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Buildings Tell The Truth

By: Chris Benedict, R.A.

October 07, 2013

Buildings always tell the truth and my passion for buildings is boundless, sometimes I feel my heart will explode as I walk through a construction site, a deep rush of joy. I started my Architecture office in 1995 never dreaming of the fulfillment I've had over a career of innovation, breakthroughs, setbacks and celebrations. Over those years my office has been responsible for leading the way in the critical area of what is now called building performance, but what I prefer to think of as an artful quest for refined elegance in the infrastructure of buildings. Always inventing, always implementing, always questioning, always learning and going where most Architecture firms fear to tread, my firm has changed the industry and taught the profession by showing what is possible.

1996
My first work was on a series of City-owned buildings to be substantially rehabbed in Brooklyn. Left to rot, they became a testament to the power of transformation. Early on I met Henry Gifford and our-long term partnership began. A former boiler mechanic, he took me on my first boiler tour — imagine actually having someone explain to you what goes on in those places — the heart of the building and where the fossil fuel gets burned! We immediately went to work, realizing that we had something special, a mechanical genius and an architect who could see the poetry in the technical aspects of architecture that were necessary to deliver a refined building. We designed more than 60 substantial gut rehabs, 18 of which landed me the award of Energy Professional of the Year in 1999 by the Association of Energy Engineers. The buildings were designed holistically and numerous new techniques and concepts were demonstrated including air barriers, continuous insulation, room-by-room thermostatic control, apartment-by-apartment compartmentalization and ventilation, sealed combustion boilers. The work was based on deepening and refining the relationships between enclosure and mechanical systems and all decisions and imperatives flowed from this. We challenged the codes and were able to make major breakthroughs in the way ventilation and heating had always been done in the city, bringing people continuous fresh air and stable interior temperatures. We realized that we were offering New Yorkers something really different — comfort in the winter in lieu of stuffy over heated apartments with dry air that made them sick. But perhaps the most important breakthrough we made with these buildings was proving that substantially better performance could be had at the same price as typical construction when talent was brought to bear. We are still defending the no-extra-cost territory that we carved out for ourselves in the mid to late 90s as funding streams, programs, subsidies and the need for government to control them muddy the truth about high performance buildings. It was a profoundly creative time back then, before the energy space became glutted codes, requirements, checkboxes and modeling!

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1999
All this work, which at the time we called the system approach, was immediately transferable to new construction, and in 1999 we got our first new construction work in the East Village, four new apartment buildings. We had learned our lesson after the substantial guts to not tell anyone about what we were doing with the building infrastructure, as our system approach had been forbidden to be deployed in a group of buildings that we had rehabbed for a City agency. So we didn't tell anyone, not even the owner about what we were doing with the infrastructure design. The buildings featured continuous exterior insulation via an innovative structural system as well as the goodies we had deployed in our rehabs. We put the boiler rooms on the roof, as Henry suspected substantial amounts of energy are lost through long chimneys. Zooming forward to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, we were pleased to see that these four buildings with boilers on the roof went straight back to work after electricity was turned on in the East Village.

EV four new buildings

During construction I noticed that the buildings stayed far warmer than expected on cold days and realized that building with continuous exterior insulation and air barriers would prevent pipes from freezing and keep people relatively warm in the winter if there was a blackout or gas outage. After the first winter of operation passed we crunched the energy bills and found that our buildings were using 15–25% of the energy of what was known at the time as the average apartment building energy use! These buildings remain top performers in the city, built to code minimum for the same cost as typical construction. In 2002 there was not a lot of information about apartment building energy use. Now that the benchmarking data for residential buildings has finally been released we will be able to see where we stack up.

Our rehabs and new construction had put us on the map. We had completed our fourth new buildings in the East Village and we had gained ten years of hard-core, hands-on experience with the realities of all aspects of making elegant and innovative buildings. Buildings tell the truth. We measured, we tested, we watched and we learned from them. Post 9/11, many more people grew uncomfortable with their reliance on fossil fuel and we felt that we were bringing a highly desirable product to the market. But we found that the mainstream of green was running in almost the opposite direction. Horrified, we watched the LEED point system become popular for no apparent reason completely distracting the profession from energy use, building science, physics and holistic thinking. We watched the rise of hundreds of green guidelines and programs and the misuse of modeling software, operated by people who had never touched a building and we watched the money flow towards this, lots of it.

Introducing Passive House
In late 2005 I was challenged to look at a German idea called Passive House. The claim was that the Germans were making buildings without boilers! WOW! Could that be possible here? North East Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) allowed me to put together a series of sessions at their 2006 conference to hash it out and Henry and I participated along with thought leaders John Straube, Betsy Pettit, Marc Rosenbaum, Katrin Klingenberg and a representative from Passive House Institute, Darmstadt. These sessions inspired many people, including me, to see how the Passive House protocol would work here, and most of what is going on right now in the North East is a product of those first conversations. Passive House was great for us, as we had already deployed much of what was required to meet the standard, all we had to do was figure out how to upgrade the work and keep the construction cost in check. The history of the movement here has been contentious. It is my hope that the guiding concepts and clear goals of the Passive House movement will weather the controversy and that we can bring the movement to full market acceptance. I am pleased to announce that I will be joining the board of Passive House US. But I think the best thing I can do for the movement is build a Certified Passive House apartment building for the same price as typical construction!

