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Show of Force: Urban Green Council/ New York Green Codes Task Force Delivers Report

Urban Green CouncilIt was different in Martin Luther’s day. Back in the 16th century, a monk could nail 95 theses to a church door and count on every one of them being read and discussed. Well, at least on them being read and discussed by the small percentage of people who could actually read in the 16th century. In the 21st century, when a 200-member blue-ribbon task force convened by the Mayor of New York City issues a 111-point report on greening the city’s building codes, it doesn’t even show up on gbNYC until a few days later. Which I guess is more my fault than the fault of the hyperspeed effects of 500 years of technological and cultural change. But even in the coverage I’ve read of the report, the report itself (download the summary here, full thing here) gets only the vaguest gloss. Yes, 111 recommendations is a lot. Yes, there are certainly millions of people in this city who care less than I do about properly insulated glass-walled buildings. But come on, sons!

Anyway, media critic mode off. And honestly it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on with the report if you actually read the executive summary and help yourself to the tapas-style banquet of information out there — Daniel Massey’s piece at Crain’s and (especially) Mireya Navarro’s at the New York Times and Ashok Gupta’s WNYC interview provide a pretty good sketch of the plan’s outlines and thrust. And judging by what’s available there, it seems safe to say that the report’s recommendations line up pretty well with what gbNYC considers to be 1) awesome and 2) worth doing. Which is to say that, outside of a couple niggling points about the report’s phrasing — new pet peeve: talking about how 75% of NYC’s emissions come from buildings; this is a meaningless figure, in large part because no one drives here; we could easily get that percentage down to 50% by, say, issuing everyone a sedan and a parking spot — I’d be pleased as punch to see every one of these 111 recommendations get implemented. I’d also be surprised as punch, given that some of the recommendations would be costly to implement at the start, and given that NYC’s real estate plutocrats have disproportionate pull over how/if rules get applied. The best that Charlotte Matthews, the Related Companies’ VP for sustainability (that’s a job), could say about the 111 Theses was, “In general, the industry supports the overall goal.” Which is obviously a very washed-out bit of meh-ness, but is at least encouraging if actually true.

The good news is that many of the 111 recommendations are either general and commonsense enough that no one could oppose them — add “environmental protection” as a “fundamental principle” in the “intent” portion of the construction code; enforce said construction codes more fully; streamline NYCDEP’s policies for removing asbestos; streamline and consolidate regulation practices. A large number are similarly unobjectionable by dint of their small-bore nature — it’s hard to imagine anyone getting too hacked-off over the idea of recycling fluorescent lightbulbs more efficiently or making staircases and water fountains more available.

But a great many of them, though, are pretty freaking bold, and notably bolder and more aggressive than you’d imagine from reading the desultory coverage of it. Among the ones that jumped out at me from a quick glance at the recommendations are a requirement that all buildings above three stories be built to Energy Star standards, that the city’s commercial energy code be brought in line with ASHRAE 90.1, that permits for the dreaded Number Four and Number Six heating oils be eliminated immediately and that cheap-and-inefficient heating systems be banned. There are also some small-scale suggestions — encouraging Energy Star appliances and ultra-insulation and eliminating high-VOC finishes, requiring Con Ed steam clients to use waste steam — that could wind up having some serious curve-bending effects in the marketplace, as well as environmentally. Throw in some ultra-commonsense stuff like white roofs, requiring stores not to keep their lights on overnight, mandating construction-waste recycling and some stuff for the dorks — in a blatant gbNYC pander, submetering and individual room temperature controls and insulation of everything all get some love — and you’ve got something pretty impressive. How much of an impact these rules actually make on the built environment — and thus on our actual lives as New Yorkers — will be the next big story, and obviously one we’ll be watching closely. I just hope we’ll all actually be able to read about it in the newspaper. I’m in the blogging business, dammit, not the PDF-reading business.

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