2015 Conference Recap

An outsize percentage of New York City’s monumental buildings—including millions of square feet of public housing and commercial skyscrapers—were constructed in the ambitious, optimistic post-war era of 1950 through 1970. Coincidentally, those decades heralded the promise of limitless, cheap nuclear power, making energy efficiency concerns for these buildings all but nil.

As NYC strives to reduce its carbon emissions 80% by 2050, the problem of what to do with these inefficient—and in some cases deteriorating—midcentury buildings looms large. Urban Green Council’s 2015 annual member conference, Modern All Over Again, explored the building practices of the modern era as well as the current business, design, and conservation benefits of retrofitting and renewing our mid-century icons. The half-day event was held at Bloomberg LP’s New York City headquarters—a LEED Gold certified building—on October 2.

After a catered lunch and chance to mingle with fellow members—and enjoy the view from the conference space’s 28th story floor-to-ceiling windows onto much of east midtown—award-winning author and historian Thomas Mellins set the stage for the afternoon by presenting a brief look at the “midcentury mindset,” and some of the conditions that led to millions of square feet of commercial office and public housing being constructed without concern for energy efficiency. This was followed by the keynote address, Reinventing the Grid, by Audrey Zibelman (Chair, New York State Public Service Commission), which explained the complete shift we need to make in how we think about energy.

“In the latter half of the 20th century,” Chair Zibelman said, “we had competition for energy at the wholesale level. Now it’s at the retail level, and we can start managing our demand to reflect the energy we want to produce. For example, Manhattan’s energy needs peak during the day; Brooklyn’s at night. A consumer could program a smart device—like a washing machine or electric car charger—to run when demand and utility costs are lowest. Vendors are in a great place now to make this easy for the customer, but utilities and regulators are probably the worst marketers in the world. We need to do better at attracting people to these products.”

The rest of the afternoon was divided into panels that dealt with various kinds of building stock and the challenges and opportunities they present for retrofit: Revitalizing Public Housing, Renewing Midtown and Refurbishing MidCentury Icons.

Kicking off the Revitalizing Public Housing panel, Bomee Jung (New York City Housing Authority), spoke about the city’s many modern-era public housing complexes and noted that “These buildings are not only poor energy performers because of their vintage, there are some real quality-of-life issues, too, like elevators and trash chutes that are too small.” She indicated that the city is  “looking into solutions like making bigger external elevator shafts and using the existing ones for new services; like recycling on every floor.” Her presentation outlined the comprehensive $150-per-square-foot retrofits NYCHA would like to execute and contrasted them with the $50 per square foot changes the budget allows—much of which currently goes toward envelope repair work.

Mark Elton (Sustainable By Design, London) explained that 29% of energy use in the United Kingdom goes to compensating for poor insulation and lack of airtightness, much of it in the country’s social (public) housing. “The right improvements can save tenants 80% on their energy bills, and that saves on rent arrears—if you can pay your energy bill, you’re more likely to pay your rent, too. There’s also a huge public health piece: we have a problem with affordable warmth that manifests in excess winter deaths; we have mold, we have asthma… The National Health Service takes an interest in all this because it really is preventive care.”

The Renewing Midtown panel focused on the concept that we must stop looking at the cost of fixing these midcentury buildings and start looking at the cost of not fixing them.

“We can’t always knock buildings down,” said Glen Weiss (Vornado Realty Trust). “So we look to redeveloping our assets. All new tenants want to know: What are you doing about sustainability? So it’s a first thought for us, not a second. A lot has changed that way in the past 15 years, and all for the better.”

“Tenants are expecting that management will do the best possible job of saving energy and water,” concurred Robert Fox (COOKFOX Architects). “And there’s also a new emphasis on making the healthiest offices we can; places that become productive work environments.”

“The city is educating rapidly,” agreed Markus Schulte (Arup). “[Because the Department of Buildings] has received FEMA funding and needs to be achieving its energy targets, in general they’re very willing to work with you. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution—each building should be treated like a sick patient: examine it carefully, diagnose its illness, and apply the appropriate remediating measures.” A great example of this, Shulte said, can be seen work done on the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas. While a façade retrofit can often save energy, a whole-building energy model revealed that in this instance, improved solar heat gain would only have provided energy savings of 1%. The reason? Pre-existing shade from a neighboring building.

The last panel, Refurbishing Mid-Century Icons, looked at recent rejuvenation efforts at Lincoln Center and the United Nations.

“Managing these buildings is an art in itself,” said Crissy Haley (JLL) about Lincoln Center.  “Our challenge was identifying realistic energy upgrades that wouldn’t disturb either their iconic look or iconic management practices.” Haley explained that the first step in developing an energy and sustainability master plan for the campus was to gather data and compare energy use on the campus year over year. She highlighted that this was particularly challenging because the campus is made up of several buildings, each run by a different building operator, but all sharing one central mechanical plant. “Determining each building’s proportionate share of the system” proved much harder than expected,” Haley said.

The UN building, on the other hand, “used to be an all-steam chiller plant; now it’s a hybrid, so mission-critical functions can go on no matter what happens to utility service,” explained Keith Fitzpatrick (Syska Hennessy Group).

“The glass-heavy look of the UN was elegant in a city of stone and brick,” added Michael Adlerstein, the organization’s Assistant Secretary-General. “But it had a very primitive HVAC system—oil-filled tubes that, when removed, went straight into the Johnson Controls museum! Our recent renovation reduced total energy consumption by 55% and our overall carbon footprint by 45%. Window washers used to love the UN because they could feel the A/C coming out through the windows and they wouldn’t get so hot. Not anymore.”

Attendee feedback on the conference spoke to the urgency of this decades-old problem. Christine Cannon, an attendee from C&G Partners, said “we’re seeing more interest from our clients in sustainability, and this focus on midtown buildings is so relevant. As a director of business development and as a designer, I need to stay on top of what’s happening now.”

Barbara Campagna, Chair for event sponsor the Sustainable Interior Environments Graduate Program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, added, “As someone with experience preserving modern heritage, I can say there’s never been a better time to focus on how we can honor these unique buildings while preparing for our future.”

Stay tuned for in-depth breakdowns of the conference's panels, and see photos from the event on Flickr.