Greened Out


When city officials unveiled a plan on April 22 to transform the city’s building stock into some of the greenest on the planet, the environment was seen as a major benefactor, as was the local economy. “Everyone’s been talking about green jobs, but this is the program that will actually do it,” said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, noting that the plan is expected to create 19,000 jobs as it cuts the city’s carbon footprint by five percent over the next two decades.

But many out-of-work architects are wondering: Jobs for whom? “My understanding—and I’m not an engineer or architect—is that it’s work that will principally involve engineers, auditors, building staff, and trades, but not architects,” said Russell Unger, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council, New York chapter, in an interview.

The first major piece of the program calls for benchmarking standards to track the annual energy usage of buildings of 50,000 square feet or more. Another initiative calls for renovations of buildings over 50,000 square feet to include the modernization of lighting systems, while a third will close a loophole so that minor renovations must also now comply with the energy code. “There’s some work there, but I’m not sure how much,” said Chris Garvin, a partner at Terrapin Bright Green, a strategic consulting firm affiliated with Cook + Fox.

Even the most promising—and controversial—piece of the plan, a decennial audit that would require upgrades, might not mean work for architects, because only systems proven to pay for themselves over the course of five years would be required. Then again, Garvin pointed out that with 12,000 buildings in the city falling into this program, there will not be enough qualified auditors to oversee the work, and many architects are prepared to fill the void.

Garvin’s colleague, Bob Fox, finds even greater promise in the program. “If all we’re doing is changing light bulbs, then we’ve totally missed the point,” he said. Fox believes that once benchmarking takes place, building owners will see just how much they can actually save if they undertake a major retrofit. “There’s no quick fix for these buildings,” Fox said. “One needs to develop a plan for the long-term, holistic rehabilitation of them, and that’s a job for architects.”

The downside is that much of the plan does not go into effect until 2013. But Rick Bell, executive director of the AIA New York chapter, believes cheap labor and special incentives now under consideration by the city will prompt many developers to act at their own discretion. “These changes can’t wait,” Bell said. “We—architects and developers—have to make it happen now.”

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