Simple Policy Can Discourage Building Reuse

demolition stoop urban ruinDensity plays a key role in the creation of a walkable, pedestrian-oriented, sustainable community. Though there are examples of denser development patterns that are not walkable, it is hard to create walkability without hitting a certain threshold of units per acre, so bolstering the streetscape with new buildings can be important for the sustainable aspirations of a young municipality. However, for cities like New York, density is not a recent phenomenon. The city has been building since its inception, which has lead to density not only being achieved from new construction, but in large part due to the wealth of existing buildings that have been around for a while. Given the vast amount of resources frozen in our existing building stock, our older urban landscapes need to look through more lenses of sustainability than only the merits of new development.

What can seem like simple pieces of legislation to outline the building process can turn out to have a significant effect on the types of building that is pursued, especially in an environment where the cost of land, materials and labor is so high. New York’s permitting process has grown to lean towards facilitating new development at the potential cost of salvaging its existing building fabric.

Bricks & Mortar

New York has previously acknowledged how important it is to stay focused on gearing sustainable initiatives towards its existing building stock. Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative wisely noted that 85% of the buildings that would comprise New York City in 2030 were already there when the document was written. Compounding this statistic is the reality that the older buildings of the city are often the least efficient when it comes consumption of resources. Whether it is aging heating and cooling systems, antiquated lighting fixtures and wiring, single pane windows or uninsulated exterior walls, older buildings can be the most in need of sustainable attention.

The simple takeaway is to discredit the notion that meaningful progress can be made by only focusing on making new buildings as green as possible. The absence of a concentrated effort to upgrade and repair older urban buildings could render the city stuck in its efforts to decrease its overall resource consumption.

When construction work is filed with the Department of Buildings, the scale and type of work is classified between “New Buildings” and “Alterations”. In plenty of cases, the intuitive differences between these categories can be as clear as a ground-up building on an empty lot versus a lobby renovation. However, the perception can fall into a gray area when large portions of historic fabric are retained despite the fact that a building’s innards are gutted and essentially built out to the most up-to-date codes behind an existing facade. The powers that be have worked to remove said gray area by defining a new building as a project “where no existing building components are to be retained in place as part of the new building.”

You Want That Pile of Bricks? You Pay For it

One of the large differences is the filing fees associated with each of these permit applications. Work permits for new buildings carry a cost of $0.26 per square foot. Conversely, the cost for getting an Alteration Type I permit is 1% of total construction costs (with some allowable exclusions). For reference, construction costs for a high-end condominium project in NYC could safely fall within the realm of $300-500 per square foot with the same exclusions. For large projects, the fee of $0.26/SF equates to much less than 1% of the cost to construct the building.

The reasoning for this certainly makes sense in promoting a pro-development environment that entices developers and financiers to pursue more new building projects. In concept, there is arguably nothing wrong with that. However, the fallout also includes that forcing many large building projects into “Alteration” filings could dissuade developers from retaining portions of historical fabric for reuse, ultimately resulting in increased levels of construction waste and the sacrifice of latent energy in buildings we already have.

Take an example of a potential 200,000 square foot residential building project that is faced with the option of incorporating historical fabric on a development site into a new project–this could be existing building structure or an existing exterior facade. The new building project would enjoy the flat fee of $52,000 (0.26 x 200,000). In contrast, the alteration project would demand $800,000 (400 x 200,000 x 0.01) for the same project. Even when project costs are in the hundreds of millions, three-quarters of a million dollars is enough to make project teams think twice about whether or not to start with a clean slate.

Even at a time where our ability to salvage materials from existing buildings is arguably stronger than ever, construction and demolition weight accounts for nearly 60% of our national waste by weight according to the Construction & Demolition Waste Manual from the NYC Department of Design and Construction. Ironically, given the density of the city and its distance from disposal sites for C&D waste, increased levels of demolition only increase costs for the city. As the DDC notes:

“The closure of Fresh Kills Landfill, New York City’s last remaining landfill, has resulted in a $400 million annual increase in the NYC Department of Sanitation’s budget since 1996, and the City’s shift to waste export no doubt provided added impetus for the $4 per ton tax that Pennsylvania recently imposed on waste disposed of in its landfills. Opposition to the construction of new rail-and-barge-served transfer facilities in NYC has resulted in a waste export system that is almost entirely dependent on trucks, aggravating local air quality and congestion problems with hundreds of thousands of additional trucks each year.”

The same report notes that a study done by the Department of Sanitation pegged the city with producing 13,500 tons of construction and demolition waste… every day.

Toggle the System for Sustainability

The stage is set for cities to make big improvements on these policies while setting off ripples that could be stoking sustainable parts of related industries. A construction industry that is more adept at renovation can help make preserving or adaptively reusing buildings more equitable. More selective demolition could put higher quality streams of waste into programs for recycling, upcycling (what’s the difference) or reclamation–budding industries of their own with plenty of room to grow. A series of small moves could help shift us towards an economy of reuse rather than one driven by a collective flow of goods on their way to becoming trash.

If sustainability is a serious goal for New York and other cities like it, there is an argument to be made that the cost structure for construction permits should be reversed. Valuations of property make new construction profitable in its own right. Ground-up development does not need the local government giving an edge to new buildings. Providing incentives for renovation work, which could be covered by the increased costs of permitting new construction, would help leverage the latent energy in buildings that we already have while potentially improving the environmental performance of some of the city’s worst offenders.

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