Greenhouse Guzzlers

NYC buildings will soon get report cards for energy grades

Glassy office blocks are often among the top producers of greenhouse gas emissions in big cities like New York. (Geoff Brooks/Unsplash)

New Yorkers know to take a step back when they see a “C” rating in the window of their favorite sushi spot. Now, the same labels will be required for buildings all over the city, but the letter grades will act as a report card for energy consumption—and yes, many buildings, including some shiny new ones, will get D’s. 

The new grading system is part of the sweeping Climate Mobilization Act passed earlier this year, intended to reduce greenhouse emissions across New York City, where building emissions alone account for more than two-thirds of its total carbon footprint. 

“People want to know what they are walking into, what they are living in and what their contribution to meeting their values are,” Melanie E. La Rocca, commissioner of the Buildings Department, told The New York Times. The city describes the labels as a step towards greater transparency surrounding the city’s carbon emissions. But, the regulation also acts as a shaming mechanism, pushing landlords one step closer to preparations for the energy consumption fines that are set to roll out in 2024. 

A sample of the new energy emission signage

A sample of the new energy emission signage (Courtesy New York City Department of Buildings)

The new law will require buildings over 25,000 square feet to post the regulatory signage “in a conspicuous location near each public entrance.” These letter grades will soon be a facade feature of over 40,000 of the one million buildings in New York City. 

While it may seem logical that the older building stock of New York, like the sooty brick office buildings and old masonry factory lofts, would be the main energy guzzling culprits, there are many new structures that rank lower. Mid-century office buildings in the Financial District and Midtown use a tremendous amount of energy to keep internal corridors at optimum temperatures and fight losing battles to retain heat due to their old, single-pane glass walls. For these glass-and-steel skyscrapers, upgrades will be more expensive than just replacing old boilers. 

The building types once considered most profitable in the office tower boom of the ’50s and ’60s are finally showing their weaknesses, as 21st-century workspaces have shifted their priorities towards open floor plans and smart design strategies for not only the planet but for the health of their employees. CEOs and landlords are beginning to recognize that respecting sustainability standards is an asset for property value and branding, and failure to do so can be damaging to their image. 

While Ms. Dougherty admitted that “some buildings may be O.K with a C,” that attitude will likely change when tenants are charged with steep fines in 2024.

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