Practical Retrofit Support in New York

For many years, New York State has been a strong advocate for programs that decarbonize its existing energy grid, cut energy waste, and improve performance in new and existing buildings. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act passed in 2019, setting specific targets for New York’s energy grid and dictating that at least 70% of the state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2030.

New York City has also been very aggressive in pushing the legislative envelope, particularly with its Climate Mobilization Act, the cornerstone of which is Local Law 97 of 2019, which places carbon limits on most buildings that are larger than 25,000 square feet starting in 2024 and imposes penalties on owners who fail to make their buildings more efficient. New Yorkers outside of the city and owners of buildings smaller than 25,000 square feet will not be subject to these fines, but the state is strongly recommending that they make significant improvements in building efficiency by turning to the EnerPHit or Passive House standard for guidance.

To aid the growing number of multifamily building owners and developers who are waking up to the reality that they will need to take aggressive retrofit actions to avoid penalties, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) developed a three-component plan to smooth this difficult transition. These three components include the creation of retrofit playbooks, a capital planning support program, and a program laying out low-carbon pathways for multifamily buildings. The playbooks offer practical guidance, while the latter two programs will offer financial incentives to eligible early adopters, encouraging high-performance upgrades.

The Retrofit Playbooks

NYSERDA partnered with the Building Energy Exchange (BE-Ex) and Steven Winter Associates to develop a series of playbooks to answer questions regarding the retrofit process, including strategies to align the necessary improvements in efficiency and building performance with capital improvement cycles. They picked five of the most common building typologies in the state, including garden style (1-3 stories), pre-war 4-7 stories, pre-war 8+ stories, post-war 8+ stories, and post-1980 8+ stories buildings. The analyses performed by Steven Winter Associates created the backbone of the playbooks, which are freely available on the BE-Ex website.

Owners and building managers will find the books helpful because they provide a roadmap to understanding when existing systems are expected to become too costly, dirty, or obsolete to operate. As NYSERDA’s Director of Market Development Emily Dean explained during the launch of the playbooks, they each provide “steps that owners [and] building managers can take to understand what they can do over time when they are planning investments anyway.” This allows them “to get things built on a path to low carbon over time,” she said. This kind of guidance ensures that owners are not investing in systems that will soon become obsolete or expensive to operate due to carbon penalties.

While each of the typologies face unique challenges to being retrofitted and require different upgrade strategies to align with capital improvement cycles, Thomas Moore, a building systems analyst with Steven Winter Associates, said that the research revealed that buildings were facing very similar defects. Most existing buildings are:

  • not properly insulated

  • not airtight

  • outfitted with single-pane or double-pane windows

  • heated by oil or gas

  • sporadically cooled by window A/C units

  • exhaust-only or naturally ventilated

In addition to the need to make these improvements, Moore emphasized understanding the importance of proper sequencing during future retrofits to avoid overheating or premature obsolescence. For example, addressing deficiencies in a building’s envelope and installing better insulation should come before the installation of a new heating system, as heating systems are designed to handle loads based on how airtight or well-insulated a building is. Performing upgrades out of sequence means having to redo work that has already been done, increasing costs for owners.

Support Programs Offered by NYSERDA

In addition to the playbooks, NYSERDA hopes to offer additional support to owners as they make these upgrades. As NYSERDA’s Senior Project Manager Simona Li explained during the presentation accompanying the launch of the playbooks, two programs are about to be launched that will help building owners achieve the ends previously described: Low-Carbon Capital Planning Support and Low-Carbon Pathway for Multifamily Buildings.

The former is designed to be a hand’s-on service for multifamily owners of all sizes. Additionally, it will provide comprehensive cost-benefit analyses on building-specific projects and portfolio-wide endeavors. As Li described, these analyses allow owners to get a better understanding of “what’s the incremental cost of deeper retrofits versus a business-as-usual type of building improvement or what are some of the sources of avoided costs, like reduced maintenance costs or reducing the cost of complying with local laws or penalties associated with local laws.” They also take into account additional benefits like resident satisfaction (via indoor air quality, reduced noise, and so on), which can prevent turnover and the costs incurred as a consequence.

To better understand these upgrades and make future recommendations, NYSERDA hopes to partner with owners to perform building-specific and portfolio-wide studies. The majority of the costs associated with these studies will be covered by NYSERDA. Though the exact figures have not been confirmed, Li estimated that the cost-share cap for portfolios will be 2% of the total portfolio energy expenditure (limit $100,000 per building), while the cost-share cap for studies involving individual buildings will be 10% of the property’s annual building energy expenditure (limit $500,000).

Li also spoke about the third component of NYSERDA’s plan—Low Carbon Pathways for Multifamily Buildings—designed to encourage owners to opt in favor of high performance by helping offset incremental costs of low-carbon improvements. Specifically, this program would offer owners packages that can be implemented over time that correspond to major building systems. There is an envelope package, a heating and cooling package, a ventilation package, and a DHW package.

As this program is targeting replication, NYSERDA hopes to fund owners with larger portfolios (10 buildings or more), particularly if those owners are also members of real estate associations, such as the Rent Stabilization Association or the Real Estate Board of New York. Incentive levels had not been finalized at press time, but the preliminary numbers offered by Li are $750 per unit for the heating and cooling and ventilation packages; $700-$750 for the DHW package; and $3,750 per unit for the envelope package with an additional $1,250 bonus per unit if this is the first package implemented.

New York has already taken steps to transition to a cleaner grid and to impose carbon limits on owners. By also encouraging retrofits with support, guidance, and financial incentives, as NYSERDA is doing with these programs, New York is showing how a multifaceted approach to implementing meaningful programs can make buildings healthier, limit building emissions, and take all of us one step closer to a decarbonized future.

Author: Jay Fox
Categories: Retrofit