What happens if the next New York blackout happens during a cold spell?
Typical buildings would be between 32°F and 43°F indoors. New buildings are a little better, but still not resilient. A high-performing building that has better windows, fewer air leaks, and more insulation would do much better. Without power, these buildings would stay at 54-66°F for a week or more.
Without electricity, buildings are dependent on whatever protection is provided by their walls, windows, and roof. In today’s buildings, that protection is modest at best. If it wore clothing, the typical New York City building would have a light jacket on—not what you’d wear outside in winter, and certainly not performance gear.
Only some buildings are constructed well enough to maintain their indoor temperatures without power. But to protect all New Yorkers, these resilient, high-performing buildings must become the new normal.
Computer models were created by Atelier Ten and based on six representative residential building categories to find indoor temperatures after a blackout within a single apartment. Summer and winter scenarios were defined by recent New York City weather data. The full report describes these models in detail.
Within a building category, there are three important factors that influence temperature in buildings during blackouts. These are:
- The type and amount of window area,
- The amount of air that escapes through cracks and leaks in the walls, and
- The amount of insulation in the walls and roof.
All three factors can be improved during the design and construction of new buildings, and in the renovation of existing ones.
Glass conducts about five times more heat than a typical insulated wall. Therefore, between two buildings that are otherwise equivalent, the one with more window area will be colder during a winter blackout. Even the extra sun through a well-lit south window will barely make up for the absence of insulation; other windows will lower temperature faster than a wall would. During a summer power outage, glass causes the building to heat up more. Daylighting and energy benefits are minimal if windows take up more than 60 percent of wall area.
Using triple-paned windows can lower winter heat loss, although glass will never hold heat as well as insulated walls. In summer, any building can stay cooler with windows that are designed to allow in light but reflect heat, as do the windows in our high-performing models. Sunshades can also be added to windows to block the sun in summer but allow the low winter sun in.
Most residential buildings constructed more than five to 10 years ago leak substantial amounts of air heat through cracks and leaks in the walls, windows and doors. Plastic wrap is one common method used to stop this heat loss, which is why buildings under construction are wrapped in bright pink, yellow, or green film. Builders are reducing leakage even further with careful caulking and sealing. Eventually, drafts can be virtually eliminated, with all ventilation intentionally provided by systems that recover heat from the waste air being exhausted from the building. These improvements can also be made to existing buildings.
Adding insulation prevents heat loss through walls and roofs. New buildings can easily accommodate extra insulation, since it is straightforward to add it during construction. In most cases, insulation can be added to older buildings, either indoors or by adding a new exterior layer.
Over time, building codes have improved, meaning newer buildings have better windows, fewer drafts, and more insulation than they used to. But resiliency calls for high-performing buildings that go well beyond the current code. These buildings would use advanced practices and materials that are being deployed in the best buildings today. Described in detail in Urban Green Council’s “90 by 50” report, they incorporate windows that retain heat in winter and keep it out in summer, rigorous air sealing, and extensive insulation. Since these resiliency measures also save energy, they often pay for themselves, particularly in new construction.
Our city needs more high-performing buildings that could give protection against severe outdoor temperatures for a week or more during a blackout. In winter, temperatures in many New York City buildings would drop below 40°F in three to five days. A summer blackout would send temperatures to 90°F or higher in some buildings on the first day.
One hundred years ago, buildings heated by wood or coal faced cold indoor temperatures if fuel ran out. But they did not depend on electricity to run their heating systems and would not suddenly lose heat all at once. Similarly, buildings with natural ventilation didn’t depend on air conditioning and fans. Today’s buildings are different, and we face the risk of a power outage causing a widespread, immediate loss of heating or cooling capabilities citywide.
Not all buildings hold their temperature equally well without power. The brick walls of row houses and low- and high-rise apartments hold some heat, and newer buildings tend to be better insulated. On the other hand, single-family houses are exposed on four sides, and all-glass buildings lose heat through their windows in winter and gain it in summer.
High-performing buildings provide the best protection against blackouts during severe weather and would maintain habitable temperatures for an entire week. These new and renovated buildings use readily available construction practices such as installing better windows, adding insulation and eliminating drafts.
Superstorm Sandy taught us that the risk of an extended power outage is real. When harsh weather and a blackout come at the same time, high-performing buildings can help people remain in their homes by maintaining livable indoor temperatures without power. It will take time to prepare cities against disasters. We can start now by building new high-performing buildings and renovating the ones we have. Everyone deserves the protection of a resilient building.