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Tilting at Windmills
Retrofits take center stage at Urban Green Expo

Architects and clients hunkered down for old-fashioned schooling last month as the local chapter of the United States Green Building Council hosted its inaugural expo. The New York chapter—newly renamed the Urban Green Council—called the three-day event a success, citing 2,000 participants from across the real-estate industry.

Most of the sessions, which kicked off on September 21 at the Metropolitan Pavilion, considered strategies for retrofitting existing buildings. New York’s Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri announced changes to the building code that will oblige landlords to pass energy audits or face fines. His talk set some parameters for how Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to legislate retrofits will work. For instance, he said, a new accent on “energy code surveillance” will be a part of future inspections of existing buildings.

“Existing buildings are the most important class in policy and market terms,” said Russell Unger, the council’s executive director.

LiMandri captured the chaos clouding many decisions as the retrofit wave begins: “You have a lot of chatter from vendors: Buy my product! And you have the owner saying: Should I stake my credibility on a wind turbine I put on my roof?” Amid such uncertainty, LiMandri argued that those racing to improve building performance should follow the regulators’ lead. “If the permitting agencies haven’t gotten there, we won’t make much progress,” he warned.

One of the most popular conference sessions explored how Architecture Research Office and Levenson McDavid Architects applied the German standard known as Passivhaus to a single-family home in Syracuse and a co-housing project near the Gowanus Canal. Yetsuh Frank, the council’s policy director, praised Passivhaus as a robust green technology because it avoids high-tech solutions likely to become obsolete in a few years. “It’s relying on an insulated and tightly sealed envelope,” he said. “These are really choices that last forever once you put them in place.”

For Unger, the conference showed that policymakers can quickly engage developers by streamlining how they regulate. Indeed, a new study using cost information from clients including the Related Companies and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund suggests that a developer could build to LEED certification on the same budget as a competitor constructing a code-compliant building—more evidence that the baselines for both types of buildings may soon be converging.


A version of this article appeared in AN 17_10.21.2009.

Alec Appelbaum