Conference Recap: Façade Face-Off

Hours after a coalition of over 300,000 climate marchers and the City of New York both called for a dramatic reduction in carbon pollution, Urban Green’s Façade Face-Off dove into the details of the role buildings will play in doing just that. Why focus on façades? Panelist Kevin Kampschroer (US General Services Administration) said it best: “All good projects must start from the outside in.” The energy and carbon reductions in all five projects covered during the day bore this out.

During his keynote address, NYC Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler demonstrated the city’s forward thinking by holding aloft a sheet of phase change material to be used as a thermal battery in building walls. A runner himself, Chandler said "I see sustainability as a marathon, not a sprint." (Great coverage of the Commissioner’s talk can be found in the Commercial Observer.)

For the day’s leadoff presentation, René Toth (Vasko + Partner Engineers) discussed the world’s first Passive House office tower, RHW.2 in Vienna, which requires 80% less energy than an average NYC high-rise. (See our additional post about this project for complete information.) Employees are thrilled by the new silent—and sometimes even absent—heating and cooling equipment; they can even open windows for fresh air if desired—in an office tower! What’s next for the innovative Austrians, houses built upside-down?

Our panel, Living Examples: NYC and Beyond, examined scalability by looking at four real-life examples of efficient façades in new and existing buildings from New York, Boston, and Portland OR. The range of motivations for high-performing retrofits or new construction varied, but the results all had one thing in common: energy and carbon reductions across the board. But, while the energy saving benefits of high-performing façades are well documented, another surprising common thread emerged: that the big payoff lies in the comfort, satisfaction, and pride of the people who live or work in these buildings. Take a closer look at some featured projects from this panel.

It was inspiring to see so many real projects with high-performing façades in one place, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. Said Darien Crimmin (WinnCompanies), “I don’t know if we could do the same thing we did again because gas is so cheap,” making it only more difficult to justify performance improvements on energy savings. Several speakers lamented the lack of experienced designers and contractors in this field. But overall, owners who have gone through the process spoke to the increased rentable floor area, the reduction in noise, and better temperatures and indoor air quality. I got the feeling that the tide is turning on the perception of the value of a great façade—without having to rely specifically on energy savings. “It's going to take a combination of policy, demand, and developer mentality" to make efficient façades the norm, said Justin Palmer (Synapse)—but at least for the thousands of crumbling 1950s and 1960s façades in New York, a more beautiful skin is just a retrofit away.

About the author

Cecil Scheib
Cecil Scheib is Chief Program Officer for Urban Green Council.