NYC Reshapes Its “DNA” with Building Code Revisions
Under NYC's new Local Law 51, lighting in the city's ubiquitous sidewalk sheds (like this one on 71st St.) must be more energy efficient.
By Erin Weaver
New building codes in New York City are expected to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5% and save $400 million in energy costs by 2030, according to a new report from Urban Green Council.
The report refers to building codes as “the DNA of a city—rules that are applied many times over [with] an exponential impact on how the city functions.” Russell Unger, executive director of Urban Green Council, the New York chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, says one benefit of the code review process has been to draw attention to the importance of codes: for example, while most of the 29 individual code changes in the last two years “are not headline items, the largest changes in water consumption will be the result of slight tweaks to our codes.” A City Council spokesperson agrees: “Each little law in itself may not seem important, but all together they make a serious difference. For a government agency, it’s pretty amazing.”
The process has been one of enthusiastic collaboration among government, industry, and nonprofits, each eager to see the city at the cutting edge of green building. “The real estate discussion,” says Unger, “became, ‘How can we make the things the leaders are already doing the baseline?’”
At the City’s request, Urban Green Council convened a green codes task force in 2007 to recommend code changes mitigating the environmental impacts of construction and renovation as part of agency-wide preparations for population growth and climate change—an effort dubbed PlaNYC. The task force made 111 recommendations in February 2010; of the proposed changes, 29 have since been made into law and eight others are partially implemented or in development.
Many of the updates streamline the green building process by removing red tape and arcane policies. For example, two new codes address what are sometimes unintentional prohibitions on alternative energy. There have been cases, says Unger, in which outdated wording meant huge HVAC equipment could be installed on a roof but solar panels could not.
Among the changes most visible to city pedestrians will be the lighting in “sidewalk sheds,” those scaffolding tunnels formed during building-façade construction. Previous regulations encouraged excessive use of incandescent bulbs in the city’s 4,500 sidewalk sheds; now they must meet higher efficiency standards. And in a move with implications for health, energy savings, and waste reduction, vending machines selling bottled water can no longer serve as substitutes for water fountains in renovations or new construction.
• treatment of the 15 million gallons of construction wastewater poured annually into streets and sewers;
• increased green stormwater infrastructure;
• “cool roof” requirements to mitigate the urban heat island effect;
• a requirement that 2% of heating oil be biofuel, some of it from waste cooking oil;
• strict regulation of toxic emissions from all carpet sold or installed in the city.
Unger is optimistic about the rest of the task force recommendations, saying he hopes to accomplish at least as much in the remainder of the Bloomberg administration as in the last two years. “The thing about working [in New York],” Unger observes, “is you name the topic and there’s an expert.”
For other municipalities hoping to make code improvements of their own, “some of it’s totally replicable,” says Unger, “and some of it’s about the idiosyncrasies of New York City’s code.” Unger notes that many changes are modeled on the recently approved International Green Construction Code—a template any jurisdiction can use.