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Pursuing passive: strategies for a high comfort, low energy retrofit in NYC

2 Nov 2018

Improving the performance of buildings must be a central component of any response to the challenges of climate change. This is both an imperative and an opportunity. Responding to climate change by aggressively improving the performance of the built environment will produce buildings that are superior in virtually every capacity, and focus attention on an industry whose processes have lagged behind those of other sectors.

It is imperative to draw down the energy use of buildings worldwide to ensure an equitable and sustainable future. Buildings contribute 40% of global carbon emissions and an astonishing 70% in New York City alone. New York City estimates that carbon emissions of the building sector need to be reduced by 60% in order to meet our current climate action goals. This will require not only increasing the stringency of our energy codes for new construction, but introducing a radical expansion of existing building retrofits, a sector notoriously resistant to innovation. Extensive, holistic renovation of occupied buildings is expensive and disruptive for the occupants, and since such work is rarely undertaken there is no natural market to exploit. The diversity of our building stock (in size, age, construction, etc.) further complicates matters by making it difficult to scale solutions—there is no one size fits all approach. There are many resources that describe generalized solutions for building types, but building owners will require strategies more specific to their particular building before studying the feasibility of a deep retrofit. With this in mind, the authors have selected an existing high-rise multifamily building in New York City that represents a common building type and will serve as the case study for this report.

This study finds that retrofitting a highrise, freestanding residential building to the Passive House standard presents very few technical challenges and would result in substantial benefits that would also require significant capital and extensive tenant engagement to complete successfully. The authors find it possible to conduct such a holistic retrofit in several phases while the building remains fully occupied, but it is far less expensive and far more effective in terms of carbon emissions reductions to perform the retrofit in a single phase. This report focuses on the technical strategies required to meet the requirements of the EnerPHit standard and enjoy the significant benefits available. The authors have included cost estimates for the various measures, and although deep financial analysis is outside the purview, there is clearly a pressing need for access to capital to perform these critical upgrades.

This study provides guidance for a specific building type to encourage capital planning that supports deeper retrofits. Such plans have the potential to shift the expectations of energy efficiency retrofits from a burden to an opportunity, encouraging building owners to remain competitive as more and more efficient projects come on line to meet the steadily progressive energy codes.

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