Saturday, 23 March 2013

Surprise. Surprise. Mandatory disclosure in New York

Sometimes it takes me a while to catch up with something quite important.  And to be completely truthful, I wouldn't have caught up with this one, but for an item in GreenBuildingsAlive, a fine, 'long-form writing' blog I don't read nearly as much as it deserves.

Late last year, the New York Times carried an article on the results of the first mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency scores for commercial buildings.  It had a few surprises.  Chief amongst them were the unflattering comparisons between some newer buildings that have trumpeted high LEED ratings, and older buildings.
"In courting tenants over the last six years, 7 World Trade Center has trumpeted its gold LEED rating, an emblem of sound environmental citizenship.  But when it comes to energy efficiency, the young 52-story tower . . . had a score of 74 — just below the minimum of 75 set for high-efficiency buildings by the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.

On the other hand, two venerated show horses from the 1930s, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, sailed to an 84 and an 80 as a result of extensive upgrades of their insulation and mechanical systems."
Of course, the situation overall is much more complex, and the article makes a remarkably good job of explaining this complexity.  Reporting the more obvious explanations, like:
"Older buildings tend to have higher Energy Star scores because they have thicker walls, fewer windows and less ventilation — superior “thermal envelopes,” as a report on the early results puts it. They are also less suited to energy-gobbling activities like computer data crunching, the downfall of some youthful but middling performers."
the discussion moves on to the more subtle policy purpose of identifying buildings with the most opportunity to improve.  As the article points out:
"The stakes are considerable. Unlike cities that depend heavily on automobiles, New York racks up most of its carbon dioxide emissions — nearly 80 percent — in heating and cooling buildings. Tracking this energy use is deemed crucial to meeting the city goal of cutting overall emissions by about a third by 2030, to slash costs and fight climate change. "
 And there lies one of the less well exposed, or perhaps poorly cross-referenced details in an otherwise well informed commentary.  However admirable a 2009 law requiring progressive adoption of mandatory disclosure, however sound the approach to market transformation, cutting emissions by 30%  is actually a bit of a cop-out.  I say this not as some sort of intemperate judgmental rant, but simply to point out that the 2030 Challenge to which so many city mayors in the US have subscribed, sets far more ambitious goals.  Still, you have to begin somewhere, and proper, public disclosure, with a suitably reported detailed analysis which does not allow simplistic interpretation, is definitely a good place.

To me as an architect of a certain generation, there are other perhaps predictable, but still shocking factoids, mentioned in passing.  My favourite?  On a scale topping out at 100, "the Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe’s bronze-toned 1958 masterpiece on Park Avenue, posted a 3."  I shouldn't be surprised.

Read the NY Times article here.
And if you are up to it,download the whole 36 page NEW YORK CITY LOCAL LAW 84 BENCHMARKING REPORT in PDF format here.


Bluejay said...


Energy consumption definitely rests comfortably near the top of the list of world issues; the expense of living in this modern world is that everything embodies copious amounts of power throughout the life-cycle (of which you are all too familiar with; the construction, operation, maintenance, and demolition/recycling). New York City, having a population of roughly eight million residents will need to abide by the 2030 Challenge as soon as possible, as their energy requirements operates on a resource which we all know to be finite. Granted, the 2030 Challenge can undoubtedly be called “ambitious” but is also absolutely attainable. The problem is humanity has a tendency not to act until the ramifications are upon them. There are sceptics who question the existence of Global Warming (you will have to excuse my modern jargon when I use, *sigh*). The requirement for a municipality as large as New York City to change their consumption of embodied energy within their buildings is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. (If Hollywood is anything to go by, they will have to adjust otherwise that fallen image of The Statue of Liberty in front of a crumbled city may not be too far from the truth.)

One development I found interesting while reading the extended articles was that in the LEED credentials, a building can earn a greater score by having a building which allows for ‘alternative transportation’. What was fascinating about this was that even a building with a score short of the minimum requirement of 40 points could earn as much as fifteen points simply by demonstrating that their building has a direct reduction upon the number of conventional single-occupant vehicle trips, ie. The people within the building use public transit, telecommuting, rideshare options, compressed workweeks, carpools, vanpools, and green vehicles.

Given the thought, it is logical. The less people who individually make their way to work and resort to more eco-friendly forms of transportation will decrease the overall embodied energy usage of the building. Speaking of Green Buildings, this does not qualify as a high-rise as it is only six storeys but Silver Bullitt made an “Ultra-Green” office building in Seattle which you may want to take a look at.

Steve King said...

One of the reasons it is often quoted that NY,NY is one of the greenest cities in the world, is because of the extremely high public transport use, notable walkability and very low car ownership, at least on Manhattan and the closer boroughs.

The Bullit Centre is actually the subject of my earlier post 'Greenest building in the world' at

bryan said...

There is an interesting question that’s posed when defining the difference in sustainability between “new architecture” and “old architecture”. Mentioned, is the idea of “older buildings tend to have higher energy star scores because they have thicker walls, fewer windows and less ventilation”. The comparison between old buildings and new buildings, I find, has a link to the societal and cultural values that are evident during that period of time and why the need to reconsider the direction of where possible new architecture is heading.

In the earlier years, high-rises have been proposed to be fast and efficient construction in order to cater for the developing economy. This was achieved through new technology at the time including steel frame and metal cladding panels and large thermal mass walls, as seen through the Empire State building and Chrysler building. This simple yet effective construction technique allows for possible refurbishment and alterations when necessary, even though this may not be the ultimate reasoning resulting in up-to-date standards for sustainability.

The modern craze of tall glazed buildings located in dense high-rise cities is a reflection of the new architecture that has developed in more recent decades. The need for more space but also maintain and create desirable views and luxury spaces seems to be a necessity in new development briefs. The notion of sustainability is addressed through the inclusion of roof top terraces or “sky gardens” that sustain their own micro-climate/environment is quite evident through the WOHA complex in Singapore. Similarly the Central Park complex in Sydney by Jean Nouvel is another building that reference this notion of a high rise garden and where the need to maintain and increase greenery in place of the building footprint is clear. There seems to be a general understanding that by creating a green fa├žade or rooftop may address a sense of sustainability. My question is whether the need for this to be explored is more important than targeting the issue from the interior from the beginning, including the services but also the occupants.

Steve King said...

You may be aware that the Empire State Building was painlessly refurbished to very much higher standards of thermal performance, resulting in greater energy efficiency. Window units were replaced at night, with tenants hardly aware of work had been done. And as a bonus, the general heritage values of the building were reasonably well preserved.
Worth googling; I don't have a link at hand.

Sam Ellis said...

local law 84 was passed in 2009 and since then Energy usage has been controlled significantly. Which proved to be the best ordinance to save wasted energy.