Special Event: Taking Action After Sandy

Thirteen Building Resiliency Task Force (BRTF) proposals have already been passed by the City Council this term (you can learn more about them on our tracker). It’s impressive that the city acted so decisively after Sandy to improve the building code for both sustainability and resiliency – but it also means some new requirements that owners and building professionals must contend with. Thankfully, these laws provide new options for building design and retrofits, as several barriers to resiliency and sustainability have been removed. Last week, experts from the Task Force got together with a lively audience to discuss challenges and opportunities arising from these new laws.

Angela Sung Pinsky (Real Estate Board of New York) believes there have been changes in the way owners think about the chance of flooding, saying “in Manhattan, there has been an increased consideration of barriers in flood zones.” BRTF 5, now Local Law 109 of 2013, allows temporary flood barriers or shields (and their supports) to extend a short distance into the public right-of-way – good news for owners trying to protect their buildings. However, owners should be aware that permits for these barriers are “revocable consents”; as Angela put it, owners are essentially “renting space back” from the city. She said the city is considering a streamlined process to make these permits easier to obtain.

Though the public water system remained functional during Sandy, there was no way to get water in upper apartments in many tall buildings, because as Artie Klock (Plumbers Local Union No. 1) pointed out, “the pump is located in the cheap real estate – the basement.” So the physical damage from inrushing water created a secondary problem as people were forced to evacuate from a lack of potable water. When building water tanks ran out, buildings quickly become uninhabitable. BRTF 23, now Local Law 110 of 2013, requires that buildings over five stories have faucets available to supply water only from street pressure during emergencies. This is a retrofit requirement – within eight years, both new and existing residential buildings must install one faucet for every 100 people who live there. An audience member expressed disbelief that people would carry water upstairs from the accessible fixture – but Artie pointed out the overlap between sustainability (water savings from low-flush toilets) and resiliency (water availability to flush toilets during a power outage), saying “Carrying 1.6 gallons up the stairs to flush your toilet is a lot easier than carrying 5 gallons up.” Good point.

Jon Weiskopf (Steven Winter Associates) mentioned a sea change that happened in the city after Sandy: “The building code was designed to get people out of buildings; now we are trying to keep people in.” Instead of focusing solely on evacuation after an emergency, extended habitability has become another goal. Jon credited the Department of Buildings, Con Edison, and particularly FDNY with their creativity on the Task Force, saying they were “very active in coming up with solutions.” Some of these solutions remove barriers, including BRTF 17, now Local Law 111 of 2013, which allows natural gas to be used much more broadly for backup generators. Along with burning more cleanly and not requiring fuel deliveries, natural gas may be available when diesel fuel tanks have run dry. Jon said that since the same generator may now be used for both emergency purposes and to strategically reduce loads to save on utility bills, the new law gives “a huge range of design possibilities” for engineers.

To guard against flooding, vulnerable equipment must be moved higher in the building. BRTF 3, now Local Law 100 of 2013, requires electrical services, fire protection systems, compressed gas or hazardous material tanks, and vent piping to be located above the flood line. Paradoxically, building code provisions had prevented raising some other building systems such as fuel oil storage and telecommunications equipment. These barriers have been removed by BRTF 4, now Local Law 98 of 2013. John D’Angelo (NewYork-Presbyterian) says moving equipment out of the basement may sacrifice some more valuable real estate. Owners can’t just swap things around space-wise, since (as he put it) “no one wants to go down into a dark dank basement for high-end retail.”

Nevertheless, John saw resiliency improvements as necessary. “NYC has so many lives in such a small space, with so many interdependencies, that without resiliency we face cascading emergencies after an event.” Hopefully, as these new laws become standard practice, our city will be both greener and better prepared for emergencies to come.