New energy standards for old buildings

The building’s outer brick façade will be cloaked by foam and layers of stucco coating. Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Environmental activists Downtown and across the city are pushing for greater use of renewable energy sources to power the city’s aging building stock. From an architectural standpoint, however, this isn’t always feasible.

So eco-conscious architects such as Chris Benedict are devising new ways to promote energy efficiency in old and new buildings alike. Benedict, founder of the firm, Architecture and Energy Limited, has been commissioned to retrofit a six-story residence at 191 Madison St. in Chinatown with the goal of reducing its overall energy load.

Benedict is using a technique called foam-based exterior insulation, an outer thermal envelope designed to trap the boiler-generated heat inside the building and keep it from seeping out through its shell. While the architect has insulated new buildings this way on the Lower East Side and elsewhere in the city, this is the first time she’s doing it to an existing building.

Very few century-old tenement buildings like the one at 191 Madison St. are insulated at all, Benedict noted, and therefore require larger and more expensive heating systems.

“Moving into the future, in order for the city’s [older housing stock] to survive, our buildings are going to have to be insulated,” said Benedict. “We’re proposing a renovation that has European roots: renovating buildings like this one with tenants in place, and giving them new exteriors that are highly insulated.”

The Chinatown building’s owner, Asian-Americans for Equality, a Downtown-based nonprofit, is undertaking the approximately $750,000 initiative — part of the Chinatown/Lower East Side Acquisition and Preservation program, an initiative funded by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation intended to restore deteriorating apartment buildings and keep them affordable.

“The thing we saw immediately after every time we acquired one of these buildings is that, since they’re so old, they’re really inefficient in terms of light and energy usage,” said Thomas Yu, A.A.F.E.’s director of real estate development. “Since we have to do basic repairs, it’s a good time to phase in the green retrofits.”

Reducing the building’s energy use, Yu added, will help lower its annual operating expenses, which in turn will allow A.A.F.E. to maintain low rents for its tenants.

“If it works, we could do it in all our buildings, and the city could adopt it as a new way of cost-efficiently retrofitting buildings so they use less heat,” said Yu.

Apart from insulating the building, A.A.F.E. changed its heat system from steam to hot water, which allows for steadier heat flow in the apartments, and switched its boiler from heating oil to cleaner natural gas. The new water pipes to accommodate the hot water heating system are being tucked into the building’s insulated exterior, and a thermostat control device has been installed in all rooms of the 24 apartments.

“The first thing you should do in the building is get the heating system under control, which starts to improve the thermal envelope,” said Benedict. “If not, you’re going to totally overheat the building.”

All the modifications, including the insulation, are being made without displacing the residents, Yu stressed.

“The pipes only penetrate the apartments at a very small aperture, which really minimizes the disruption to tenants,” Yu said. “We didn’t want to have to spend days on end ripping out their floors and walls.”

In crafting the retrofit plan, Benedict ran into a few snags along the way—specifically with the NYC Department of City Planning, whose current zoning laws generally prohibit insulation-related expansions to buildings. Consequently, A.A.F.E. is currently working out an agreement with its neighbor, Jehovah’s Witnesses, so the right side of the building can legally protrude into the air space of the adjacent lot.

“If we add more to the outside of the building, it’s considered to be added floor area,” Benedict explained. “We’re trying to have the zoning changed so that insulation on the building would not count [as an addition].”

In response, the Department of City Planning will be introducing a proposal in the fall to remove such zoning obstacles to exterior insulation, solar power and other eco-friendly buildings practices, according to a department spokesperson. The objective of the proposal would be to encourage landlords to conserve and generate power and heat using cutting-edge technologies.

“In a city with roughly a million existing buildings, these gains will add up,” said the spokesperson.

Benedict will begin insulating the building in late September, and plans to have the retrofit completed before Oct. 15, the start of the heating season.

Three steps to increase energy efficiency

Here are the steps Benedict suggests that landlords can take to make their buildings more energy efficient:

1. Regulate the heating system. First, Benedict suggests switching from a steam to hot water-based system. If the building already has a hot water system, the landlord can better manage the building’s heat flow by installing room-by-room thermostat control.

2. Make enclosure upgrades. The building must be void of air leaks. Landlords should first locate any and all holes and cracks in the walls and close them up. Then, Benedict recommends insulating the building, either from the exterior or the interior. Finally, landlords should install high-performance windows in the units, which permit less heat loss.

3. Upgrade the mechanical ventilation system. This is an important last step, since the building can become airtight from the insulation, according to Benedict. There are modern, more effective ways of ventilating buildings than the traditional method of roof fans, such as placing separate ventilation fans in each unit.