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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Lost in Translation

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

January 03, 2006

Recently, one of New York's pre-eminent architectural critics lavishly praised Sir Norman Foster's new Hearst Corporation skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan. Paul Goldberger's essay Triangulation in the December 19, 2005 issue of the New Yorker was filled with superlatives about the marriage of engineering inventiveness and aesthetic satisfaction.

Alas, it failed to take note of Foster's achievement as the architect of a high performance building and the reasons why the developers decided to go green. These omissions represent a lost opportunity to use the platform of a widely read magazine and the authority of a Goldberger review to let readers know that the Hearst building is designed to use natural resources more efficiently. It will make good use of natural light, conserve energy, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and improve indoor air quality. These are exactly the sustainable design goals that governments and developers around the world are starting to demand. And, these virtues are part and parcel of a building that succeeds on all the conventional architectural criteria. This should be big news.

Also newsworthy is the fact that the building is seeking a United States Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and the Environment (LEED) "Gold" rating and that Hearst project developers received a $4.9 million New York State Green Building Tax Credit for building a high performance tower. That's both good for the developer and a sign that this is a government program that works.

Here's still more good news. The Hearst project is not alone in New York City. The Bank of America headquarters, which is being designed to meet LEED "Platinum" standards and the Goldman Sachs tower near Ground Zero, going for a LEED "Gold" rating, also received Green Building tax credits.

An important feature of New York's Green Building Tax Credit program is the requirement for participants to keep records showing their compliance with the program. This information will be analyzed and published by the State's Energy Research and Development Authority. The report (due in April 2008) could provide essential evidence for evaluating the fate of environmental policy aspirations in the real world, which, in turn, could have a positive impact on markets and the financial institutions that underwrite new development.

All these things are part of a trend — a growing movement at the state and local levels — to bring high performance building into the mainstream. In 2005, the aspirations of the Green Tax Credit program combined with its real world success lead to its reauthorization. This State action comes at a good time because New York City enacted its own Green Building Law in October 2005. This new local law is an addition to the City Charter giving the Mayor direct executive responsibility. As an addition to the Charter, the Mayor will get to decide which agencies will be tapped to carry out its purposes. Local Law 86 is not, as is more common case, an amendment to the City's Administrative Code where the statutory language defines the responsible agency.

To implement Local Law 86, the Mayor's team will spend 2006 crafting regulations and setting up a program for municipal green building that will come into effect in January 2007. This means that during 2006, critical decisions will be made about which agencies will be responsible for drafting regulations, who will bear the responsibility for carrying out the law, how Local Law 86 will fit with the existing Building Code, and which pots of money will be counted toward the capital dollar threshold for green design. The Mayor also will get to determine whether to rely on LEED or seek out LEED equivalent standards for use as its architectural benchmark.

Local Law 86 will require any capital project with an estimated construction cost of $2 million or more involving new construction or substantial renovations to meet LEED "Silver" standards — or their equivalent. Capital projects with an estimated construction cost of $12 million or more will also be required to reduce energy costs by at least 20%. Exempted from these requirements are residential projects since they are not included in the statute's requirements. Public school construction will be designed to meet LEED "Certification" standards. Local Law 86 will direct much of the City's $12 billion ten-year capital construction plan into the design and development of a generation of green building. At this scale, Local Law 86 has the potential of transforming the practice of building and the industries that provide the design, fabrication and installation of building components and building system materials. New Yorkers who care about creating a sustainable City must become actively engaged over the next year as Local Law 86 takes shape and gets ready for launching. The Sallan Foundation intends to follow these developments closely.

Already there are many New Yorkers who know something about high performance building. Some are advocates; others are watchfully waiting to see if it's right for them. There is also good reason to believe that local government officials, local economic decision makers and environmental and community advocates around the U.S. are the new epicenters of environmental innovation. This is a natural phenomenon: just this year, although the federal government has maintained its intransigent opposition to acting on climate change, the U.S Conference of Mayors unanimously approved a Climate Protection Agreement and another group of American mayors agreed to the Urban Environmental Accords on World Environment Day in San Francisco.

On the New York City scene, in 2005, the Sallan Foundation, in partnership with the Municipal Art Society and the Committee on the Environment of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, put on a four part panel series, High Performance Building in New York City. This series was developed with two goals in mind. The first was to understand how to stimulate the market and mobilize policy demands in order to make high performance building New York's "new normal". The second goal was to open a path for evidence based environmental policy making. The panelists in this series — public policy makers, environmental and sustainable energy advocates, architects, market-rate developers, as well affordable housing and sustainable community activists and green building clients too — should all be called practical visionaries. They presented a wide set of experiences with green building in New York and spoke about what worked well and what obstacles they found.

As a sponsor of this series, I believe that it clearly advanced the necessary public discussion in a forum where all participants — panelists, moderators and audience members — spoke candidly about the challenges of building green and convincingly demonstrated that we can build a sustainable city. Thinking about the lessons learned from the series, I conclude that sponsors and participants alike would agree that cities offer great potential for a sustainable future and that it is our shared intention to use the urban built environment as the crucible for environmental solutions that work at the local, national and international scale.

Now it's your turn. Take a look at the series of Event Wrap-Ups written by Gunnar Hand on this web site. Paul Goldberger, are you there?

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