Insights from New York City: Decarbonising our Built Environment

June 14, 2019


I recently spent a week in the bustling New York City as part of my Byera Hadley research. This was a timely visit as it coincided with the recent passing of the Green New Deal which has hit the city by storm. Formally known as the Climate Mobilization Act, it is a set of bills that seek to tackle the pathway to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. Moreover, it is an Act that acknowledges the intrinsic link between the economy and the climate. It has been calculated that the built environment in NYC contributes to almost 70% of all Green House Gas emissions, so based on this, a number of the bills specifically address buildings and their performance in terms of energy usage. This has been the result of tireless work from individuals, organisations, local and state government bodies seeking to influence the federal administration of the U.S.

I spoke to a range of inspiring people from across Manhattan and Brooklyn’s building sector, to discuss how their work has been influencing these policy decisions, and what impacts will be experienced as a result. The following highlights some of the key insights I gained from local businesses, government bodies and national organisations.

Find the perfect storm

The state of New York experienced an event in 2012 that changed the course of its city’s future. Hurricane Sandy swept across the city and surrounding areas, killing over 230 people and tallying up a hefty $70 billion dollars worth of damage. Perhaps the only positive thing that resulted from this storm was the swift and rigorous climate protection action that followed. As Tom Eisele from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Resiliency described, this event brought climate change to the very front of policy motivation.

However, it is important to note that this was not the only natural disaster that has prompted change, but it did mark a tipping point in the attitudes towards the increasing level of vulnerability that the city will continue to experience. NYC as a municipality has been fairly proactive in regards to these issues. In 2007 for example, they launched the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan which was developed as part of the PlaNYC climate action proposal. This was particularly noteworthy as it began the groundwork for future policy to be based off. It required all large buildings to benchmark their energy consumption, run audits and report back on the buildings’ performance. This enabled a huge amount of data to be retrieved on all major buildings across the city which, along with a fierce amount of lobbying from various organisations (and perhaps a bit of ‘healthy global competition’) helped establish the ’80 x 50 Plan’. This aims for NYC to cut its carbon by 80% by 2050 based on 2005 figures. Stretch codes have since been introduced, similar to British Columbia’s ‘Energy Step Code’, to help the industry adjust to these rigorous regulatory requirements over the course of the city’s building code cycles.

Tom explained that 99.9% of the industry needs regulation to motivate any changes to ‘business as usual’. At the moment, the Green New Deal will target buildings that represent the largest proportion of floor area — namely those exceeding 25,000 square feet (or 2,323sqm). A series of incentives are being put in place to help those impacted, but on the flipside, steep fines apply if the energy cap is exceeded. The Passive House Standard is intended to be adopted, as it is far more comprehensive in terms of calculating operational energy than the current ‘point based’ rating systems widely used. It also provides a clear retrofit pathway for existing buildings too, using the EnerPHit option.

It is envisioned that the requirements will be rolled out to all sized buildings in the future. As Tom said, “We need everyone to be on board if we are to reach our climate protection goals and secure the resiliency of NYC”.

Learn from your international neighbours

The importance of looking to cities that have already tried and tested different approaches to climate protection was one of the common pieces of advice offered by everyone I spoke to. The Building Energy Exchange (BE-ex) is an organisation comprised of an extensive list of individuals from across the property, energy, finance and policy-making sectors. It was established in 2017 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) as an International Centre of Excellence on High-Performance Buildings. It operates as a knowledge sharing framework to research and initiate the uptake of innovative, contextual solutions that will support the building industry in achieving zero-emission outcomes. An international network of centres has been developed in conjunction with BE-ex, including Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Ireland and Brussels.

