Energy Efficient Design: Implementing Local Laws 31 & 32

Putting its money where its mouth is, in March the City of New York required its own buildings to dramatically cut energy usage and upgrade designs to the latest version of LEED.

Pushing the Envelope from Public to Private

As Urban Green Policy Director Laurie Kerr explained during an event covering the new laws, NYC action shows more than just its own commitment—it also helps the industry gain experience in low-energy projects and trains the private sector to execute them, a big step toward spreading this expertise well beyond municipal buildings.

The new laws are serious business. As Kerr puts it, it’s the equivalent of “taking the upcoming code’s energy use requirement—more stringent than anything so far—and cutting it in half.” Panelists noted that it remains to be seen if we currently have the local talent to do this, or if we’ll need to import expertise from Europe. (At least a Brexit silver lining is that continental consultants will probably be more affordable for a while.)

Julie Nelson, Margaret Castillo, Ian Graham, and Laurie Kerr at Urban Green's event on Local Laws 31 & 32

Margaret Castillo (NYC Department of Design & Construction) was clear on DDC’s role: since they control billions of dollars’ worth of NYC projects, they are in the driver’s seat going forward. She’s optimistic about the city’s ability to reach these ambitious requirements, as DDC recently performed a pilot studyto see how much they could reduce energy in an office buliding, with great results. She’s already looking forward to leading the way, while sharing information to help the rest of the industry learn from city government experience.

Falling Into Step on Energy Efficiency

With big government already mobilized, how can private design firms prepare for projects that will require compliance with the new law? The closest analogy may be the original LEED requirement law, passed in 2005. Julie Nelson (BKSK Architects) remembers how her firm helped early compliance at that time (read more from Nelson on our blog). Help from peers, including firms outside NYC, were key to anticipating challenges. “Buildings are complicated, and we may not have the internal expertise to predict all the unforeseen consequences,” says Nelson. It’s also necessary to involve the construction community early, she adds: “we can draw anything we like, but they have to be built right and in a non-adversarial manner.”

Setting the Benchmark for a ‘New Normal’

How difficult will the new standard be to achieve? Ian Graham (Vidaris) says the first (and maybe hardest) part of the work has been done already: setting the bar. He sees many projects where owners direct designers to “just meet the code—do the minimum necessary,” and this new standard “will make many things beyond debate.” He mentioned low lighting power densities (0.5W/sf at least) and VRV systems as potential ingredients of the ‘new normal.’ But, after some initial gains, progress may be harder: “We will have to leapfrog technologies to get that last 5-10 percent. 50 percent reduction is not a trivial goal; we’re not moving the needle, we’re obliterating the needle.”

Costs Will Fall as We Learn

One of the first questions from the audience was what this means for construction costs. Kerr was blunt: “The first projects may not be cost effective [in terms of energy savings paybacks]. But as the industry gains experience, very rapidly the delta comes down until we are building these buildings at very close to no increased cost.” It reminds me of the development of new pharmaceuticals; making the first pill of a new drug is expensive, after that, practically free (thanks to The West Wing for elucidating this so expressively). Low-energy buildings may not have quite as quick a cost reduction curve, but they will probably get there too.

Margaret Castillo at Urban Green's event on Local Laws 31 & 32

About the author

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