in the building is more efficient due to replacements, the same glass windows will be there, putting a hard limit on how much the building can improve its resiliency and sustainability. Tenants have to decide if it’s worth paying this price for the views. But if the shades are down, it just doesn’t seem worth it. With good design, buildings can have great views and save energy, too. We can, and should, do better.
With up to 20% energy savings in each building – the numbers are clear. Green building operations and maintenance is helping residents, property owners, and the environment, but what about the agents of change themselves?
Victor, Resident Manager at The Whitney (311 East 38th Street), says that the training critically changed his view on buildings and health. Becoming a Green Super gave him “renewed passion to learn more” about the repetitive tasks he performs in his daily work, and turned his job into a legacy for his family and future generations. His attitude of “If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?” is much needed to address climate change mitigation and adaptation here and around the world.
Marat, Resident Manager at The Future Condominiums (200 East 32nd Street), inherited a building from another Green Super who had already made a huge impact by upgrading boilers and heat-pumps in his building. Marat completed his own projects from “no-brainer” solutions like insulating steam-pipes in boiler rooms to large-scale installation of efficient lighting, water fixtures, and PTAC (packaged terminal air conditioner) insulation in residents’ apartments. This training helped Marat find a more advanced and secure job with a larger company.
Another Green Super said, “It’s good to get likeminded people in one room, to bring awareness. It becomes a cultural change, a practical way of thinking. It’s all about taking ownership of your building.”
Green training programs are quickly improving perspective and practice in the building industry. With this fundamental drive, building operators can use GPRO Operations & Maintenance Essentials training to sharpen their technical and entrepreneurial skills, by learning how to choose and install appropriate technologies. Successfully transitioning to a more sustainable building also requires communication skills to educate property owners and residents on new practices.
The skills taught by the Green Supers training reaches beyond the superintendents to their team members and the decision-makers investing in the Supers’ proposed energy efficiency projects.
Training programs like Green Supers have unprecedented financial and environmental value – the personal and social investment are what make green building training a critical step towards a more sustainable New York.
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.
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.
© 2013 Urban Green Blog.