On making ‘green’ building in New York City a less terrible experience

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Building with sun-control devices. (N.Y.C. D.E.P.)
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Say you own an apartment building in New York City and would like to make it more energy-efficient.

One way to do this, in theory, would be to add insulation to the outside walls, which generally adds about four inches. But that would violate the zoning law that regulates floor-area ratio, which determines the maximum floor area allowed on the size of the lot.

Another way to increase energy efficiency would be to add awnings or overhangs to provide shade. But that would violate the part of the zoning code that doesn’t allow overhangs on designated “open” areas that are required by the original zoning.

Yet another way would be to install solar panels on the roof of the building. But zoning rules mandate maximum building heights, and in many cases solar panels would put the building in violation of that maximum.

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Similarly, green roofs, rooftop gardens, greenhouses, wind turbines or other types of energy-saving alterations would violate various city height, bulkhead and floor-ratio regulations, as would the guardrail needed if people were going to be milling about on the roof.

Ryan Merkin, a vice president at Stephan Winter Associates, said that on multiple occasions, his company was brought in to assess the feasibility of installing solar panels only to find out that the projects would have put the buildings in violation of code.

“We weren’t able to do it because of zoning impediments,” he said.

Merkin and five other people visited the Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place earlier this month to talk about something called the Zone Green Text Amendment, a set of proposals that would, if actually enacted into law, allow builders and owners more flexibility in retrofitting buildings to make them energy-efficient. Speakers included Thomas Wargo, the director of zoning at the Department of City Planning, Howard Slatkin, the city’s deputy director of sustainability, and Monika Jain, the project manager of the Zone Green Text Amendment.

Three professionals who consulted on the amendment or do the kind of work it would affect presented a reaction after the initial presentations: Mark Ginsberg, principal at Curtis+Ginsberg Architects, Bill Stein, principal at Datner Architects, and Merkin.

The amendment, which is currently under public review—meaning it’s been referred for comment to community boards, borough boards and borough presidents, before city planning approves a version for the City Council to consider—is the product of the Green Codes Task Force, a panel pulled together by the Bloomberg administration and the nonprofit Urban Green Council; last year it released an in-depth analysis of the city’s building codes, with a mission “to remove zoning impediments to the construction and retrofitting of green buildings.”

This was desperately needed because, as Slatkin said, standing in front of a black-and-white slide of a just-built LeFrak City, “a lot of the regulations that were drawn up with zoning were not drawn up with the notion of promoting green buildings.”

According to PlaNYC—the mayor’s master plan for the city—buildings generate 75 percent of the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The zoning code has been in effect for 50 years, since long before the concept of “greenhouse gasses” even existed.

“This is not a set of proposals that were made by City Planning and cooked up on our own,” Slatkin said. “But we really, really built this with contributions from so many people in the architectural and professional community.”

The focus of the amendment is on retrofitting existing buildings rather than on regulating the construction of new ones because, Jain said, 85 percent of the buildings in the city in 2030 will be ones that exist today. As far as new buildings, the amendment aims to mitigate the dilemma of having to decide between energy efficiency and maximizing use of limited space.

“Before I ask questions, or raise concerns, I want to say that I think it’s really a great proposal,” said Ginsberg, speaking for the industry figures who would be working with the new guidelines.

The main issue Ginsberg was concerned with was simply the sheer volume of zoning law. The original 1961 zoning amendment has, over the years, only been added to, and now stands at roughly 3,500 pages. Not only must would-be retrofitters navigate the zoning rules, but they must reckon with many other layers of regulation as well. Ginsberg said, “Zoning is not in a vacuum. We have at least five different regulations that in some way affect this. A few examples: in addition to zoning, you have the building code, the New York State energy code, multiple dwelling laws, sometimes even the housing maintenance code. Then you go into things like D.O.P. and D.E.P.’s requirements.”

And retrofitting is often invasive and inconvenient in the first place.

“It’s very difficult to do a retrofit,” he said. “And it’s disruptive to try to bring in someone, and try to sprayfoam insulation on the inside of buildings, poke a bunch of holes in the wall and try to really cover the apartment area. That is very invasive, and we’ve had a few building owners who’ve been willing to do that.”

The amendment is not prescriptive, and would not require residents or building owners to do put in better air conditioners, install solar panels, insulate, and other measures. It would simply make it easier for them to do so. Which in turn means that the changes in the rules would probably have to be accompanied by a public campaign to get people to take advantage of them.

As David Bragdon, head of Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, said to a group of mayors from around the country a few weeks ago, “You don’t necessarily get politically rewarded for fixing something that people aren’t aware of,” meaning that while increasing the efficiency of the city's buildings and infrastructure may be a priority for the Bloomberg administration, it is not as popular as, say, building a park.

The zoning amendment is a first step.