New York City recently passed new ordinances and progressive legislation to improve the safety and carbon footprint of more than 1 million buildings in the five boroughs. I have 1200 words. Let’s make them useful.
Unfortunately, building safety legislation in New York is reactive. New York City’s Façade Inspection and Safety Program (FISP) began in 1980 following the death of Grace Gold, a Barnard College student, when a piece of masonry spalled and struck her. Since then, any building over 6 stories requires routine façade (exterior wall) inspections. Updates in 1998 required hands-on inspections, mandated repairs, and staggered filing deadlines. A qualified exterior wall inspector, or QEWI, classifies the building as Safe, Unsafe, or Safe with Repair and Maintenance Program (SWARMP). Unsafe and SWARMP classifications are the predominant reasons you see so many sidewalk bridges on city streets.
Despite these efforts, New York continues to experience critical exterior wall failures. In the past decade, over a dozen people have died as a result of objects falling from buildings. The city recently responded by increasing requirements to include inspection(s) on all street-facing facades, probes for certain wall types, and stringent qualifications for inspectors.
120 Broadway, formerly the Equitable Building, was built in 1915 in the financial district, and is the reason why modern building code exists. Previously, filing a report with the Department of Buildings (DOB) required one continuous inspection, from the sidewalk to the roof, via scaffold on one façade. Following the new ordinance, inspections are now required on each of the four street facing facades. Due to the length of exposure to pedestrians, a total of 18 scaffold drops are now required to file a report. For comparison, none of the building’s formerly filed repair campaigns included 18 scaffold drops.
Building owners often ask why no one in real estate is “stepping up” and telling the city that such requirements are not feasible. The truth of the matter, however, lies in that no one is willing to tell the city they are being too cautious with pedestrian safety, especially regarding falling building debris.
This also creates precedent for substantial upgrades to required inspections for existing buildings. Specifically, for NYC’s LL86 regarding building commissioning and energy usage.
Until now, New York City relied on the city’s elevated energy code. Energy code designates minimum efficiency requirements of systems like electricity, gas usage, water usage, and air flow. Therefore, a building under construction “meeting” energy code requirements, by definition, is the least efficient building that is allowed to be constructed by law. Recently, under the city’s Climate Mobilization Act, new laws were enacted to address a more concrete metric, Carbon Emissions. The OneNYC program aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050. The new local laws LL92, LL94, and LL97, represent the bureaucratic infrastructure to achieve this goal.
LL97 is the first legislation to cap and fine carbon emissions above a designated tonnage. Any overages are fined per SF, targeting large commercial office buildings. For example, the corporate monoliths of Bryant Park are marquee examples of “building efficiency,” among them the first certified LEED Platinum skyscrapers in the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, due to their 24/7 operations, global trading, and absurd number of computer monitors, these buildings are among the largest carbon emitters in the city. Energy code compliance dictates appropriate levels of energy efficiency, while LL97 dictates appropriate levels of energy usage. It doesn’t matter if you drive a hybrid or a hummer, if you run the car 24/7 you are going to pollute. LL97 attempts to address this distinction.
DIRECTLY TRANSFERABLE & RENEWABLES
One issue in LL97 that leaves many scratching their heads is “Directly Transferable renewable energy.” The primary option proposed to offset carbon limits lacks any explicit definition. The purpose of this language is to promote investment of renewables within the state of New York. California touts similar renewable energy credits for building owners, but does not include a constraint on direct connection. This results in Google’s HQ purchasing an exorbitant amount of renewable energy in the cheaper, not quite neighboring state of North Carolina. The DOB has yet to provide limits to the range of direct transference, but it’s clear that wires are likely not the answer. Many believe the direct transference stipulation is a strategy to advance battery technology and distribution as a new “energy commodity” in the coming era of renewable energy. Electricity transferred via wire from a solar farm on Long Island to the Bronx is not considered a direct connection. However, a truckload of lithium ion batteries from a hydroelectric plant in Buffalo is directly transferable.
LL92 and LL94 require all newly constructed roofs, or replacement roof decks to establish Sustainable Roofing Zones with either solar panels (PV) or a green roof. This bolsters the opportunity for rooftop PV investment as a means to offset CO2 emissions. It is also the clearest solution to the “directly transferable” problem. Many believe this is a long-term PR stunt to alter the image of NYC a la the sustainable garden city. NYC buildings have very small roof plans compared to other US cities, and many buildings are shaded by their taller neighbors. These laws are less a benefit to the buildings than they are a market driver for sustainable products and green energy services. All boats rise with the tide.
95% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 already exist today. By nature, these buildings will deteriorate over time. Buildings account for 39% of carbon emissions and 70% of the electricity load in the United States. Progressive legislation elevate standards for safety, thermal performance, and energy consumption as we aim to minimize bystander injury and carbon emissions. However, these standards provide less definitive guidelines for retrofit strategies; requiring emergent properties not readily available in the current market. New products, services, and markets are forming as the new wave of legislation approaches. Efficiency demands engagement. We must replace zero-sum thinking with win-win scenarios centered on a shared mission. This will not be easy, but there is money to be made, and more importantly, lives to be saved.
The hot innovation market today is autonomous cars; the number, scope, and interconnection of sensors and processors is astounding. There is no reason this same technology can’t be applied to building operations and systems. Passive daylighting, predictive analytics, and adaptive resource allocation are the tip of the iceberg in a largely unexplored field; there are countless possibilities regarding these existing technologies.
We are facing existential threats, and the city has provided the sense of urgency needed to kick the markets into high gear. There have been countless innovations in façade systems, glass assemblies, and HVAC technology. Unfortunately, due to competitive price points and lack of precedent, many of these innovations go underutilized. This can happen no longer. We have a responsibility to build and restore New York’s illustrious landscape to be safe and sustainable for future generations.
Sustainability is often misinterpreted as a reachable “finish line,” or steady state, accomplished along a smooth trajectory of piecemeal investments and initiatives. In reality, it is a fundamental characteristic of a dynamic, evolving system requiring continuous adaptation to changing conditions. I hope by identifying the goals of the city, and the aspirations of developers and design professionals, we can better deliberate and define our decisions and ambitions. Our problem is not impotence; it is complacency. I hope this vision can guide the culture and provide a framework for consistent decision making, eliminating the uncertainties and anxieties of development and design.
Photos by Author