Several members of the Forest Hills Green Team also serve on Queens Community Board 6. Community Boards are entitled by City law to interview developers of proposed residential projects, and pass their approval or disapproval within NYC government decision making processes. It's a great opportunity to put developers on the spot, and officially inquire how energy efficient or sustainable their proposed buildings are.
Since non-experts can only guess what the right questions are to ask, I sought advice from experts. First, here's some background.
There have recently been major changes in NYC laws governing the energy use of buildings, which accounts for the
majority of the City’s energy use. The City passed Local Law 97 in 2019 to reduce carbon emissions from buildings,
with emission caps on most buildings larger than 25,000 square feet. That will
cover about 50,000 residential and commercial properties out of over 1 million
buildings in NYC.
The law doesn't spell out exactly how each building should meet those limits. Instead, it sets emission intensity limits (metric tons of CO2 equivalent per square foot) for ten building categories. Building operators start with their energy use, which is already measured and collected through the City's energy use benchmarking law. A simple first step is training building staff on energy efficient operating procedures. Next is performing an audit of energy efficiency improvements and equipment upgrades, and carrying them out. The city’s Retrofit Accelerator is a free program for building owners who need assistance with their project.
These caps will start in 2024 and will become stricter over
time, eventually reducing emissions 80% by 2050. It is widely recognized as the
most ambitious building emissions legislation enacted by any city in the world.
And here are questions shared by Chris Halfnight, the Associate Director of Policy for Urban Green Council, that Community Board members, or any concerned citizen, can pose for any new project in NYC.
- What steps is the project team taking to reduce the carbon and general environmental footprint of this project?
- What steps is the project taking to comply with NYC’s energy code? And is the project exceeding the code in any way, i.e. being designed to be more energy efficient than required?
- How is the project designed to ensure compliance with Local Law 97 upon occupancy but also in future years when applicable carbon caps will become more stringent?
- Does the project take advantage of efficient electric heating and hot water technologies (like heat pumps), rather than relying on equipment that uses fossil fuels?
- If the project involves retrofitting an existing building, has the project team estimated the improvement in the letter grade the building will receive from DOB’s Building Energy Efficiency Rating Label? If the project is a new development, the letter grade will be difficult to estimate since the eventual grade will vary depending on the details of actual occupancy, though it still could be a question worth asking.
- Does the project include rooftop solar or a green roof to comply with NYC’s sustainable roof laws? Has the project team maximized a sustainable roof beyond what the laws require?
- Is the project pursuing any sustainability certifications, such as LEED or Passive House?
- Were project materials selected to promote a healthy indoor environment for occupants (e.g. low VOC paints and carpet)?
And here are some Urban Green resources you might find helpful:
- General Local Law 97 page
- Summary of Local Law 97
- Q&A on Local Law 97
- Estimate of the retrofit market
- What’s new in the 2020 energy code?
- NYC’s sustainable roof laws
- Summary of NYC’s electric grid
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What will these new standards mean to NYC's existing stock of residential buildings? Many of our buildings are quite old. 90% of the buildings in NYC today will still be standing in 2050. Of the roughly 50,000 buildings larger than 25,000 square feet that will have to comply with the extremely strict Local Law 97, many will be older residential buildings. Retrofitting them to never before imagined energy efficiency standards is literally an experimental project.
RetrofitNY, a program funded by the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority, is investing about $30 million in experimental projects to catalyze development of low-cost, scalable retrofit technologies.
One of their projects is Casa Pasiva, now transforming 9 aging buildings in Bushwick, Brooklyn - without tenants needing to relocate. Interior pipes, radiators and heating ducts will be removed or sealed, and a new facade on each building will cover a new all-electric heating and cooling system.
This new airtight white facade - layered up to 8 inches thick on top of the existing brick and concrete exterior - will help slash energy costs by 80%. It will consist of a barrier to prevent air flow, rigid insulation panels, stucco, and a self-cleaning finish designed to repel water by mimicking lotus leaves. The project will meet the Passive House standard.
I was not surprised to learn that the visionary architect behind the project is Ms. Chris Benedict, who I met a few years ago in the course of various environmental volunteer projects. Expect to hear more about Casa Pasiva. Now imagine it's 2030, and your apartment building has been upgraded with a new 8 inch thick exterior facade...