Richard Yancey, the executive director at BE-ex, stated that learning from countries that were already implementing strategies were the most valuable source of inspiration. A series of visits to countries such as Canada, Belgium, Germany and Austria were undertaken in 2015 leading to a report that listed recommendations to the City of New York. The most noteworthy recommendation was that the most proven way to achieve zero emissions is through the integration of the Passive House standard into regulation. Richard explained that this offers a robust pathway for NYC to transform its building stock as it is a performance-based standard ensuring occupant comfort and very low energy use. Several reports have been developed since, tackling the challenges of retrofitting existing structures. Of particular interest to Australia perhaps, is the Pursuing Passive publication which focusses on the opportunities in upgrading multi-residential buildings in the public housing sector.

Train your tribe

Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge that is disseminated, the faster we can empower our industry and accelerate change in our cities. We need to equip individuals with the right information to empower them. Planting the seed is often all it takes to unlock momentum that will snowball into amazing achievements. Ken Levenson started his career as an architect, and explained to me that discovering the importance of building physics, changed the trajectory of his career. It is clear, from just a short time chatting with him, that his passion lies in the protection of the environment and that he needed a way to feel empowered to do this through his everyday work.

His passion led him to becoming one of the founding members of both the local Passive House New York (PHNY) organisation and the broader North American Passive House Network (NAPHN). He then went on to set up a company for high-performance building materials — filling a huge gap in the market. Bringing the ‘craft of building’ back to the forefront of architecture and introducing techniques that would revolutionise the energy efficiency and occupant health of buildings was his mission. His time is now entirely spent educating architects, engineers, consultants and tradespeople about the fundamental principles of responsible design and construction, and developing local supply chains for materials and components which will allow the goal of decarbonising buildings to be realised in more cost-effective ways.

Creating a higher collaboration and transparency between individuals and organisations planning, designing, building or managing these types of projects is also really critical. In 2018 alone, the BE-ex, hosted 220 events with over 2500 industry professionals in attendance. These included technical primers, exhibits, training sessions and webinars. They also published more than 50 reports and case studies that year alone, creating a diverse, reliable and locally applicable platform of support and resource for the wider industry. They are certainly forming the backbone for the future of New York City’s built environment, and will inevitably leave a positive legacy for future generations.

Innovation needs humbleness

The concept of changing ‘business as usual’ will scare most people. It will mean needing to invest energy in learning something new. To do this unprompted will require a level of humbleness. It will be the result accepting that the work undertook previously can be improved in some way. All of the people I spoke to throughout this research trip are at the forefront of the industry in terms of climate protection (hence why I targeted them!) and I found them all to possess incredible amounts of humbleness. This can be seen in the way they approach challenges as opportunities, with an open-mindedness to learn, and perhaps even un-learn lessons previously relied upon. As an architect, to learn that the detail you have ‘optimised’ over years of hard work, may indeed be compromising the health and wellbeing of your client due to a pesky thermal bridge, will definitely not be an easy pill to swallow. Knowledge is power, but it also carries responsibility.

In conclusion…

We rely on a regulatory framework, such as the National Construction Code in Australia, to guide us, that is what regulation is there for right? So what if our regulation is letting us and our cities down? From what advice I have gathered so far, the first and foremost step is that we need to shift our attitude towards change. We need to be humble, embracing innovation and newfound responsibilities. As per the ending of my previous article, I can only reiterate that challenge needs to be grasped as an opportunity. New York and Vancouver have done this, not through federal leadership, but through local leadership first. So, no matter what country you are based in, let’s take a leaf from their book and push forwards too — regulation will just have to catch up.


I would like to say a very special thank you to the following individuals in NYC for being so incredibly generous with their time, insights and advice.

Tom Eisele / NYC Mayor’s Office of Resiliency — Land Use & Buildings

Ken Levenson / North American Passive House Network (NAPHN), New York Passive House (NYPH) Four Seven Five High-Performance Building Supplies & Architect

Richard Yancy / Building Energy Exchange (BE-ex)

Sharon Gaber / North American Passive House Network (NAPHN)


This research was made possible by the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship awarded through NSW Architects Registration Board, Australia.


Kate Nason
Kate Nason
Kate is an architect at ARKit Advanced Prefabricated Architecture and a Board Director at the Australian Passive House Association.She is a…

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