Cities and Old Buildings

Laurie Kerr, AIA, Director, City Energy Project, New York

Hurricane Sandy brought home what scientists had been saying for years: Cities need to get ready for the destructive effects of climate change. A year and a half later, resilience and adaptation are high on government agendas, but the root problem — carbon emissions — is as stubborn as ever. If we don't curb emissions, temperatures will continue to rise, and climate effects will become more frequent and more violent. Cities need to adapt, but arguably, they need to mitigate more.

Though vulnerable to climate change themselves, buildings are also the key to holding it in check. Largely due to their electricity use, they are the largest single source of carbon emissions in the U.S. — accounting for nearly 40 percent — more than transportation or industry. That percentage is even higher at the city level, with buildings accounting for as much as 75 percent in the densest cities. Unfortunately, much of that energy is wasted as a result of poor building management practices, and outdated technology.

That means that reducing building energy use can have a tremendous positive impact in combating climate change. At the same time, it can help residents’ and business’ wallets — saving them money on their energy bills. Of course, this is not news, and there have been plenty of efforts to stimulate energy efficiency in buildings to-date, from LEED to the Department of Energy's Better Buildings Challenge. But these efforts have been focused on the leading edge and, while important, in the absence of state and federal legislation, they haven't scaled up to create the city-sized reductions that we need.

Fortunately, cities aren't waiting any longer to take action. Just last week, NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) launched a new initiative to ramp up energy efficiency in the building stock of 10 major cities around the United States. By focusing on the largest existing buildings that comprise roughly half the square footage of each city, this project is designed to promote energy efficiency at the city scale. Called the City Energy Project, mayors from cities all over the country have signed on: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City.

Together, these cities' united efforts to reduce building energy waste are projected to deliver tremendous environmental and economic savings: reducing carbon pollution annually by 5 million to 7 million tons (equivalent to taking 1 million to 1.5 million cars off the road) annually, and lowering energy bills by up to $1 billion per year.

The cities will do this by working with NRDC and IMT staff to develop and implement their own locally tailored plans to advance energy efficiency and reduce waste in their buildings. The cities’ strategies will support four goals: advancing transparency around building energy use; removing financial barriers to energy efficiency; raising the baseline of efficiency through simple, low-cost improvements; and leading by example in city buildings and with municipal challenge programs. These plans, which will include multiple integrated strategies, can make more progress in each city than any one program or policy could alone.

As not only the Director of the City Energy Project, but an architect, I'm particularly interested in what our new project means for the architectural world.

I am proud that my profession has made tremendous strides in greening new buildings. Sustainable design principles, once a fringe concern, are now at the heart of what architects do. But even if we designed every new building to be carbon neutral, it would just keep our emissions flat, whereas we know we need significant reductions. The only way to actually reduce is to improve our cities' vast stock of existing buildings: that is the challenge of the 21st Century.

Happily, it appears that architects can do well by doing good. A recent report by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Rocky Mountain Institute identified existing building retrofits as a smart business opportunity for architects: 72% of the US building stock is more than 20 years old, and a designer's skills are well suited to retooling these buildings for the future. Architectural practice already seems to be heading in this direction. The 2012 AIA Firm Survey showed that architecture firms received 42% of their billings from renovation projects. Before long, renovations and retrofits could make up the majority of what architects work on, as opposed to new buildings.

These renovations and retrofits will engage architects because making our building stock more efficient is not just about technical fixes, like installing better boilers or cooling towers, which are handled by engineers. It’s also about upgrading lighting, to avoid flicker and improve color rendering at reduced wattages, or installing new windows, which can seal out drafts and dust and noise as they become more efficient. These are areas where an architect’s training and sensibility are real assets. In addition, there’s a growing need for architects who understand how to plan spaces to be used more effectively, often dramatically reducing the energy used per student or per employee.

The 10 leading cities of the City Energy Project will be demonstrating how we can make our cities even better — long a central concern of the architectural community — this time by making our building stock more efficient. With the passion, commitment, and creativity of the architectural community on their side, our cities can lead the way toward a stronger, smarter, and more resilient built environment for future generations.

Photo Credit: Cities and Old Buildings/shutterstock