An energy town hall on the Upper East Side

Energy heroes? Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (Wikipedia)

Ener­gy heroes? Here in NYC: Stuyvesant Town and Peter Coop­er Vil­lage (Wikipedia)

Cana­di­an news­pa­per The Globe and Mail has revealed a vast new sus­tain­abil­i­ty plan, bud­get­ed at $7B, being pre­pared by the provin­cial gov­ern­ment of Ontar­io. The Globe and Mail quotes Kath­leen Wynn, Pre­mier:

We are on the cusp of a once-in-a-life­time trans­for­ma­tion. It’s a trans­for­ma­tion of how we look at our plan­et and the impact we have on it. It’s a trans­for­ma­tion that will forever change how we live, work, play and move.”

The Ontar­io plan includes 80 ini­tia­tives that remove fos­sil fuels from dai­ly life, and is meant to be enact­ed between 2017 and 2021.

Here in New York City, the same cli­mate sci­ence is under­stood by gov­ern­ment, and the ini­tial steps of ambi­tious plans are under­way. But work towards the goals is large­ly still build­ing by build­ing, in con­ver­sa­tions between archi­tects, own­ers, the City, and devel­op­ers. Ear­lier this year, Ang­ie Koo went to an ener­gy town hall to learn more:

Which apart­ment build­ing is more ener­gy effi­cient to heat: a com­plex designed in 1948 and built in 1961 in Peter Coop­er Village/Stuyvesant Town, with mas­ter meter­ing for heat and elec­tric­i­ty, or the Solaire, the first gold LEED-part­nered build­ing in the U.S., built in 2004?

Andy Padi­an, Founder and Pres­i­dent at Padi­an NYC Con­sult­ing, posed this ques­tion to the audi­ence at an Ener­gy Town Hall at the Lenox Hill Neigh­bor­hood House on the Upper East Side. The answer will be revealed lat­er on, and it may sur­prise you. In many ways this com­par­ison, between old and new, and tra­di­tion­al and inno­v­a­tive, framed the chal­lenges dis­cussed in the town hall itself.

The back­drop to the town hall could be summed up by May­or de Blasio’s call to arms in the “One City Built to Last” ini­tia­tive launched in 2014, which aims to reduce car­bon emis­sions 80% by 2050:

Glob­al cli­mate change is the chal­lenge of our generation…New York­ers will rise to the chal­lenge. We will build on pro­gress we have made to become more resilient to a chang­ing cli­mate and to mit­i­gate the harm­ful green­house gas emis­sions that con­tribute to cli­mate change. We are com­mit­ting to reduce our emis­sions by 80 per­cent below 2005 lev­els by 2050, mak­ing us the largest city in the world to com­mit to this goal.

The town hall event, one small front in an ongo­ing chal­lenge for the city, was mod­er­at­ed by Ken Gale, host of WBAI’s Envi­ron­men­tal show Eco-Log­ic. Guest speak­ers Padi­an and Chris Bene­dict spoke to a cap­ti­vat­ed audi­ence of about 50 local apart­ment own­ers and ten­ants about how their homes can become more ener­gy effi­cient, and in doing so, save them mon­ey. Also among the par­tic­i­pants and atten­dees was the New York City Safe Ener­gy Cam­paign (NYCSEC), pass­ing out leaflets advo­cat­ing for the clos­ing of Indi­an Point nuclear plant.

Padian’s exper­tise on build­ing sci­ence was on dis­play as he ran through what appli­ances should be retro­fitted in homes and how atten­dees should change how they inter­act with their space and tech­nol­o­gy. He points to light­ing as the most impor­tant fea­ture to mod­i­fy with­in homes, as we’ve moved from incan­des­cent to flu­o­res­cent, and now to LEDs, best of all, and which are drop­ping rapid­ly in price.

Then, the basics: our par­ents have like­ly remind­ed us a count­less num­ber of times to turn off the lights if you’re not in the room. Grow­ing up, our par­ents like­ly didn’t have access to the smart­phones with timer apps, motion sen­sors, or smart pow­er strips that add options to con­trol­ling lights and appli­ances – eas­ier, or more com­pli­cat­ed, depend­ing on your per­spec­tive. 

Padi­an remind­ed the audi­ence that tele­vi­sion cable box­es con­sume the same amount of ener­gy regard­less of whether the TV is on or off. The only way to cut this ener­gy con­sump­tion is to cut the pow­er to the cable box every time we want to turn off the TV, and a pow­er strip does the trick. And as you replace major appli­ances, choose the high­est Ener­gy Star effi­cien­cy rat­ing.

