New York’s Path to Scaling Up Passive House

The proliferation of Passive House buildings in New York today arose within the context of increasing recognition of the seriousness of climate change—and of adopting new policies or regulations that respond to this serious challenge. The second half of 2018 brought several exciting developments in New York City’s drive to transition our buildings toward high performance, the central plank in our fight against climate change. These developments, though, were more than ten years in the making.

Photo by Elizabeth Felicella

In 2007, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg released PlaNYC, a sustainability plan for New York City. PlaNYC drew up a bold agenda for creating a “greener, greater New York,” which included the goal of a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. By enumerating the large contributions that buildings make to the city’s carbon emissions—they represent nearly 70% of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions—the plan elevated the stature of real estate as an important partner in fighting climate change.

PlaNYC prompted a cascade of legislative changes. In 2009, the mayor signed Local Law 84, which required annual benchmarking and reporting of energy and water use in New York City buildings with more than 50,000 gross square feet—nearly 50% of the city’s square footage. In 2016, Local Law 133 expanded the list of covered buildings to include those with more than 25,000 gross square feet, adding another 17,000 buildings. In addition to benchmarking, every ten years these covered buildings must undergo an energy audit and commissioning process to both tune up existing equipment and identify all cost-effective measures to improve their efficiency.

A related law, Local Law 88, requires that all nonresidential covered buildings upgrade their lighting to meet the latest energy code by 2025, triggering the adoption of newer, dramatically more efficient lighting technologies. Still another local law closed an energy code loophole, requiring for the first time that partial renovations—a category that includes most of the city’s construction projects—meet the energy code.

Photo by Yetsuh Frank from the report, Pursuing Passive

This drumbeat of energy-related laws reflects New York’s increasing understanding of its vulnerability in the face of climate change. Other shocks to the system have also upped the ante, such as the devastating Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the People’s Climate March, when roughly 400,000 people took to the streets on September 21, 2014, to call for climate action. Shortly afterward, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York City’s commitment to achieving an 80 x 50 target, reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, with an interim target to reduce emissions 40% by 2030. To lead by example, the mayor committed all new municipal buildings to meeting very aggressive efficiency targets, with Passive House as a compliance path. And in response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order committing New York City to meeting the principles of that historic agreement, most importantly the 1.5°C global warming limit.

More recent developments include new energy stretch codes for the city, including a performance-based energy code in 2025 that is expected to have targets similar to those of Passive House. The city will also require buildings covered by the benchmarking law to publicly post letter grades in their lobbies, based on their annual Energy Star score, providing a very public report card for a building’s energy performance relative to its peers.

Complementing the energy code changes that will move all new construction toward a Passive House-like standard by 2025, new legislation was introduced last fall that, if enacted, will trigger a wave of high-efficiency upgrades to most large existing New York City buildings. In late November 2018, City Council Member Costa Constantinides proposed Intro 1253, a bill that would set strict limits on the carbon emissions of existing large buildings (more than 25,000 gross square feet) starting in 2022, and stepping down in 2024, 2030, and 2050. With significant penalties for noncompliance, the bill is designed to set our buildings on a path to meet the city’s 80 x 50 and interim target goals. This legislation has garnered much support on the council, making it highly likely that a version will become law this year. A companion bill, Intro 1252, creates a new form of low-cost financing, called c-PACE (commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy), to ease the up-front cost of making these energy-saving improvements.

Photo by Elizabeth Felicella

To help envision how to transform a typical existing NYC building into a state-of-the-art low-energy, high-comfort building, the Building Energy Exchange released a comprehensive EnerPHit feasibility study, Pursuing Passive. The report, published in October 2018, lays out the strategies and resources—and the associated benefits—needed to complete a full Passive House renovation of a 15-story, 163-unit apartment building, while keeping the tenants in place, which is critical given NYC’s low vacancy rates.

Finally, last summer, the Building Energy Exchange became the founding hub of the United Nations International Centres of Excellence on High Performance Buildings (ICE-HPB), a global resource center network created to support development of high-performance buildings, sponsored by United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. ICE-HPB will be a knowledge-sharing framework among progressive cities to provide on-the-ground implementation assistance for building owners and developers, architects, engineers, contractors, and policy officials. Supporting the Paris Climate Accord and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, additional centers are under way in Vancouver, British Columbia; Wexford, Ireland; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Brussels, Belgium.

—Richard Yancey
Richard Yancey is executive director of the Building Energy Exchange.

NYC Time Line

2007 — PlaNYC released; Mayor Bloomberg’s master plan includes a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas GHG) emissions by 2030.

