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Did Bill De Blasio Just Ban Steel & Glass Buildings In New York City? Not Really.

New York City mayor Bill De Blasio said this week new glass and steel buildings would soon be banned. That may have been a bit of hyperbole but signals a new emphasis on energy efficient buildings.

The city council of New York and Mayor Bill De Blasio are moving aggressively to lower the city’s carbon emissions, the majority of which come from heating and cooling the iconic skyscrapers that define the city’s skyline. Earlier this month, the council enacted new regulations requiring all buildings in the city larger than 25,000 square feet to reduce their carbon emissions by 40% over the next decade or face the prospect of significant fines.

Hudson Yards New York City

Hudson Yards, New York City. Credit: Related Companies via DeZeen

“One of the highlights is for the first time on this earth, the first city to mandate that our buildings must stop emitting so many dangerous pollutants,” the mayor said after the city council unanimously approved the new regulations  “Our buildings must be part of the solution and not part of the problem. It’s now law that our buildings must do the right thing for the people of the city.”

At a press conference on April 22, the mayor may have gotten a little carried away when he announced, “The number one cause [of greenhouse gases] in this city is the buildings. It’s not the cars, it’s the buildings. We’re going to introduce legislation to ban the glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming. They have no place in our city or on our earth anymore.”

Wait. What? No new skyscrapers in New York City? The mayor’s words have ruffled the feathers of just about every architect and real estate developer in The Big Apple. “We haven’t seen any law drafted or any policy drafted,” Carl Hum, general counsel for the Real Estate Board of New York tells the New York Times. “We are curious, if the mayor is banning glass and steel, what the alternative will be?”

In a recent survey, the city found that buildings with glass curtain wall exteriors require the most energy to heat and cool. Glass is very attractive but nowhere near as energy efficient as a 12″ thick wall filled with modern insulation. Then again, buildings without windows are about as attractive as a Soviet era apartment complex.

“It was sort of a naïve statement,” says Mitch Simpler, the incoming head of the American Council of Engineering Companies. He cited ongoing improvements in energy efficiency for modern buildings, saying “every year these buildings perform better and better.”

The real challenge, he says, is retrofitting older buildings to meet the requirements of the recent City Council legislation, a process that could cost building owners more than $4 billion. “This is a huge lift. In some cases, we will have to redo the skin of the building. Our real challenge is to go back in time and take these 75, 100 year old charming and architecturally unique buildings and make them perform like a Ferrari.”

De Blasio cited the new Hudson Yards development as an example of how not to build in New York City, calling those buildings “examples of the wrong way to do things.” Hudson Yards was developed by Related Companies and officials there took umbrage at the mayor’s remarks.

The signature building in Hudson Yards is a 52-story office tower with an angled roof. Its heating and cooling systems are powered by microturbines that are twice as efficient as standard HVAC equipment. A storm water retention system collects rainwater, which is then recycled and used in the building’s cooling towers and to water the landscaping. Its exterior consists largely of high tech glass that is highly energy efficient.

The building has been awarded LEED platinum status by the US Green Building Council. “Hudson Yards was planned as the largest LEED neighborhood in New York City,” Joanna Rose, a spokesperson for Related Companies, said in a statement.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been quietly walking back the mayor’s statements and suggesting the word “ban” might have been a bit of hyperbole. “There was a little bit of qualification,” one industry official tells the New York Times. “Perhaps the mayor was overenthusiastic.” The source spoke anonymously so as not to damage his relationship with city hall.

Energy efficiency for buildings is critically important if the goals of the Paris climate accords are to be met. A fossil fueled vehicle may last for a decade or more but many buildings will endure for a century or more, which means new ones must be made as energy efficient as possible and older structures must be made more energy efficient.

Costa Constantinides, a councilman who represents Queens and is chairman of the city council’s Environmental Protection Committee, says a robust discussion with the real estate industry will take place as the result of the city’s new push to lower carbon emissions from buildings. “We have to come up with policies that reflect the seriousness of climate change. I don’t think anyone will stop building in New York. They will just be in line with our goals.”

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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