In prac­tice, mak­ing mul­ti­ple, care­ful changes to light­ing and water, replac­ing inef­fi­cient heat­ing sys­tems, air seal­ing win­dows, switch­ing from mas­ter meter­ing to sub-meter­ing, and oth­er inter­nal changes have led to sig­nif­i­cant sav­ings, reduc­tion in ener­gy con­sump­tion, and reduced vacan­cy rates in hous­ing devel­op­ments. Padi­an also remarks that the ener­gy sav­ings that could be made through the­se meth­ods would reduce reliance on the Indi­an Point nuclear plant, to the point that its oper­a­tion is may longer be nec­es­sary.

Whether our ener­gy grid should include nuclear, either from exist­ing plants or new designs, in a mix with wind and solar, is a sub­ject for a future City Atlas piece. But what­ev­er the zero car­bon solu­tion, curbing the growth in our pow­er demand is a far clean­er and more effec­tive solu­tion than attempt­ing to build more sup­ply. The cleanest, and most eco­nom­i­cal, pow­er sta­tion is the one that is not built.

Coun­cil Mem­ber Ben Kallos and Sen­a­tor Liz Krueger made brief appear­ances mid­way through the town hall, speak­ing about the alter­na­tive ener­gy devel­op­ments under­way in the city and their 80% renew­able goal by 2050 while call­ing on May­or de Bla­sio to aim for 100% renew­able. The audi­ence cheered and clapped as Kallos and Krueger men­tioned the ban on frack­ing at the state lev­el, expand­ing solar to tie into grids and cars, devel­op­ing off­shore wind in Long Island and Coney Island, and get­ting the gov­er­nor onboard with the clos­ing of Indi­an Point. They closed out with an impromp­tu ren­di­tion of “Blow­in in the Wind”, mark­ing the end of the half­time show of the town hall.

Chris Bene­dict, a prac­tic­ing archi­tect heav­i­ly involved in pas­sive hous­ing, picks up where Andy Padi­an leaves off, with a focus on the exter­nal facade of the build­ing. She aims to cre­ate a cul­ture of resilience through the syn­er­gy of man­ag­ing air, water, vapor, heat, and light.

Knickerbock Commons in Bushwick, a Passive House design (ph: EIMA)

Knicker­bock­er Com­mons in Bush­wick, Brook­lyn, is a Pas­sive House design by Chris Bene­dict (ph: EIMA)

The Pas­sive House move­ment has its roots in Illi­nois in the 1970s when sci­en­tists cre­at­ed a self-reg­u­lat­ed heat­ed home, where­by the struc­ture los­es heat in equi­lib­ri­um with the heat gen­er­at­ed by the peo­ple inside, negat­ing the need for addi­tion­al heat­ing fix­tures. The con­cept was met with lit­tle fan­fare in the States, but it was picked up in Ger­many where it was wide­ly exe­cut­ed. The move­ment then found its way back to the U.S. where it is cur­rent­ly gain­ing momen­tum and laud­ed for its ener­gy effi­cien­cy gains.

In prac­tice, Chris Bene­dict uses a method that lay­ers foam insu­la­tion over the cement blocks of a build­ing struc­ture, and then brick over the foam insu­la­tion. The­se lay­ers trap heat and pre­vent the air leaks that tra­di­tion­al build­ings are prone to. She explains that in essence, it is like putting a sweater over a build­ing. Only build­ings that pass a de-pres­sur­iza­tion test that checks for air leak­age can be cer­ti­fied as a pas­sive house. Ulti­mate­ly, the­se build­ings use rough­ly only 20% of the ener­gy of com­pa­ra­ble struc­tures. Benedict’s design at 803 Knicker­bock­er Avenue, in Bush­wick, has been fea­tured in the New York Times and is used as an exam­ple in the “One City Built to Last” plan for the future of New York’s build­ings.

Part of the chal­lenge of apply­ing Pas­sive House meth­ods to build­ings more wide­ly is that, up until recent­ly, it was again­st the law to do so to exist­ing build­ings. A change in code has made it pos­si­ble for indi­vid­u­als to add up to eight inch­es of insu­la­tion to an exist­ing facade. This opens up a world of pos­si­bil­i­ties as Bene­dict and oth­er archi­tects move to devel­op more pas­sive hous­es and retro­fit old­er com­plex­es. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, Bene­dict spoke excit­ed­ly about the poten­tial to ren­o­vate mechan­i­cal sys­tems from the out­side, such as with ener­gy recov­ery sys­tems and heat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing sys­tems, to add effi­cien­cy with­out com­pro­mis­ing the inte­ri­ors of people’s homes.

Return­ing to Andy Padian’s ques­tion from the begin­ning of the town hall, which build­ing do you think is more ener­gy effi­cient?