2009 — Green Greater Buildings Plan passed, a suite of four new local laws (LLs) for all large buildings:

  • LL84 — requires annual benchmarking, reporting, and public disclosure of building energy and water usage.
  • LL85 — NYC Energy Conservation Code, closes partial-renovation loophole.
  • LL87 — requires energy audit and retro-commissioning, every ten years.
  • LL88 — requires lighting upgrades to meet code for all large nonresidential buildings by 2025.

2009 — Incorporation of the Building Energy Exchange (BEEx).

2010 — Creation of New York Passive House organization.

2012 — Superstorm Sandy hits, causing 53 deaths and $42 billion in damage, and destroying 100,000 homes in New York State alone.

2014 — People’s Climate March brings 400,000 to NYC streets to fight climate change.

2014 — Mayor de Blasio speaks at UN and releases ten-year plan, One City Built to Last.

2015 — Official launch of BEEx’s downtown resource center.

2015 — BEEx produces sold-out event, Passivhaus: Lessons from Europe, which provides a briefing on fact-finding mission to Brussels. BEEx also provides several high-level briefings to NYC and New York State policy makers.

2015 — Mayor de Blasio announces the creation of the New York City Retrofit Accelerator, a free advisory service to help building owners make energy efficiency improvements to their buildings. Accelerator will include a high-performance track.

2015 — BEEx releases briefing, Passive New York City: A Snapshot of Low Energy Building Opportunities, Barriers, & Resources.

2016 — Mayor de Blasio releases One City Built to Last, a technical working group report, which sets the stage for:

  • Plans to address existing-building GHG reductions.
  • Creating whole-building energy performance targets.
  • Including midsize buildings (25,000 square feet and up) in benchmarking requirements.
  • Creating an exemplary buildings program, similar to Brussels’s successful BatEx competition.

2016 — NAPHN16 Conference + Expo, Decarbonize Our Future Today, hosted in NYC.

2016 — LL31 passed, establishing aggressive high-performance targets for all new NYC buildings (Passive Standard is a compliance path option).

2017 — In response to the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Mayor de Blasio signs Executive Order 26, committing NYC to the principles of the Paris Agreement and a pathway to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

2017 — The House at Cornell Tech opens in NYC, the world’s first residential high-rise built to Passive House standards.

2017 — Mayor de Blasio proposes new legislation to limit on-site fossil fuel consumption, responsible for 40% of NYC GHG emissions.

2018 — Mayor de Blasio signs two new local laws:

  • LL32, Stretch and Performance Codes, mandates aggressive reductions in 2019 and 2022 energy codes, with passive-like performance targets, by 2025.
  • LL33, Building Energy Grades, requires publicly posted building energy grades, based on Energy Star scores, starting in 2020.

2018 — BEEx, Brussels Capital Region, NYC Sustainability, and NYPH partner to produce public exhibit, Icebox Challenge NYC, located near Times Square.

2018 — BEEx launches its Passive House Primer, a free one-hour seminar on Passive fundamentals delivered in the offices of building owners, managers, and designers.

2018 — Official launch of $1.5 million expansion of BEEx’s downtown resource center, including a new connected classroom.

2018 — BEEx opens new exhibit, CelebrateNYC; Building a Sustainable City, featuring 60 energy efficiency retrofit projects, ranging from lighting upgrades to Passive House/EnerPHit renovations.

2018 — BEEx becomes the founding hub of the United Nations International Centres of Excellence on High Performance Buildings, a global resource center network created to support development of high-performance buildings, sponsored by United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, with additional centers underway in Vancouver, British Columbia; Wexford, Ireland; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Brussels, Belgium.

2018 — NYSERDA launches Retrofit NY, a multiyear design-build competition to create new solutions for low-energy renovations for Multifamily Buildings.

2018 — BEEx releases new report, Pursuing Passive: Strategies for a High Comfort, Low Energy Retrofit in NYC, a feasibility study of retrofitting a large multifamily building to the EnerPHit standard.

2018 — NYC Council introduces two progressive bills to catalyze energy efficiency improvements, with a high likelihood of being enacted into law in 2019:

  • Intro 1253 is landmark legislation that would set strict limits on the carbon emissions of existing large buildings (over 25,000 square feet ) starting in 2022, and stepping down in 2024, 2030, and 2050.
  • Int. 1252 creates a new form of low-cost financing called PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) to ease the up-front cost of making energy-saving improvements.

2019 — NYSERDA is expected to launch Buildings of Excellence, an annual competition for new construction of high-performance buildings, with substantial financial prizes.

2019 — NAPHN19 Conference + Expo, Build the World We Want: Implementing Low Carbon Solutions, to be hosted in NYC.

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