Beacon News

Counteracting The Climate Crisis – A look to the Horizon of NYC Buildings and beyond

By Edward Forester, Project Engineer, Beacon Consulting Group, Inc.

The Past

Historically, construction of buildings and other structures was determined by the materials available, and the ever-evolving building practices of each era. As humankind advanced, so did our construction -- from cave dwellings and animal hides wrapped over sticks in the stone ages, to the massive and complex projects built in ancient Egypt and Greece, such as the Pyramids and the Parthenon. By AD 72, the Romans were building such iconic structures as The Colosseum, a massive stadium capable of holding more than 50,000 spectators. As we fast forward to Modern Times, construction technology has evolved to enable towering skyscrapers, tunnels bored miles through mountains, and millions of miles of infrastructure powering our world today. Rapid advances in the 20th century made possible the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and countless other wonders of modern construction.

In the past, there was little regard given to what impact the built environment was having on the natural environment. Today, that landscape is changing. The screw has been turning for the last several decades as the impact of the climate crisis is being felt in cities around the world. According to a report produced by The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), since 1900 the New York City area has experienced a mean annual temperature increase of 0.3°F per decade, mean annual precipitation increases of 0.8 inches per decade, and a sea level rise of 1.2 inches per decade. This equates to a total mean temperature increase of 3.4°F and a total sea level rise of 1.1 feet in just over 100 years.

In recent years, the Eastern U.S. has experienced some devastating storms such as “Superstorm Sandy” (2012) which caused massive damage (from both flooding and high winds), resulting in billions of dollars in damage and the loss of more than 233 lives. Sandy’s extreme storm surge hit New York City on October 29, 2012, flooding streets, tunnels, and subway lines. In addition, wide-spread power outages occurred in and around the city. Long Island and the NJ Coastline were similarly hard hit. Many climate scientists believe that Sandy and similar storms were greatly exacerbated by sea temperature warming and that the severity and frequency of such storms will increase unless significant action is taken to reverse global warming.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projects that without intervention, mean annual temperatures in New York City will increase 4.1 - 5.7°F by the 2050s and 5.3 - 8.8°F by the 2080s, with hot days above 90°F tripling by the 2050s from 18 to 57 per year. The same dramatic increases can be expected for precipitation and sea level increases. Hot days drain our energy resources and put immense pressure on the power grid. Heavy rainfall events flood our transportation networks and overwhelm sewer systems.

Looking Ahead

With the rapid changes to our climate in mind, pressure is growing for more sustainable construction and city planning practices, as well as for environmentally conscious design of energy-efficient buildings. As a result, changes are forthcoming in our industry. Those of us working in the construction industry need to be aware of, and prepared for, changes to come.

The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) convened in August 2008, as a collaboration of leading climate and social scientists and risk management experts who work to identify climate risks facing New York City and guide “OneNYC” policies. OneNYC 2050, NYC’s long-term strategy for addressing climate change and other challenges, calls for carbon neutrality (Net zero greenhouse gas emissions) citywide, and an all-electric New York City by 2050, with 100% of the City’s electricity coming from “clean” sources. A study commissioned by NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability (MOS) in April 2021, stated that this was achievable through actionable recommendations to catalyze the design and construction of low-carbon buildings, as well as the integration of high-performance building practices in architecture.

Buildings currently account for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions in New York City. But how will commitment and participation be ensured? First, in 2024, with a new Green House Gas emissions cap on annual operation energy code (Local Law 97 - One of the most ambitious plans for reducing emissions in the U.S.). Second, in 2025, with a new performance-based energy code (Local Law 32). If building owners don’t comply, they’ll face substantial fines of as much as $1 million (or more) per year for the largest buildings. In total, energy efficiency improvements to more than 900,000 buildings and electrification of heating and hot water in up to 642,000 buildings are going to be required in New York.

High performance buildings and investment in energy efficiency and electrification are going to be essential to the future of New York City. So, for the construction industry, what changes can we expect to see for our new and existing buildings?

Design Expectation Changes

(1) Energy Performance Goals.

  • Designing to achieve high Building Energy Efficiency Ratings (BEER).

(2) Environmental Certifications and Green Building Design.

  • Designing within a framework such as LEED, to achieve healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings.

(3) Energy Design Tools.

  • Building Energy modeling will begin to be incorporated at each stage of design and construction. The involvement of Energy Modelers is something to become familiar with.

(4) Luxury concepts to become standard. What once seemed luxury will become necessary.

  • Advanced materials, smart buildings, and passive design will all become more commonplace in order to meet targets.

(5) Recognizing true design and implementation costs.

  • As building codes are enforced, the cost to comply will have to be accepted.

Updates to Existing Buildings - Reduce emissions by improving major building system energy efficiency

  • Light fixture changes
  • Energy compliant heating systems
  • Energy compliant cooling systems
  • Advanced building controls
  • Advancements to building ventilation
  • Improvements to existing building envelope – windows, doors, roof.
  • Heat transfer testing
  • Improved wall construction

An Opportunity to Step Up

In the face of what can be seen as daunting changes to the planet, forceful legislation, and pressure of responsibility on building owners, designers, and the construction industry; there is also a very exciting new unknown on the horizon. When under pressure to adapt, creative solutions come to the forefront, and innovative new design and technologies are already being seen. Construction innovations are progressing rapidly, and the industry now has a tremendous number of resources to advance construction technology.

Construction tech funding hit a record high of $2.1 billion in 2021—a 100% increase from the year before. Climate neutral bricks are being developed, solar roof tiles, smart rainwater management systems, Green Building Curtains, Energy harvesting kinetic tiles. At Beacon, change is something that energizes and excites us, and we look forward to covering the changing construction practices and technologies as and when they are rolled out.