Every year, more people want to live in a sustainably built home or building. At the same time, they are moving to cities. In 2010, 82% of Americans lived in cities, and by 2050 it will be 90%. In order for already space-constrained city planners to simultaneously accommodate growing populations, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and meet demand for green homes, they will have to make cities more sustainable. These are all challenges facing city planners, but especially in densely packed New York City (NYC), so it is no wonder that some of the most advanced sustainable buildings in the US can be found there.
Cities worldwide are the biggest contributors of global pollution, accounting for about 65% of all energy used, 60% of all water consumed and 70% of all greenhouse gases produced. But most people live in cities, so it makes sense that most of the energy would be consumed there. Despite using most of the energy, city residents use fewer resources. NYC, the most densely populated city in the US, on a per-capita basis, is one of the most energy- and resource-efficient places in the country. GHG emissions in NYC are 7.1 metric tons per person per year, far below the national average of 24.5 metric tons, according to the New York City Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability. NYC accounts for only 1% of US GHG emissions while accounting for 2.7% of the population. Therefore, in order to truly create sustainably built human settlements for the future, it will require sustainable design and architecture to be incorporated where people will be living: in densely populated urban areas in high-rise buildings.
In order for cities to become more sustainable and provide people with a higher quality of life, architects need to design high-rise buildings that are much more efficient. Although NYC residents use less energy per capita, the highest proportion comes from buildings. Approximately 75% of NYC carbon emissions come from energy-use in buildings. NYC leaders understand the potential for GHG reductions and cost-savings through sustainable building retrofits and have several city programs, such as PlaNYC. The city also offers numerous incentives to building owners to make sustainability improvements to large buildings. Because of strong local government support for green buildings, and increased consumer interest in living sustainably, large NYC building-owners have started making energy upgrades to their buildings, such as the Empire State Building and the 7 World Trade Center.
So what do these new sustainable buildings look like?
One of the most sustainably built buildings is also New York’s second tallest: the new Bank of America Tower on 6th Avenue & 42nd Street. The building uses floor-to-ceiling insulating glass that maximizes natural light for heat and daylighting while also containing the heat. The building’s graywater system captures rainwater and reuses it among various applications in the buildings. The cooling system produces ice and stores it during off-peak hours. The ice melts and is used to cool the building during peak energy-use hours. The building’s energy comes from an on-site cogeneration facility, which produces electricity and uses the wasted heat produced for various heating applications throughout the building.
One of the first examples of a sustainable residential high-rise building is The Visionaire, is a 35-story, 247-home residential high rise building located in Manhattan’s Battery Park City. The building saves about 42 percent in energy costs against a base-line average because it implements intricate networks that capture, store, and re-use resources. 70 percent of the roof surface is covered in a green roof, which insulates the building and helps capture and store rainwater. The building captures rainwater and blackwater, treats it, and recycles it in the building’s toilet water and irrigation system. Recycled water is also used in the heating and cooling system, which uses an efficient four-pipe fan-coil system that delivers filtered air to every unit. Residents enjoy healthy interior spaces, which are critical in NYC and other cities where air pollution causes numerous health risks. Residents themselves have a lot of control over the energy-use in each unit. A single master switch at the entrance to each unit allows residents to easily turn off all lights. Units are also set up for automated control of window shades. Essentially, the building is much more responsive to exterior conditions and each resident’s demands, creating a more sustainable and more luxurious living experience.
What makes both of these buildings so efficient – and any truly sustainable building – is that they combine multiple technologies to maximize resource use that already exist. These buildings use incoming resources, such as water, wind and solar energy for their benefit, and reuse them in as many ways as possible.
With such sustainable designs already being implemented in major high-rise buildings in the US, it is only a matter of time before these practices become standard. As demand only grows for sustainable buildings, NYC and other cities will transform into more sustainable systems that are healthier for its residents, better for the planet, and easier on the pocketbook. It starts with the consumer and the architect working together today.