Beyond efficiency: Changing our buildings’ energy impact

As a designer of green buildings, I often collaborate with others in the industry to study how we can best achieve energy efficiency in our projects. However, in the search for new ideas, we rarely discuss New York City’s power grid—and even more rarely do we talk about the changes in how energy is supplied to buildings. That’s why I am excited about Urban Green’s Annual Conference on October 4. It’s Electrifying: Exploring NYC’s Climate Plan to Electrify Buildings will convene experts to share what is and what isn’t already happening and lay out the remaining challenges.

Those of us who delve deeply into green buildings have an impressive arsenal of strategies to reduce demand through better walls, better systems, better products and the benefits of their intelligent integration. Occasionally, we are able to include distributed generation systems, but rarely does the grid itself inform our design strategies.

Although the calendar says we are nearly one-third of the way to 2050, we are nowhere close to our 80 percent goal and will need to look beyond our buildings’ walls for further reductions.

The next chapter will surely involve making the electrical grid carbon neutral and converting nearly all building systems to electric. Experts at the conference will discuss the complicated timing questions and challenges related to greening the grid.

Speakers familiar with innovative electric building technologies will present examples of how electrifying building systems could be achieved at scale. The implementation of these strategies will ultimately affect the design, construction and operation of buildings, so it should interest anyone involved in the industry.


This conference will provide a healthy refresher for industry practitioners by framing buildings in a larger perspective—as the biggest contributors to the city’s overall energy use.

As an architect, my daily world is thinking about buildings, so I can easily get excited about successfully achieving energy efficiency goals of a particular project, whether for a certification or just for the satisfaction of creating a good building. But that efficiency is really a stand-in for the bigger issue: how emissions affect the built environment.

Emissions may seem abstract. But as someone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in Los Angeles, they were very tangible. Anyone who grew up there at that time will tell you we would often be exposed to “smog” during gym or while playing outside of school. My chest would burn and I would have to keep breaths short to avoid a painful cough. The City of Los Angeles would occasionally issue smog alerts and cancel gym classes at public schools. I was not aware this was not common until moving away.

NYC design professionals will soon have a new choice on their hands—whether to accept the fuel options on a site or consider shifting to electric heat and hot water technologies. The result will not only be fewer emissions, it will also lead to cleaner air. With that in mind, I am looking forward to spending a morning at this conference exploring the role that building electrification could play in further reducing NYC’s emissions!

About the authors

Rafael Pelli
Rafael Pelli, Partner, Pelli Clarke Pelli