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One Architect's Revolutionary Plan to Make Old Buildings Energy Efficient

By Amy Zimmer | December 22, 2015 4:38pm
 Architect Chris Benedict wants to retrofit Bushwick affordable housing buildings to meet passive house standards.
One Architect's Bold Vision on How to Retrofit NYC's Affordable Housing
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BROOKLYN — An East Village-based architect responsible for designing the city's first new affordable buildings that met strict energy efficiency standards has been tapped for an even more challenging task — retrofitting a collection of existing affordable housing buildings.

Chris Benedict is working with The Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council — which runs complexes that are 100 percent affordable — to upgrade at least nine of its buildings in Bushwick to meet “passive house” standards. That means they would be essentially airtight, keeping hot air in during the winter and cool air in during summer with a filtration system circulating clean air inside.

With buildings that range in age up to nearly a century old, and have up to 54 units apiece, that's a tall order, but Benedict hopes her bold vision will revolutionize the process while staying within budget.

"We’re saving energy and bringing comfort to New Yorkers, giving them fresh air and thermal comfort — two things most New Yorkers don’t get,” said Benedict.

“By being clever and very careful with money spent in the budget, this will show how it can be used,” she added, saying that she was inspired, in part, by similar retrofits she saw while on a tour in Germany and Austria a few years ago.

Most co-op boards and landlords are reluctant to consider major retrofits because it’s “too hard to move forward” when residents are displaced during construction, she said. But Benedict hopes to make the changes without displacing tenants, by keeping interior construction work minimal and focusing most of the changes on the outside.

Among the plans are moving much of the buildings’ duct work and pipes to their exteriors and moving portions of the mechanical systems onto the roof. She'd then run feeders down the façade, which would be covered with some sort of membrane to create an air barrier, she explained.

Ridgewood Bushwick's director Scott Short said the investment of funds to retrofit the building might be costlier on the front end compared to a typical renovation. But the target is to have the energy efficiency upgrades pay for themselves within seven years.

“Yes, we’re investing more money, but we’re saving more money,” he said, explaining his nonprofit's "keen interest in energy efficiency."

“As owners and managers of affordable housing, where the income side is fixed because of rent control, we’ve been focused on [lowering] operating expenses," he added, saying that when the organization has paid attention to energy efficiency in new construction it's been able to spend 70 percent less on heating costs.

The exact price tag of the retrofits owned by the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council is still being worked out since the project is still in the design phase and about a year away from construction, he said.

Energy used by the city's buildings are responsible for roughly 75 percent of New York City's greenhouse gas emissions, experts have found.

The de Blasio administration has made greening existing buildings a priority, recently announcing that public buildings were on track to all have retrofits by 2025 as the city works toward its goal of reducing carbon emissions from buildings by 30 percent in 10 years.

For the buildings from the 1980s and 1990s, Benedict expects to put portions of the mechanical systems on the roof and then run feeders down the façade, which would then be covered with some sort of membrane to create an air barrier, she explained.

Obviously, it could dramatically change the appearance of these buildings, but in some cases, “we might up the aesthetics,” Benedict said.

It’s trickier when it comes to historic buildings, she said.

Benedict is exploring whether they can “stealthily” fit some of the feeders within cavities between the interior and exterior walls. To achieve the desired air-tightness, her team would use infrared cameras to check how well sealed things are, she explained.

Benedict designed two passive house buildings from ground-up for Ridgewood Bushwick, which opened last year.

Short said the main challenge will be ensuring that the buildings are as tight as they need to be to meet passive house standards — adding that the renovation process is very different from constructing a new building, where "you can watch how every window is made and how every wall gets caulked."

“There are a lot of people supportive about this but also some skepticism to see if we can get it done,” he said.

Deborah Gans, an architect and professor at Pratt Institute’s undergraduate architecture program, applauded Benedict for tackling such an ambitious project.

“There are things that are low-hanging fruit and there are things that are hard,” Gans said. “Passive house is hard. It’s hard to do with new construction. All power to [Benedict] for doing it with existing construction, which is even harder.”

She said any project that shows the feasibility of creating energy-efficient affordable housing raises the bar for the industry and shows this technology should not be the exclusive domain of luxury buildings.

“We need it to do it, and we need it quickly," she added.

To help green the city's buildings, the de Blasio administration recently launched the “NYC Retrofit Accelerator," which offers free technical assistance services to owners of large buildings on energy and water efficiency upgrades. It also launched a new tool this month for these buildings to track their energy and water usage.