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NYC's Emissions Law is a Challenge - and an Opportunity to Lead - for the Building Sector

Yasemin Kologlu, RIBA, LEED AP BD+C, Design Director, Skidmore, Owings and Merill (SOM)

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In April 2019, the New York City Council passed what has been called the most ambitious building emissions legislation enacted by any city in the world. What makes Local Law 97 so progressive? In one word, pragmatism. Many cities are creating road maps toward reaching net-zero carbon—what sets New York apart is a shift in focus, from predicted energy use to actual carbon emissions in use. Significantly, it’s one of the first laws that apply to emissions from existing buildings, not just new ones. Commercial and residential buildings larger than 25,000 square feet—which make up about 60 percent of New York City’s building stock by total floor area—will need to meet stringent emission targets starting in 2024, or else be subject to escalating penalties.

With the clock already ticking, many building owners are understandably anxious about what this new law means. It’s estimated that citywide, property owners will need to invest a total of $4 billion in upgrades to bring their buildings in line with the targets.

Our real estate industry should think about this law as not just an obligation, but as a great opportunity. New York City is ahead of the curve with respect to many other cities, and it’s increasingly clear that sustainable design choices are being driven not only by policy but also by market demand. What’s good for the planet—and people—is also good for business. By making smart upgrades now, building owners have the chance to curb emissions and future-proof their assets for a rapidly changing real estate market.

In addition to new policies, we’ve seen that the climate crisis has accelerated shifts in business and culture. Sustainability is now a standard ingredient of corporate social responsibility, and the benefits go far beyond reinforcing a positive public image. In fact, many companies have come to view sustainability and wellbeing as distinct advantages for recruiting and retaining talent. Proactive companies that are bringing their operations in line with future emission targets are setting a virtuous example while managing risk and positioning their business for the future.

As the private sector increasingly commits to climate action, their buildings are a great place to start. The built environment currently accounts for 40 percent of global carbon emissions. That’s why a transition to net-zero operations is a highly effective way for companies to act on their principles: the cumulative impact can make a difference. SOM recently signed the World Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero commitment, which means we will reduce our firm’s global operational emissions to net-zero before 2030. More and more businesses will follow in the coming years, and the commercial real estate industry will need to provide high-performance buildings that will help achieve these pledges.

In addition to the commercial sector, the residential market in New York City must adapt quickly as well.

Not only large real estate companies but also co-op boards and condominium owners will have to confront the requirements of the new law. A phased yet holistic approach to upgrades can reduce the financial burdens and risks that these owners are facing. The key is to consider these upgrades holistically—to make sure that every aspect of a building’s capital improvement program will also support longer-term goals. When it’s time to make new investments—whether replacing windows or integrating new features like touchless technology—every decision should support the performance targets that the building will need to meet down the line.

Many of the strategies that can make a building more sustainable can AI so make it a better place to live and work. Elements like carefully planned daylight, natural ventilation, solar shading, smart technologies, and better indoor air quality achieve both goal s at once. Intelligent building systems—such as automated shades, lighting controls, and air quality monitoring—not only improve a building’s energy performance but also enhance comfort and convenience for occupants.

The impact of Local Law 97 will resonate beyond New York City. As the law’s carbon emission caps become more rigorous over time, New York will become a case study for other cities that are seeking solutions to meet 2050 climate targets. We now have a chance, at the scale of America’s largest city, to monitor and learn from actual, measurable change in carbon emissions. Our industry will be able to see which design strategies achieve the results we need, and in turn, we can continue to improve and refine building design and performance.

Of course, in making these investments, we must remember that reducing operational emissions (emissions in use) is only one piece of the equation. The whole carbon lifecycle also includes embodied emissions (from the resources that go into a building’s creation) and end-of-life emissions (from demolition, disposal, or recycling of building materials). That’s why it’s essential to choose sustainable materials and construction methods. New York City’s leadership in reducing operational emissions is commendable; the city should now pass an equally progressive law that covers the entire building’s carbon lifecycle.

Local Law 97 represents a distinct challenge, yet also a remarkable opportunity for our industry to endorse low carbon practices and designs. It gives us the occasion—and the imperative—to accelerate collective action toward a net-zero carbon built environment, both for individual owners and the city as a whole. By adopting a holistic, intelligent, and phased approach today, we will not only create better places to live and work—we will also make investments that pay dividends, both economic and environmental, for decades to come.

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