New Codes Green the Big Apple

Recent legislation, energy code enforcement, and advice from a green taskforce take a big bite out of the environmental impact of New York City buildings

The Big Apple is on a path to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically in the coming decades. Legislation, a new energy code, and stricter enforcement, spearheaded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, will help the city’s buildings become some of the country’s most energy efficient.


PlaNYC and Local Law 55

In April 2007, Bloomberg revealed an ambitious, long-term plan for a sustainable New York City. “The PlaNYC program calls for a 30-percent reduction in the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030,” explains Michael Waite, a registered mechanical engineer and senior staff I in the New York City office of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger. This goal was later codified into law as The New York City Climate Protection Act (Local Law 55 of 2007).


NYC Green Codes Task Force

In July 2008, Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn asked Urban Green Council, the New York chapter of the USGBC, to assemble building professionals and representatives from city agencies. The NYC Green Codes Task Force generated many ideas and, after 18 months of analysis and collaboration, provided an executive report on Feb. 1, 2010. “It had 111 recommendations; over half dealt with improvements to the energy code and other codes,” says Russell Unger, executive director for Urban Green Council.


The recommendations cover everything from building resilience to water conservation and stormwater management. A few of the energy-efficiency-related proposals:


  • Simplifying the commercial energy code. Right now, commercial architects and engineers can comply with an outdated version of ASHRAE 90.1 or ICC Chapter 8. Both (each with multiple sub-paths) have been described as exhaustive and complex.
  • Promoting super-insulated exterior walls. Because the city’s current definition of floor area includes exterior wall thickness, it penalizes thick, energy-efficient walls. So the taskforce recommends excluding up to 8 inches of exterior wall thickness from the floor-area calculation.
  • Improving energy modeling for building design. The taskforce takes issue with energy modeling because, as the report states, “it lets enhanced efficiency in one energy system be traded off against poor efficiency in another system.” The new recommendation is to require projects using energy modeling to demonstrate energy use that’s 14-percent lower than the path allowed by ASHRAE 90.1.
Right now, commercial architects and engineers can comply with an outdated version of or . Both (each with multiple sub-paths) have been described as exhaustive and complex.


Greener, Greater Buildings Plan

Four pieces of legislation under the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan (part of PlaNYC) were passed in December 2009. During the public hearing, Mayor Bloomberg referred to these local laws as “a landmark package of legislation that will make New York the first American city with a comprehensive, mandatory effort to reduce emissions from existing large buildings.” This body of legislation will change how buildings are designed, renovated, and operated.


1. New York City energy code. Prior to the passage of this legislation, New York City buildings were built and renovated according to New York state energy code. “The city energy code is different from the state energy code in one way,” says Chris Garvin, partner, Terrapin Bright Green, New York City. “There is no longer an exemption for renovations.” The exemption was a loophole that allowed non-compliant systems to be used if less than half of a building system was being renovated. 


2. Energy- and water-use benchmarking law. Under this new law, all private buildings greater than 50,000 square feet, or public buildings greater than 10,000 square feet, must track and disclose annual energy and water consumption. Owners must use the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, and energy and water use will be made public via a website. “It’s public information, so it provides potential owners, condo unit buyers, or lessees with information on building energy performance prior to investing in a particular building,” says Waite.


3. Audits and retro-commissioning law. This law mandates that private buildings over 50,000 square feet conduct energy audits once every 10 years and implement energy-efficient maintenance practices. 


4. Lighting retrofit and sub-metering law. This legislation requires lighting systems in large commercial buildings (50,000 square feet or more) to be replaced or retrofitted to meet the requirements of the New York City Energy Conservation Code. This law also stipulates that tenant spaces over 10,000 square feet be sub-metered.


The New York City Energy Conservation Code (NYCECC) takes effect this July. The benchmarking law will phase in between 2011 and 2013; lighting upgrades and sub-metering must be completed by 2025, and implementation of the audits and retro-commissioning requirements will start in 2013.


New Submission Requirements

The Greener, Greater Buildings Plan follows on the heels of other changes. “The [Department of Buildings] introduced new energy code compliance submission requirements for building permits in 2007,” explains Garvin. Submission requirements are:


  • An energy analysis.
  • A professional statement certifying that the submitted plans and specifications comply with the energy code.
  • Supporting documentation (construction drawings that reflect the descriptions and values in the energy analysis).


The energy analysis can be a whole building energy simulation completed using your own software or the U.S. Department of Energy’s COMcheck software (available online), which includes free forms and checklists to document compliance. According to Waite, “Compliance certificates, which are automatically generated by the program, need to be included in the work application in the initial filing.”


Energy Code Enforcement

With so much effort being poured into reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and increasing energy efficiency, it’s only natural that the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) began stricter enforcement of the energy code. “Until the city took recent steps, no one was enforcing the energy code. It was state law, so you had to comply with it, just like any other state law, but no one was checking,” says Unger. “When you submitted information to the Department of Buildings, you didn’t have to submit information about energy code compliance.”


The new submission requirements were just the beginning. “In Fall 2009, they began to audit projects to verify compliance. At a future date, they may require progress inspections of the construction site as an additional measure of enforcement,” says Garvin. The DOB now issues objections and notices of revocation for applications that do not comply.


New York City is leading by example and making bold changes to reduce its impact on global climate change. As architects and engineers work outside of the city, they may apply these same standards elsewhere. “Part of the goal is to set a bar; if these measures are successful here, I think you’ll see other areas adopt them. New York is obviously a very big city with a lot of buildings, but there are also a lot of architects, engineers, and other designers here who work all over the country and around the world. It would only be natural for things applied here to spread,” says Waite.


Jana J. Madsen is a Cedar Rapids, IA-based freelance writer with 10 years of experience in writing about the commercial buildings industry.