While New York may be home to some of progressive examples of green building on a large scale, many brand new projects are still hitting the streets as standard, developer specials with low cost methods aiming for fast construction and high profits. As some of us strive to integrate sustainability into the mainstream of New York development, clients are dissuaded from greener buildings if they believe that they need to sacrifice something in order to achieve a greener result. New York’s Department of City Planning has made the important first step in proposing modifications to the zoning code to encourage the construction of more efficient buildings.
Zoning can be considered one of the first broad strokes in the urban design process. Its purpose is to organize general areas of complimentary use groups while maintaining urban amenities like access to light and air. Put simply, it tells you how much you can build and where. Lead by Amanda Burden, the Department of City Planning has proposed a series of text amendments aiming at making greener buildings easier for both new and existing buildings alike. The changes target building envelopes in the form of increased insulation thicknesses as well as green infrastructure like green and blue roof systems. If approved, the modifications would also facilitate the inclusion of renewable energy production in the forms of solar panels and small scale wind turbines. Lastly, there were code points focused on the developments of rooftop greenhouses.
Solar, Wind & Green Roofs: Thumbs Up
When I heard about supposedly “green” changes to the zoning resolution, my first instinct was to search for one thing in particular: would solar panels and wind turbines be inducted into the realm of “permitted obstructions” allowing them to exceed the maximum height of zoning envelopes?
For every site, the zoning code has a series of corollaries and equations that outline a three-dimensional space of buildable area, known as the Zoning Envelope. Any proposed building, or proposed changes to an existing building, must exist within the envelope. An important aspect of this is the maximum height, used as tool to help regulate the height of the built environment in different districts. In the eyes of the code, some building components can pierce through the maximum height restriction due to their integral nature of building function. Examples are things like elevator bulkheads, mechanical equipment, parapet walls or window washing equipment. They are known as “permitted obstructions.” Anything that is not a permitted obstruction must exist below the maximum height.
For solar panels and wind turbines this often creates a problem. In order to achieve maximum efficiency both of these systems have a vertical dimension and no one is going to build a shorter building (possibly losing a floor’s worth of rentable square footage) just so they can put PVs on the roof. I was pleased to see that these systems were indeed added to the list of permitted obstructions so that owners would no longer have to feel like on site power was forcing them to compromise on allowable building height. Green roofs and blue roofs got similar concessions. (What are green roofs and blue roofs?)
Enhanced Building Envelope: Thumbs Up
The proposed changes adds provisions that allow for property owners to make thicker, more energy conscious exterior walls without sacrificing saleable square footage. The size of buildings in New York is determined by a site’s Floor-Area-Ratio, or F.A.R.–essentially a correlation of how many multiples of your plot of land you can build on top of it. Thus, an F.A.R. of (3) would mean one could build 3-times the site’s area in new building area. Given that it is measured to the outside of the building face, the thicker the walls are the less space there is to sell.
If approved, the new zoning code would allow for 8″ of material with a given insulating value (R-value) to be exempt from F.A.R. calculations. This would apply not only to new buildings, but allow existing buildings to add 8″ on the exterior without penalty.
Rooftop Greenhouses: Eh…
City Planning has proposed that rooftop greenhouses also not count as F.A.R., which is a good thing, allowing for the promotion of local food production in the city. The caveat is that the new rules stipulate that they would not be allowed on top of any building with residential occupancy beneath.
Now the reason they are adding said restrictions is clear–they do not want people adding a livable apartment on the roof and simply calling it a greenhouse–i.e. adding and renting illegal residential square footage. By excluding it entirely it is something that they do not need to try and police. On the other hand, this means that the measure does not help promote residents growing their own food. Even a mixed use building with commercial and residential spaces cannot foster a rooftop greenhouse. Finding some type of middle ground could eventually promote a vast expansion of what would essentially be community gardens (which are always coveted in the city) on the building level. While far better than nothing, hopefully this portion of the regulations will be a first step in a better direction.
These kinds of progressive changes to building code components can serve as a great model for other cities. When coupled with a rise in education of clients and designers it can help provide a meaningful improvement to existing and proposed building stock.
Image Credit: flickr:romap