On February 1, 2010, the NYC Green Codes Task Force, led by the Urban Green Council, released what is likely the most sophisticated and comprehensive analysis of building codes ever conducted by a municipality. Convened at the request of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the Task Force was charged with recommending changes to the laws and regulations affecting buildings in New York, to bring them to the next level of energy and sustainability performance. New York City’s buildings account for 80% of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions, 95% of electrical consumption, and 85% of water usage. Therefore, promoting sustainable buildings is seen as essential to achieving the goals of PlaNYC, the City’s comprehensive plan that aims to reduce energy and water use and bring greenhouse gas emissions down 30% by 2030.
The report was prepared for the Mayor and City Council by assembling the work of more than 200 leading thinkers in green building. Because the project was conceived by New York City, the resulting proposals focus entirely on actions that are actionable by the city. However, since the report’s release, in addition to action by the city, a few of the recommendations have been acted upon by the federal government and others are under consideration by state government.
The Task Force’s 111 recommendations impact new construction and renovations, and many remove current impediments to green practices. The proposals affect building codes as well as other codes, such as zoning, health, consumer affairs, and environmental protection—aiming to create greener, healthier buildings for all New Yorkers. Urban Green Council is now advocating for full adoption of the recommendations. One year after the release of the report, 22 recommendations have been implemented or are actively under consideration:
In July 2008, Mayor Bloomberg asked Urban Green Council, the New York Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), to convene a task force to advise the city on how to change municipal codes to help reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, improve health, and reduce energy use. Eighteen months and more than 70 meetings later, the NYC Green Codes Task Force released a report offering 111 recommendations to adjust codes to help the city meets its 30% carbon reduction goal codified under the Climate Protection Act (Local Law 55) and PlaNYC goals more broadly. The Task Force’s work also contributed to the passage of New York City’s Greener Greater Buildings Plan legislation, which will require large buildings in the city to do annual benchmarking, install lighting upgrades and tenant sub-meters, and undertake an audit and retro-commissioning once every decade. The Green Codes initiative was funded by the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and New York Community Trust, with meetings hosted by the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute. The New York office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP provided pro-bono legal review of legal language within the recommendations.
The project was overseen by nine Technical Committees, a Steering Committee, and an Industry Advisory Committee. Most of the Technical Committee members were building design professionals including architects and landscape architects, engineers, lighting and interior designers, construction experts, and representatives from city agencies. The Industry Advisory Committee provided feedback on the feasibility and coherence of proposals and included developers, building owners, contractors, unions, environmental organizations, universities, affordable housing experts, commercial tenants, and representatives from other professional and industry organizations. The Steering Committee included the chair of each Technical Committee and representatives from Urban Green Council, the Mayor’s Office, the City Council Speaker’s Office, and key city agencies.
The 111 recommendations of the Task Force fall into ten categories that were based on USGBC’s LEED subject areas and modified to include areas of particular interest in New York City. The categories are: Overarching Code Issues (7 recommendations); Health & Toxicity (20); Energy & Carbon Emissions, subdivided into Fundamentals (17), Energy Efficiency (28), Operations & Maintenance (6); Building Resilience (9); Resource Conservation (5); Water Efficiency (7); Stormwater (7); and Urban Ecology (5). Of the 111 recommendations, 19 are intended to remove existing impediments to green building practices, many of which are specific to New York City codes. The rest of the recommendations involve enhancing local codes that are often based on national model codes. In these cases, many of the recommendations are applicable to other municipalities. The recommendations from the Energy & Carbon Emissions categories make up nearly half of the recommendations, and Energy Efficiency recommendations alone more than a quarter.
Below is a sampling of proposals from each of the energy-related categories, as summarized by Environmental Building News:
All proposals include sample statutory language, an explanation of the background issues and rationale, analysis of costs and savings, precedents from other jurisdictions, comparison to LEED credits, and implementation information. Some of the recommendations are simply calls for further research, especially in relatively new areas like climate adaptation. Others require significant changes to building codes and construction practices — particularly those that deal with HVAC upgrades, envelope issues, and district-level infrastructure alterations. Still others would remove existing impediments to energy-efficient passive design strategies, like allowing awnings, which currently may be no longer than 10 inches, seriously limiting their efficacy.
The cost and payback period for the Task Force proposals was analyzed pro-bono by Bovis Lend Lease with direction from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Because the recommendations influence different buildings and activities over different time periods and may not all be implemented, the total cost of implementing all recommendations was not analyzed. However, a detailed analysis of the cost of each individual recommendation, and savings and payback time for many of them, was made available in Appendix A of the report.
As of February 2011, 17 codes have been changed, including the energy-related proposals (listed here with their associated payback time or annual savings per building where noted in the study) to:
Nearly all of the policies adopted so far are low or no upfront cost with considerable monetary savings potential after the initial payback period due to energy savings. Even with these policies recommendations adopted, there still many more recommendations that will allow greater energy savings and lower energy costs for building residents and owners.
The success of the Green Codes Task Force reflects the importance of collaborations among local government, the nonprofit advocacy community, and industry leaders. Because the project was initiated by the Mayor and City Council Speaker, it obtained legitimacy, recognition, and industry buy-in from the outset. Urban Green Council played a critical role as an independent advisor and convener for the project. The organization has strong ties with both city government and industry, and is viewed as having a practical approach to achieving environmental goals. As a result, the report was able to identify many changes that city agencies or the real estate industry may not have been willing to consider on their own.
In addition, Urban Green Council worked closely with the Technical Committee and Industry Advisory Committee members of the Task Force in an iterative process to ensure that the recommendations were feasible and executable. While architects and engineers were essential in identifying potential changes, the real estate industry provided important feedback relating to the feasibility of implementing changes in construction and ongoing building operations. Finally, Urban Green Council recognized that each recommendation would be considered independently by the city, so the report provides a justification and explanation for each recommendation, along with statutory language and implementation guidance. This last step of developing easily understandable explanations along with code-level language was one of the most resource-intensive, yet valuable, steps in the process.