Sustainability in NYC Buildings, Avenue 8

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Local Law 97 – recently enacted legislation that tackles emissions from NYC’s largest carbon emitting sector – is big news. Local Law 97 is a first-of-its-kind legislation enacted as part of New York City’s 2019 Climate Mobilization Act that caps carbon emissions that large buildings can release each year without paying a penalty. The carbon emissions limits take effect in 2024 and become increasingly stringent thereafter. Buildings over 25,000 square feet must comply, although there are some exceptions. Buildings currently have three ways to comply: (1) invest in energy efficiency or use clean distributed generation for a portion of their energy needs to avoid exceeding the emissions caps, (2) purchase renewable energy credits or greenhouse gas offsets, and (3) pay a penalty to cover their excess emissions. 

Passive House can help buildings achieve their Local Law 97 emissions limits. Passive House is an energy performance standard for buildings. The core principle is a high-quality building enclosure that relies on climate-specific insulation, thermal bridge-free details, air-tightness, high performing windows, and fresh air ventilation with energy recovery. The standard uses three simple metrics – Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of 38kBtu/yr/sf or less, heating and cooling demand of 4.75 kBtu/yr/sf or less, and air changes of 0.6 ACH50 per hour or less – that helps professionals achieve healthy, resilient, and energy-efficient buildings.  

Electrification of both New York’s buildings and grid is the future. In the United States, over 40% of electricity is currently generated using zero-carbon fuels from renewables while the rest is generated by burning fossil fuels which emits carbon dioxide that is warming our climate and leading to devastating health and socioeconomic consequences. By choosing to electrify and ensuring that electricity is generated from zero-carbon fuels, we can help prevent the worst effects of climate change, reduce air and water pollution, and accelerate the transition to a clean energy future. And there is political support from both the City and State for electrification of our buildings and the grid. New York State passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) in 2019 which commits to 100% zero-emissions electricity by 2040. Meanwhile, the New York City Council passed legislation in December 2021 to phase fossil fuels out of new construction starting in 2024. 

Passive House has created a certification to align with electrification trends. The Passive House Institute has developed a certification for houses including renewable energy production, which is important since renewables will play an important part to lower the carbon emissions from the building sector. Depending on the certification the building has to produce renewable energy on site with a threshold of 10.8 kBtu/yr/sfbuilding footprint The renewable energy standard encourages the industry to include energy production to the point where the building is a net positive energy building and no longer a consumer of energy. With the integration of renewable energy into buildings, energy storage such as batteries becomes an important technology to capture the renewable energy when it is generated. Because renewable energy from solar or wind for example might not be available during peak energy demand the storage of energy in buildings or on a larger scale will become an important factor in the transition away from fossil fuels. 

Operational versus embodied carbon. Another trend I am seeing in the Passive House world is more focused on the embodied carbon of the materials used to construct our buildings. Traditionally Passive House deals with the operational energy and resulting carbon emissions. Since most of the embodied carbon emissions are released during the construction of a building it will become more important to reduce the overall carbon emissions.

Indoor air quality is a priority. The pandemic has triggered a massive shift in how we live our lives. Masks are now as common of an accessory as house keys while Zoom meetings are now more popular than phone calls. As corporations roll out their return to office plans, there is a clear interest in prioritizing safe and healthy buildings by improving indoor air quality oftentimes at the expense of energy efficiency (e.g., bringing in 100% outdoor air requires stronger filters to clean the air and additional heating and cooling to adjust its temperature). Energy recovery can drastically lower the energy expanse associated with fresh air ventilation and is recommended for any high performance building. The clear preference to improve indoor air quality highlights the need to educate corporations and building owners on the best approaches for achieving the desired air quality levels in an energy- and cost-conscious way.  

The rise of ESG goals is moving the commercial sector towards decarbonization. Over 90% of investors say that non-financial performance played a role in their investment decisions over the past 12 months, 71% of job seekers prefer to work for environmentally sustainable companies; and 54% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable goods. As a result, companies that want to attract and retain the highest talent must set meaningful and reachable ESG goals with a defined path to achieve those goals. And these ESG goals are beginning to incorporate building level emissions targets, especially with the implementation of Local Law 97 on the horizon. 

Training to support relevant stakeholders is necessary to achieve decarbonization. There are a variety of stakeholders that impact the efficiency of a building from building owners to residents, corporations, brokers, leasing lawyers, architects, and engineers. All of these stakeholders must be armed with the appropriate resources to drive decarbonization. For example, brokers should receive trainings that enable them to better explain the features of high performing buildings and provide guidance to their clients on a building’s sustainability features while consultants must be trained on how to design and operate efficient buildings. We all play a role in reducing the carbon footprint from our buildings, and together, we can decarbonize our building stock which in turn will help solve the climate crisis we are facing.