NYC's Ambitious New Energy Code

New York City’s new energy code is a month old. October always has a way of changing our landscape, but this one brings more than the annual colorful transformation. This code’s impact will be felt on every freshly constructed or renovated building for years. Will it be enough to get us to 80 by 50? Not yet, but it’s an essential stepping-stone. Join me tomorrow at this year’s BuildingEnergy NYC conference as we discuss innovative practices from around the world to reach the next level of energy policy.

Cities with good energy policy catalyze education of designers and builders. The latest NYC code has tough requirements, but enough flexibility to encourage the A/D community to learn new techniques. For example, on-site testing of air tightness is now mandatory for residential buildings and commercial buildings between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet, meaning that a range of practitioners need to learn about blower door testing and how to construct a good air barrier.

In Europe, the EU collects and standardizes building techniques and knowledge and identifies gaps in worker skills. Member states submit their best practices and training needs, and then standard national protocols and curriculum are established and shared throughout the Union. NYC’s efforts to standardize new practices encourage educational organizations to expand their curriculum. As its workforce skillset expands to include techniques like blower door testing, NYC emerges as a leader in the U.S., and may serve as a model in the future.

Energy policy also needs the support of the public. In London and some other major EU cities, this means building labeling. In London, Energy Performance Certificates show energy use through a labeling system similar to NYC’s restaurant grades.

In NYC, benchmarking requires building energy use to be reported each year. This information is published annually by NYC rather than posted on each building. Urban Green also created a website devoted to showing the individual building results at Metered.nyc. The city’s effort is expanding to include 342 million more square feet of built area as part of the update to Local Law 84.

Most importantly, good energy policy lowers actual energy usage. Building labeling and benchmarking support this process, but it’s the code that cranks down the prescriptive and performance gears to squeeze out more efficiency from our buildings. Just as a child’s braces are tightened with each visit to the orthodontist, each tightening of the code brings with it a little discomfort, a reminder of the vision ahead—and an impressive end result.

This round of code improvements promises to reduce commercial building energy consumption by 9 percent and a whopping 32 percent in residential. That savings promise is rooted in the design of the project but also in its “as-built” construction and operation, which differ from the models.

To address this, NYC may eventually choose an outcome-based energy code—a code that looks at a building’s energy use in its first year of operation rather than its projected usage on paper.

For now, NYC has added a performance pathway based solely on energy use--a major improvement over its previous prescriptive approach that focused on energy cost. This is a step in the right direction as we move towards a more straightforward energy code that will simply shoot for an EUI target rather than meet hundreds of individual requirements. It also reminds us of the vision—to reduce our emissions to a set number that will be sustainable for the planet as a whole.

About the authors

Sean Brennan
Sean leads Urban Green’s Research team. He is responsible for identifying and executing studies that reveal industry trends and influence building design. He has worked in the energy and utility space for over 10 years and has specialized in building science and analysis. Sean has improved energy efficiency and asset maintenance programs at Pacific Gas & Electric and Sempra utilities in California.