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On the Path to Net-Zero


Building momentum to scalable, deep energy retrofits

In June of 2018, NYSERDA awarded its first round of pilot projects for RetrofitNY, marking the start of an aggressive push to bring change to the way existing buildings are renovated in pursuit of net-zero.

Since then, design-build teams focusing on affordable multifamily properties have hit the ground running to deliver solutions that build momentum for scalable carbon neutral retrofits in New York State and beyond.

As the teams now prepare to transition their projects toward construction in 2019, they reflect on the successes to date as well as the challenges they are actively addressing that will help them and others get closer to achieving and reliably replicating cost-effective carbon neutral retrofit projects.

Success: A fully integrated team streamlines solutions

“We have a number of people that are working together, looking at these projects and starting to think we can get to carbon neutrality, that this is feasible.”

These projects featured an integrative, collaborative approach to the designs, in which building owners, designers, engineers, solutions providers, contractors, manufacturers, and technical consultants worked in tandem throughout the design phase, to provide a more holistic, informed and higher performance design than standard retrofit construction.

“The team we have assembled has worked together harmoniously, constructively, and seamlessly,” according to Jordan Dentz, Vice President of the Levy Partnership. “The teamwork and close cooperation of all the stakeholders have allowed us to develop efficient approaches, cutting the time required to develop carbon neutral solutions.”

Loic Chappoz, NYSERDA’s Multifamily team lead, adds, “It has been inspiring to see owners involved in the entire design phase and different team members going outside of their comfort zones, looking into things they didn’t necessarily look into on their previous projects, increasing their knowledge, being really excited about the work they’ve been doing, and potentially changing the way they do business as a result of this integrated design work we’ve been pushing.”

Success: Knowledge transfer

The knowledge transfer of best practices for achieving carbon neutral solutions is a cornerstone of the RetrofitNY program. The program was informed by lessons learned from the Netherlands’ Energiesprong program, and learnings from RetrofitNY will subsequently be shared so they can be applied throughout New York State, the U.S., and the world.

“There was an immediate immersion into a highly focused group leading to the ability for ideas to flow freely between teams, rather than in competition,” said Tom King, Designer at King+King Architects. “The way in which the RetrofitNY program has facilitated discussions, feedback sessions, and encouraged the transfer of knowledge internally, and from external facilitators such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contributed to the successes and advancements we have made in this first pilot phase.”

Success: Showing progress to stakeholders

Throughout the design phase, project teams have not only engaged with each other but also local and national stakeholders like the DOE, NREL, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, New York City Department of Buildings, and New York State and New York City affordable housing agencies. The exposure of those stakeholders to these projects has made the goal of carbon neutral buildings feel more tangible than it had before.

“We have a number of people that are working together, looking at these projects and starting to think we can get to carbon neutrality, that this is feasible,” says Chappoz. “It’s really interesting to see national organizations paying close attention. We’ve created a community around these projects. They’re not isolated from each other or what’s happening nationally. That’s a good achievement and strong result of what we’re doing.”

Success: Creating new pipelines of demand

One final indicator of success Chappoz notes is that the program is already influencing new areas of demand. In particular, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is preparing to issue an RFP for a high performance whole building retrofit pilot on one of its buildings that it plans to scale up to other buildings in the future, similar to RetrofitNY.  Syracuse University is collaborating with NYSERDA to pursue a carbon neutral retrofit for one of their dormitories, with the goal of replicating the design across their campuses. Chappoz reveals that RetrofitNY will be developing more formal pipelines of demand beyond pilots: whole portfolios to retrofit.

While the teams have made progress through the design phase and momentum is building for carbon neutral retrofits, the projects are not without challenges. Carbon neutral, after all, can be difficult to achieve cost-effectively and at scale for existing buildings, but these efforts to make progress and develop solutions for common challenges are all part of the path to carbon neutrality.

Challenge: High costs of carbon neutral solutions

Bringing carbon neutral retrofits to scale requires a demand and manufacturing capacity that lowers the cost of high-performance solutions such as pre-fabricated exterior building panels and high-efficiency electric heat pump hot water systems. These solutions have not yet reached the tipping point of cost effectiveness, resulting in initial designs that incorporated these solutions coming in at higher than anticipated costs, which has been the biggest challenge cited thus far.

As a result, the RetrofitNY program relaxed some of the performance criteria of the projects at the mid-way point of the design process, allowing for natural gas hot water systems for the first round of pilot projects, in an effort to not stall progress toward the carbon neutral goal. NYSERDA is committed to helping drive down the cost of these systems by aggregating demand for high performance solutions to encourage manufacturers to increase production and by supporting research and development through its NextGen HVAC Innovation Challenge.

Challenge: Limited financing options

The high costs for carbon neutral building products are creating challenges in financing, with teams recognizing some innovation will be needed to rapidly scale these types of retrofits. NYSERDA is working with lenders to help educate the industry about carbon neutral retrofits, so that lenders can creatively approach this challenge.   

“Financing will have to be innovative, likely incorporating underwriting energy savings,” says Marion Ligneau, Manager of Building Rehabs at Bright Power. “Bright Power is proud to be working with organizations like the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) to develop tools like the Underwriting Efficiency Report and the CPC VeriFi application that assist owners in accessing financing.”

Challenge: Regulatory hurdles

During a cross-stakeholder design review event, teams shared their designs with regulatory agencies, which helped uncover regulatory barriers. For example, existing New York City zoning regulations severely restrict required levels of exterior wall panel insulation that are needed on many buildings to achieve carbon neutral performance.  In addition, New York City Department of Transportation’s requirement for revocable consent for projections into the public way poses a significant challenge to many high-performance buildings using recladding. New York City is now working to amend codes, and though any changes may not take effect for these specific projects, code changes may smooth the way for the application of these solutions in the future.

Challenge: Bringing disruption to the construction industry

The teams recognize that a “business as usual” design-bid-build approach is often inconsistent with keeping costs down and realizing the full potential of carbon neutral performance. “The construction industry has had minimal advancements in technology and innovation since the Industrial Revolution and alarmingly poor productivity when compared to other industries. There is vast room for improvement,” King says.

Additionally, the project led by the International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (ICAST) noted difficulty in finding contractors that were up to the task of fulfilling design specifications. NYSERDA, through their Clean Energy Workforce Development initiatives, is aiming to address this skills gap and increase the number of trained contractors that can incorporate high performance solutions.

Progress in Participation

Despite these common challenges, significant progress is being made on the path toward carbon neutral retrofits. NYSERDA is encouraging more developers, owners, solutions providers, and manufacturers to help spur further progress by devising solutions to these challenges.

RetrofitNY participants are also encouraging participation. King says, “The market is shifting quickly. The more experience to be gained in net-zero and deep energy retrofits now, the more prepared we will be to lessen the learning curve when these goals are more than just pilot projects, becoming mainstream approaches to design and construction.”