If you answered the 55 year old build­ing in Peter Coop­er Village/Stuyvesant Town, you would be cor­rect. In fact, build­ings in Peter Coop­er Vil­lage require one-third less ener­gy to heat than the Solaire. Padi­an admits that the com­par­ison is not com­plete­ly fair: the Solaire has cen­tral ven­ti­la­tion and fans that run 24/7 to remove heat, ameni­ties that add to pow­er usage. But the point it dri­ves home is effec­tive. It is not always the flashy, new ideas or devel­op­ments that are most suit­able for the task at hand, retro­fitting and rethink­ing old­er and exist­ing struc­tures is just as nec­es­sary, if not more so.

The inner work­ings of our homes and appli­ances appear seem­ing­ly divorced from the con­ver­sa­tions of glob­al ener­gy sus­tain­abil­i­ty where the big head­lin­ing rock­stars are solar, wind, hydro, bio­gas, and so forth as brought up by Coun­cil Mem­ber Kallos and Sen­a­tor Krueger. Yet, we live in a world of exist­ing infra­struc­ture, and emis­sion tar­gets and ener­gy goals must take that into account. Were we to re-imag­ine our cities from scratch, it is easy to find ways to only depend on renew­able ener­gy with­out remov­ing fos­sil fuels from the earth and to build in envi­ron­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able ways with the best tech­nolo­gies and mate­ri­als. But we inher­it our cities; we have a lega­cy build­ing stock that only turns over slow­ly, across many decades. (As Joel Tow­ers, Dean of the New School/Parsons School for Design and an archi­tect him­self, told us in his inter­view in City Atlas, New York City’s replace­ment rate of build­ings is one or two per­cent per year, mean­ing like­ly more than 80% of our cur­rent struc­tures will be still here and in use in twen­ty years time. 2036 may look a lot like today, in oth­er words.)

To begin mov­ing towards sus­tain­abil­i­ty, we need to first become ener­gy effi­cient with what we have in our homes and neigh­bor­hoods. Inno­va­tions in renew­able energies will be that much more potent in the future if we can reduce our ener­gy con­sump­tion now.


Chris Bene­dict has a con­cept for mod­ern­iz­ing New York’s build­ing code that is inge­nious in its sim­plic­i­ty. Rather than writ­ing (and reg­u­lat­ing) dozens of rules for every type of mate­ri­al or method that pro­duces sus­tain­able struc­tures, why not sim­ply shrink the size of max­i­mum per­mis­si­ble heat­ing and cool­ing devices, in pro­por­tion to the total square footage of the build­ing? It’s the ener­gy con­sumed by the­se devices, after all, that we are try­ing to con­serve, and the small­er they can be (and still serve the build­ing) the bet­ter.

That would pull all new build­ings towards Pas­sive House stan­dards, as they have nat­u­ral­ly have small­er heat­ing and cool­ing demands.

Log­i­cal­ly enough, this is called “The Per­fect Code” (described here), and in a sign of how the life of a New York archi­tect revolves around the mys­ter­ies of the Build­ing Depart­ment, Bene­dict even explains it in a one act play (pre­sent­ed by archi­tects not actors).

The de Bla­sio Admin­is­tra­tion has two excel­lent and very read­able plans online that delin­eate the impor­tance of build­ing effi­cien­cy to the city’s future.

From One City, Built to Last, a 100 page guide to cur­rent ini­tia­tives and ideas for the future, comes the fol­low­ing sum­ma­ry:

Under an 80 by 50 sce­nar­io, our aging build­ings will need to be trans­formed into high­ly ener­gy effi­cient struc­tures and pow­ered by renew­able sources of ener­gy, and new build­ings will need to meet the high­est pos­si­ble ener­gy per­for­mance stan­dards. All build­ings would need to sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the insu­la­tion of their exte­ri­or walls, roofs, and win­dows. Build­ings would also need cor­rect­ly-sized and ener­gy effi­cient heat­ing and cool­ing sys­tems, and must install high effi­cien­cy light­ing and appli­ances. Heat­ing and cool­ing equip­ment must also be oper­at­ed by per­son­nel trained in ener­gy effi­cien­cy best prac­tices, and res­i­dents would need to make changes to their every­day behav­ior to con­sci­en­tious­ly con­serve ener­gy. Even­tu­al­ly, all build­ings would also need to move towards low-car­bon and renew­able sources of ener­gy and advanced ener­gy recov­ery sys­tems.

And from One NYC, the City’s over­all cli­mate strat­e­gy doc­u­ment, you can see the dom­i­nant role of build­ing effi­cien­cy:

The City's plan for 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050. (One NYC 2016)

The City’s plan for 80% reduc­tion in CO2 by 2050 relies on build­ings for the biggest effect. (One NYC 2016)