From plants on roofs to huge ice tanks, New York is devising creative solutions to cut emissions from its main greenhouse gas culprit — buildings.
By Devin Friedrich and Clio Morrison
Buildings produce two thirds of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions, and they hold the key to the city’s fight against climate change, which is already making the largest U.S. metropolitan area uncomfortably hot in the summer and threatening its coastline.
Aware of the dangers of global warming, public authorities, architects and builders in New York are devising creative solutions — ranging from plants on roofs to huge ice tanks — so that the city’s concrete jungle produces less carbon dioxide.
The city has pledged to slash its greenhouse emissions by 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2050, starting with a plan to upgrade buildings to make them more energy efficient. The city is making existing buildings more energy-efficient, investing in cleaner on-site power generation, helping tenants reduce energy consumption and cutting emissions from the city’s power supply.
As anyone who has visited a big city on a sweltering summer day knows, the very presence of so many buildings and so much asphalt contributes to higher temperatures. Air temperatures in cities, especially after sunset, can be as much as 22°F (12°C) warmer than the air in neighboring, greener regions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Under its “CoolRoofs” initiative, the city works with non-profits, public agencies and building owners to engage volunteers in applying white, reflective surfaces to rooftops to cut the temperature inside buildings by up to 30 percent.
In July, a member of New York’s City Council introduced legislation that would require certain buildings to cover their roofs with a green roof system, solar panels, small wind turbines or a combination of all three.
“New York City could turn our concrete jungle into a green oasis,” Rafael Espinal, who proposed the measure, was quoted as saying.
A place of dignity
Under its “Greener, Greater Buildings Plan,” structures larger than 50,000 square feet must undergo regular energy audits, replace lighting systems and adhere to current energy code when renovating.
Under the city’s “80×50” plan, ultra-low energy standards will apply to new construction and large-scale renovations. To set an example, the city government will upgrade all municipal buildings.
Architects and builders have joined the fight.
Breaking Ground is a non-profit, social service organization whose primary mission is to create high-quality housing for homeless citizens. But it aims to ensure that all of its newly constructed buildings are sustainable by incorporating low-toxicity finishes, natural light, energy efficient heating and lighting, and green roofs.
“The pursuit of sustainability leads to better outcomes for our clients,” Breaking Ground spokesman Patrick Bonck said, citing benefits to tenants’ well-being and the reduced lifetime costs of energy-efficient structures. “We want to create a place of dignity.”
High design for low-income housing
Take the Schermerhorn building in Brooklyn, Breaking Ground’s first new construction project, which the Wall Street Journal called “high design for low-income housing.”
The building’s 189 micro-units are aimed at single adults transitioning out of homelessness, persons living with HIV/AIDS and low-income community residents, with a preference for those in the performing arts and entertainment.
What might have been a dingy tenement a century ago today looks luxurious. The building features a yellow mechanical tower, teal accents running down a facade and floor-to-ceiling windows along the front. One glass facade is made up largely of recycled glass. The second floor green roof terrace minimizes heat.
Likewise, the Durst Organization real estate company has incorporated sustainable features that go beyond the city’s requirements. Its One Bryant Park complex on Manhattan has a unique air conditioning system: its natural gas generator functions as an air heater, and large ice tanks freeze water overnight with off-peak electricity to cool air.
“I don’t remember how much ice we have in here, but it’s really a lot,” Durst sustainability manager Brian Geller said with a chuckle as we toured OBP’s cavernous yet meticulously organized mechanical room. “You can eat food off the floor in here!”
Durst recognizes that environmentally-sustainable solutions can be costly, and so they outfit the roofs of all buildings with lightweight, modular plastic trays containing a shallow bed of succulents that absorb solar energy and reduce runoff after rainstorms.
To help offset costs, the EPA offers federal tax credits and works with the non-profit Enterprise Green to provide counseling for developers of affordable housing. New York State offers tax credits to owners and tenants of energy-efficient buildings.
So, New York City is doing its part in the fight against climate change.
Devin Friedrich is in his last year of high school at Friends Seminary in New York City. He is passionate about social justice and analog photography. He enjoys studying European History and Literature, and hopes to pursue History at university.
Clio Morrison is in her last year of high school at Friends Seminary. Her passions include film photography, reading and watching movies. Her favorite classes are French and History. At university, she hopes to study English or History, and one day she would like to be a photojournalist. She attended School Year Abroad France in 2016-17, and is a Student Ambassador for News-Decoder at Friends Seminary this year.