New York’s Real Climate Challenge: Fixing Its Aging Buildings

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A plan to upgrade a cluster of nine unremarkable apartment buildings in Brooklyn typically would not merit a second look. But this isn’t a quick fix; the project, called Casa Pasiva, aims to be a new model for the sustainable transformation of the city’s housing stock.

Sleek new skyscrapers that incorporate the latest energy-efficient building materials like mass timber may look impressive, but when it comes to solving the climate crisis in New York, the real challenge lies in the city’s decades-old structures.

More than 90 percent of the buildings in New York today will still be standing in 2050, and nearly 70 percent of the city’s total carbon emissions come from buildings. Taken together, these facts suggest that the fate of those nine nondescript Brooklyn buildings, and others like them, is essential to cutting emissions.

Instead of demolishing older buildings, owners and developers are devising ways to retrofit them with the latest green technology.

Casa Pasiva, a $20 million retrofit project in the Bushwick neighborhood, aims to be a pioneer. The developer behind the project is pushing an aging collection of buildings to the cutting edge by essentially turning them inside out, all without tenants needing to relocate. Interior pipes, radiators and heating ducts will be removed or sealed, and a new facade on each building will cover a new all-electric heating and cooling system.

The project is being overseen by the nonprofit RiseBoro Community Partnership, which owns the structures. When Casa Pasiva is finished next summer, the buildings will meet a strict passive house standard, a modern building convention that substantially reduces heating and cooling costs, thanks to their airtight exteriors. The fading brick and concrete walls of the Casa Pasiva buildings will be buried under a white, sculptural surface that will help slash energy costs by 80 percent, according to RiseBoro.

“Our mission is long-term affordability, and low energy use is a stabilizing force,” said Ryan Cassidy, director of sustainability and construction at RiseBoro. He estimates the retrofit project, which is the first of its kind in New York, will cut energy costs by $180,000 a year. “It’s good for the environment, but it’s also good for our budgets.”

Casa Pasiva received $1.8 million in financing from RetrofitNY, a program funded by the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority. The agency is investing about $30 million in RetrofitNY projects. The effort to help kick-start the development of low-cost, scalable retrofit technology and build a market for energy efficiency upgrades comes as strict city and state laws trying to reduce the carbon emissions in buildings go into effect.

“Fundamentally, what RetrofitNY is about is developing a more streamlined, more modular, more efficient way of achieving deep decarbonization in housing,” said Janet Joseph, senior vice president of strategy and market development at the agency.

The city and New York State have zeroed in on buildings in pursuit of meaningful cuts to carbon, like the state’s goal to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050.

Ms. Benedict had to design the Casa Pasiva system from the ground up. Each of the 146 apartments will have a wall-mounted electric heater and air-conditioner connected to a system of ducts and refrigerant lines that snake up the walls and eventually connect to an energy recovery ventilator, a rooftop machine that purifies and circulates air.

The new facade, layered up to eight inches thick atop the existing exterior, will consist of a barrier to prevent airflow; rigid insulation panels; stucco; and a self-cleaning finish, Lotusan, designed to whisk away water by mimicking lotus leaves. Ms. Benedict successfully lobbied for a change to the city’s building code to allow additional exterior cladding.

“When I first looked at how to design the wall, it was like a big puzzle,” she said.

Tenant benefits go beyond energy savings. The facade is thicker, airtight and watertight, which means improved air quality — it’s constantly recirculated because of the tight external envelope — less noise from the outside and fewer pest and mold issues. Electric induction stovetops will cut interior air pollution, and the apartments will gain extra space from the removal of radiators.

The incoming administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has made clean-energy retrofit projects a centerpiece of its $2 trillion climate plan, with a goal of retrofitting four million buildings in four years. But even that aggressive pace wouldn’t curb emissions enough to meet the goal of the Paris climate agreement to hold temperature increases under 1.5 degrees Celsius, said Martha Campbell, buildings principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization in Colorado focused on sustainability across the globe.

The nation would need to retrofit three million homes a year to reach the carbon mitigation goals of the Paris agreement, she said. To give a sense of the labor and scale of such a feat, about 900,000 new homes a year are built in the United States.

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