NYC begins hard, long slog to energy efficiency

First in an occasional series on the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.

NEW YORK -- Rising from the shopping and dining district just south of Columbus Circle, Hearst Tower is famous as one of this city's best known architectural anomalies.

The first skyscraper project to break ground after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 46-story glass and steel polygon rises from within the facade of the original 1928 Hearst Corp. headquarters. This coupling of old and new is deliberate, to appease the city's historic preservation authorities while still consolidating the company's scattered offices into a centralized location.

Less famously, Hearst Tower has also earned the title of the city's first green building. The latticework framing required 20 percent less steel than a conventionally designed high-rise, and its use of energy efficiency innovations and recycled materials earned its developers a Gold rating by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the first such rating awarded to any commercial property in the city.

Michael Wurzel, who served as chief architect of the project, says his U.K. firm, Foster + Partners, was so pleased with the result that it accepted Hearst's invitation to set up its U.S. offices in the building. He said the biggest challenge in designing the high-rise came from overcoming historical preservation concerns. Green building codes were virtually nonexistent at the time.

"You had to comply with the New York energy code, which back then wasn't particularly challenging," said Wurzel during a recent building tour. "In fact, it was very easy to meet."

But since Wurzel's creation opened its doors seven years ago, the city government has quickly moved to adopt tighter energy efficiency requirements for new construction, and green building has become the rule here rather than the exception. City officials are more troubled now with the question of how to get existing structures to follow suit in a way that does not raise the ire of property owners.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find any new major building going up in New York that isn't LEED certified," said Russell Unger, executive director at the U.S. Green Building Council's New York branch. "The challenge was and always will be all the existing buildings."

Having successfully moved new construction projects to the eco-friendly side of the equation with relative ease, officials are now grappling with a far more difficult challenge -- upgrading thousands of existing buildings to stop wasting electricity and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Experts estimate that at least 85 percent of buildings now standing will still be in use in the next 20 years, including very old structures that consume large volumes of electricity and are riddled with poor insulation and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.


"The real target is how do you ensure there are ongoing efficiency improvements in existing buildings, which could be in operations, which could be in retrofits, or could be in the smaller-scale things that sometimes fall in between," said Rohit Aggarwala, director of the mayor's office for long-term planning and sustainability.

'A really big agenda'

Last December, the City Council got things moving with its adoption of four bills aimed at revamping codes governing retrofits for commercial buildings. But much less publicly, council members and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office are now slowly working their way through 111 individual recommendations for code and zoning reform finalized just last month.

Officials at the mayor's office say that the time of flashy announcements of new green initiatives, like the "Greener, Greater Buildings" plan announced on Earth Day last year, is now over. From here on out, they say, will be grunt work as lawmakers and bureaucrats meticulously review city codes -- including not only construction and renovation but even fire and safety codes -- and determine which of the 100-plus proposals to incorporate, tweak or drop altogether.

This list, assembled by a "green codes task force," is nothing less than a blueprint for a slow, quiet, decades-long process to meet city goals for steep cuts in energy consumption and waste by 2030.

"Now we are starting the process, again with the City Council, to go through all these recommendations and figure out how many we can really move on quickly, what the implementation path is," Aggarwala said in an interview. "This is a really big agenda that will take a long time to work through."

Following 18 months of intense back-and-forth with industry, city lawyers and the general public, the green codes task force delivered its final report to Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn last February with little of the fanfare that accompanied other major announcements, such as tree planting targets and a stalled push to convert the city's entire taxicab fleet to fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. But the tedious code revisions envisioned by its report could add up to far greater changes to the city's infrastructure over the next two decades than the four major bills passed in December, task force members say.

Though many of the suggested changes to codes are compelling, others are seemingly mundane or confusing to the layperson.

For instance, the task force recommends that the city revamp fire and safety codes to require less emergency lighting, thereby reducing the required battery size and cutting back on the eventual waste when they are thrown out. Another proposal would require that all doors that open to public stairwells have windows to encourage more people to forgo elevators. Another recommendation aims to use health codes to tackle emissions from carpeting.

Other proposals are right along the lines of the larger green movement's vision for the city. In one example, the task force says solar panels should be exempt from codes that limit how much of a building's rooftop can be covered. It asks that solar equipment and wind turbines also be exempted from reviews by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Zoning regulations should also be weakened to allow alternative and distributive energy equipment to qualify as "permitted obstructions," thereby reducing the red tape involved in getting such technology installed.

The task force is adamant that working in new environmentally friendly ordinances through the city's codes and zoning rules is a more effective approach than simply requiring property owners to adopt LEED practices for new and existing buildings, a step taken by other jurisdictions. The City Council and mayor's office say they are in agreement on this point.

"Greening the codes has significant advantages over mandating LEED for the private sector," task force members say in a summary. "Codes create economies of scale in both expertise and materials, thereby lowering costs. Codes are also enforceable and they build on existing institutions and industry practices."

Lawsuits expected

Still, many of the 111 proposed code revisions seem destined to spark legal challenges should the city try to get them in the books.

For example, the task force would like the city to mandate key-controlled or master-switch lighting for all hotel rooms, equipment that would automatically turn off lights when a room is unoccupied. It also proposes banning retailers from keeping on lights in closed stores, something they do now to deter burglars.

Bloomberg and the City Council have already suffered legal setbacks to other initiatives meant to curb waste and pollution. Two years ago, a federal judge threw out an ordinance aimed at converting all of the city's famous yellow cabs to hybrid gasoline-and-electric vehicles, though Aggarwala says the mayor's office is working to get Congress to pass a law authorizing New York City to regulate the fuel economy of taxis. And a sweeping electronic-waste recycling program faces an uncertain future as the city was brought to the bargaining table with industry following a lawsuit.

Unger, one of the principal members of the green codes task force, says the vast majority of the proposals spelled out in its lengthy report are not complicated or controversial. The task force report is not a blueprint for new heavy-handed regulation but rather a call for city administrators to move quickly in the direction they are already taking, he said.

"What [the report] aims to do is really address the many things we've been talking about and scale a green building, take the things that make the most sense, are the most cost-effective and reduce barriers to green building and get those into building codes," Unger said.

But despite the sweeping nature of the recommendations, the city's expectations for what can be achieved through code reform are modest. The mayor's office said it believes code reform, including the new retrofits bills signed into law last year, will eventually cut the city's aggregate greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent by 2030.

Wurzel, who also keeps busy reworking older buildings to more modern standards, believes that is too modest. His team expected that the Hearst Tower would perform at least 23 percent better than what the then-existing New York energy code required in terms of electricity consumption, and to date, the building is operating with 26 percent greater efficiency. He says similar big gains in energy savings and carbon emissions cuts could be achieved for existing buildings, given the right rules and incentives.

"I think you could do better, particularly if you combine methods like film on the glass, if you take in upgrading all the equipment, all the servicing, if you take into account maybe more efficient lighting systems," Wurzel said. "Five percent -- it certainly is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't sound like a radical step."

Meanwhile, Aggarwala said the city has no idea when a review of the task force's recommendations will be complete. The Department of Buildings is only now moving to write the rules for administering the retrofitting laws passed in December. Adoption of any new green codes or zoning ordinances via the task force's vision will likely be incremental and slip under the radar, he said.



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