NYC’s Green SWAT Team

greenempire
Empire State Building, Earth Day / Inga’s Angle blog

Achieving sustainability requires more than just enacting forward-thinking legislation—it also requires compliance with laws and regulations. This was the message of Gina Bocra, chief sustainability officer; Emily Hoffman, director of energy code compliance; and Holly Savoia, director of sustainability enforcement, all with the New York City government, as they spoke at this year’s GreenBuild conference in New Orleans.

The three work for New York City’s department of buildings’ sustainability unit, one of the largest of its kind in the country. Informally known as “NYC’s Green SWAT Team,” the panelists and their staff are charged with helping the city meet its goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by 2030. They have a tremendous task, as nearly three quarters of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from the building sector.

The city’s groundbreaking Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, which was enacted in December 2009, is actually composed of four laws that address benchmarking, energy codes, audits and retro-commissioning, and lighting and submetering. [To further explain, retro-commissioning is a whole-building systems-based approach to improving an existing building’s performance.] These laws have to be enforced to be effective. “We provide some incentives, but we also hold the stick,” said Bocra. “We focus on fines and violations, but the goal is compliance.”

According to Hoffman, in January 2014 the unit began inspecting all new and renovated buildings for energy efficiency. A sustainability plan examiner reviews the energy code, and an inspection team, which may include third party inspectors, ensures the building is meeting the code as it is being built. So far, inspectors have looked at 2,600 new building applications, 4,500 major alterations applications, and 60,000 minor alterations applications.

Hoffman said the inspectors often encounter a “mind boggling” number of documentation and administrative errors and other technical issues. For instance, the square footage of areas don’t add up, or the U-factors (showing how part of a building conducts heat) are thrown in without any supporting documentation. As a result, Crain’s New York reported that nine out of ten commercial and residential projects fail on their first try to get their applications approved.

According to Savoia, sustainability inspectors make objections after comprehensive review. Half of submissions were returned last year due to “minor” issues, including missing owner signatures and improperly filled out forms. However, the unit is having an incredibly positive effect: compliance with local laws governing annual benchmarking of energy use, energy audits, and retro-commissioning increased from 76 percent in 2011 to 84 percent in 2012.

Hoffman acknowledged that “the energy code is really complex. There are different paths to compliance for residential and commercial buildings. It’s really difficult to understand this stuff, and so we have to provide more education.”

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