Calling Foul
In 2008 we started reading about a report put out by New Buildings Institute claiming that LEED certified buildings used 30% less energy on average than non LEED certified buildings. Buildings tell the truth, and frankly we could not imagine how the claim was true given the structure and priorities of the LEED guidelines in comparison to our own visceral experiences, practice and data. Upon analysis of the study Henry determined that an improper statistical analysis had been done and the article that he wrote about this went viral. An important part of his article, a part that gets overlooked because of Henry's pointed critique of the NBI study and how it was portrayed by USGBC, is the description of a new and more relevant building rating system, a system based on mechanical equipment size. Its ridiculously simple yet incredibly profound because all of the good work in the building is embodied in the size of the machine.

Mayors Task Force for Greening the Code
It was demoralizing to watch LEED seep into codes and laws. When Mayor Bloomberg created his Taskforce for Greening the Code, Henry and I were invited to participate. Our main objective was damage control. We knew it would mean challenging Urban Green Council, the USGBC chapter in New York, because it was put in charge of the Taskforce process, and the committees were set up based on the structure of the LEED guidelines, a structure that we had long criticized as inadequate to support the work that needed to be done. Now, data demonstrating LEED's rating deficiencies can be seen in the benchmarking results disclosed by the Mayors office. The City of New York requires buildings over 50,000 square feet to report their energy use, while USGBC has refused to publicly release the energy use of LEED-certified buildings. Now, the facts are in and the benchmarking data reveals which LEED-rated buildings in New York City are poor performers. Buildings tell the truth and LEED-rated buildings smaller than 50,000 square feet with even a penny of public money involved with should also be required to show their energy use.

Fortunately, our enclosure measures did receive Taskforce member support and were ultimately added to the building code and zoning resolution and I want too publicly thank the people on the City Planning commission for their great work on this. These measures open new opportunities to add large amounts of insulation to buildings without its presence counting as floor area, thereby remedying a sticky contradiction that was keeping developers from conceiving of Passive House level projects.

I like the creation of codes and zoning that maximize freedom and opportunity for owners and designers. Much of what the Taskforce put out, such as the retro-commissioning law, is restrictive and punitive to professionals and building owners. I opposed the retro-commissioning law as it was being formed in the Taskforce. Having spent an enormous amount of time in existing buildings I know that in most cases their systems are poorly designed and constructed and there is little to no chance that they could be commissioned to work properly. I felt this law financially benefitted weatherization groups while penalizing building owners, with little to show in the end because the law does not reflect how complex the problems are in existing buildings.

We were disappointed that our measure to base Department of Buildings plan approval on the size of a buildings mechanical system divided by square footage of the building did not make it through the taskforce. This would have been simple, requiring no modeling, no special inspections and easy to understand by plan examiners and inspectors who would check the model numbers on the equipment anyway during construction. The beauty of a rating based on mechanical system size is that the size embodies all the good thinking in the building design and actually makes the professionals responsible for the outcome of the building and modelers cannot play the system as they are doing now. Buildings tell the truth. If the heating or air conditioning system is too small the designer made an error, if its too big they dont get Building Department approval.

Germany and Austria
Fun is traveling around Germany and Austria with three fellow geeks looking a Passive Houses! We were guests of the German and Austrian local governments, and sent by the North East Sustainable Energy Association in 2010 to look, evaluate and present what we saw. I brought back a slew of information on exterior insulation techniques and was allowed to show it to the Department of City Planning and the New York City Department of Buildings who were supporting my exterior insulation measure from the Taskforce. Inspired by what I saw in Europe, we designed a retrofit for a tenement building with exterior insulation, new high performance windows, steam to hot water conversion, thermostats in every room, all of the work, including the mechanical systems to be done on the exterior of the building to allow tenants to stay in place during the retrofit. We were a bit ahead of ourselves though as the aggressive work schedule could not wait for the passage of the exterior insulation law, so this idea is ready to go and is the key to moving forward with our existing residential building stock in NYC.

Many types of jobs were done by my office between 2006 and 2010 including a hotel in the Bronx that is perhaps the first building in New York to be completely insulated on the exterior of the building with an array of materials. That building also features cost-free domestic hot water made by the heat recovered from a hydronic air conditioning system!

Bronx Hotel

But its all been a warm-up for our current buildings projected to meet the Passive House Standard for the same price as typical construction. One is almost done and one is 50% complete. Buildings tell the truth and the stories about these buildings I will save for another time when hopefully I am invited back to share them!

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Photo Credit: Chris Benedict photographed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders


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