Climate Change
Building for the Future – Low Carbon

Building for the Future – Low Carbon

By: Bob DeAngelis

The Earth is facing a critical moment: climate change and the severe weather it causes are upon us.  Examples include the recent record highs on the West Coast: Portland at 116 F, Seattle at 108 F, Canada’s all time high at 121 F, and the devastating floods from torrential rains in Germany and Belgium causing many deaths.   Man-made carbon emissions are the culprit.  Buildings emit about 28% of those emissions and we must reduce this to zero over the next 20 years in order to save our planet from irreversible harm.  Do we really want to burden people with the huge cost of overhauling buildings that could have been built ‘green’ at the onset?  While the fleet of automobiles on the road turns over about every 15 years, buildings can be in use for over 100 years.  There are two simple things we can do:

  1. Buildings should be saved and retrofitted to increase their efficiency. It is generally better for the environment to fix up an old building than to tear something down and rebuild it. (think about all the emissions that were already created when that building was constructed (embodied carbon).
  2. If constructing a new building, it should be built to a goal of zero carbon emissions. The standards for new buildings should be adjusted quickly to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions.  It is time to act, so let’s begin right here in Yorktown.

Locally, new buildings are constructed to the latest building code, which is better than it was 30 years ago, but not good enough. The current proposed overlay district legislation in Yorktown is taking a step in the right direction by providing development incentives for buildings which meet LEED criteria.  LEED results in an estimated 34% reduced carbon emissions and 25% fuel reduction.  We need to aim higher.

When we construct a building that relies on fossil fuels for heat, we are obligating the owner or occupant to purchase oil or gas every year of the building’s use, or to pay the hefty costs of retrofitting to a carbon neutral system in the future.  This is an economic burden to the homeowner or building owner and an attractive annuity for the fossil fuel companies.  Keep in mind that mechanical systems are expensive and often last 20-30 years, so the fuel choice should make sense for its lifetime.  Why install a carbon emitting system now that will continue to emit for the next 30 years?   Why not aim for net zero now? Is anyone doing this today?  Yes.  Here is information from the California Public Utilities Commission:

As spelled out in the California Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan adopted in 2008, the state set ambitious goals for the development of zero net energy buildings. These include:

  • All new residential construction will be zero net energy (ZNE) by 2020.
  • All new commercial construction will be ZNE by 2030
  • 50% of commercial buildings will be retrofit to ZNE by 2030
  • 50% of new major renovations of state buildings will be ZNE by 2025

Per the Massachusetts climate action network: Luckily, the technology to build net zero buildings is available now. Net zero is not only technologically feasible, but cost-effective.”

The US DOE, features an assessment of a district approach to Zero Net Energy.

District approaches can offer cost-effective pathways to achieving zero energy along with its associated financial, resiliency, and environmental benefits. In addition, zero energy districts are being looked to by cities seeking to drive revitalization of unused industrial sites and to rejuvenate their urban cores and boost quality of life (RMI 2018). As leading zero energy districts work through the development of the energy master planning process, they are identifying promising practices to overcome common district-scale zero energy barriers.”

In New York, NYSERDA has developed a stretch energy code.

This code will result in reduced greenhouse gases, and improved building efficiency.  In our minds, however, it, too, should go all the way to “Net Zero”.

While Net Zero building is not a legislated requirement in New York today, it is possible, and can be facilitated by a district approach rather than focusing on a single building.  It comes down to these simple techniques (nothing new needs to be invented or developed):

  • Build with consideration for carbon emissions from building materials and construction processes.
  • Create airtight enclosures and insulate better.
  • Take advantage of the sun (passive solar heating, solar panels).
  • Improve mechanical systems (use efficient heat pumps – either air source or geothermal) and efficiently monitor and move air, and manage fresh air.
  • Purchase electricity that is produced by sources that do not generate CO2.
  • Do not remove large trees, and plant more trees.
  • Test and verify that systems are operating per design (commission) on an ongoing basis.

By leveraging these technologies, we can build buildings (or districts) that are carbon neutral and have attractive operating costs.  Sustainable Westchester has a “Commercial Clean Heating and Cooling” program to assist developers in assessing feasibility and options, connecting to vendors and installers, as well as current discounts & incentives for installing clean systems.  New incentives for geothermal can help with implementation costs.  With the developments currently under consideration, we have a great opportunity to do the right thing, and set Yorktown apart as an environmental leader.

The recommendation of Yorktown100 is to create Zero Net Energy districts and stop the proliferation of fossil fuel heated buildings.  This will be a win for the building owner and for all the inhabitants of planet Earth. Climate change is upon us today, and we must act now!

Yorktown100 is a 100% volunteer group of neighbors working to reduce our carbon footprint by 5% a year through various programs.   Contact us if you would like to learn more, or would like to join. Visit us and help make a difference.

Bob DeAngelis is a retired IBM engineering manager often seen biking or hiking in the area.

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