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Global Lessons in Green Building: How NYC Stacks Up, By Alexis Greene

Those fine organizations the Urban Green Council and the Urban Land Institute New York organized a conference called Global Lessons in Green Building: How New York City Stacks Up, about whether the Big Apple makes the grade when its green accomplishments are compared to those of major cities around the globe. And the answer? Despite PlaNYC, NYCEEC and local laws requiring stricter energy efficiency standards for our largest buildings: Not too well.

That conclusion, however, was not as intriguing as some of the points made along the way.  From the viewpoint of the panelists – a mix that included real estate and banking executives, a former Mayor of Toronto, the Deputy Minister for Industry and Energy for the Basque Government, and the CEO of the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC) — the major routes to a greener NYC probably involve firmer government policies, prescriptive approaches to energy efficiency standards and improvements in data-gathering.

Taking the last first, nearly everyone was in agreement with Theddi Wright Chappell, National Practice Leader – Green and Sustainability, Cushman and Wakefield, that “at the end of the day, the operative word is ‘data.’” Companies, whether they are not-for-profit or commercial, need ROI and other performance data for marketing, for approaching underwriters and lenders, and for themselves, to make smart business decisions.  

As for government policies, I listened with envy as a panel about “Policy and Codes” discussed how European countries often set building standards at the national level (in Spain, it’s at the regional level), while here in the U.S. we have this patchwork quilt of every state/city/town for itself, and the so-called mandates are often voluntary. The U.K., which, like the rest of Europe, measures everything against carbon, is requiring carbon-neutral construction for all residential buildings by 2016 and for commercial structures by 2019.

In New York City, with its enormous stock of existing buildings (some quite elderly), the challenge obviously is to come up with a carrot-and-stick arrangement that will make building and business owners just drool to make their real estate energy efficient.

Back to data, and lots of it, as a helpful carrot. Taxing those who don’t comply was suggested as a possible stick – that’s apparently what Turkey does.  In Melbourne, Australia, the real estate is de-valued if it doesn’t come up to green standards. And of course in China, it’s all about the stick.

Which led to the conference’s 2nd panel, “Market Forces and Finance.”   

Kenneth W. Hubbard, President of Hines, opined that we were just beginning to see the marketplace appreciate all the innovative work everyone has been doing. Susan Leeds, who has been in the trenches as CEO of the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation, described how NYCEEC worked through mortgage debt instruments instead of banks in order to leverage the $37 million in federal funds for energy efficiency projects.  Leeds encouraged everybody to avoid the big banks and look to local ones for loans.

Bottom line: There need to be better carrots, tougher sticks, innovative financing, and more data if NYC wants to bring about a true green revolution.  Did the large group attending think NYC was leading the world when it came to green building? Nobody raised a hand.

More work to be done for all of us.





Alexis is the public relations coordinator at CEC.

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