Mundane Items Make Zone Green Text Amendment Important

David West, AIA

The City Council has approved Zone Green. This comprehensive zoning text amendment will enable energy efficient cutting-edge design and construction of both new and existing buildings.

During public debate of the proposal, wind turbines, green houses, and solar panels received much attention. These elements are emblematic of the green building movement; however, it is the more mundane aspects that will have the most far reaching impact on reducing our carbon footprint.

New York City’s zoning resolution was enacted in 1961. The rules regarding permitted obstructions and rooftop mechanical allowances have remained largely unchanged. Zone Green provides meaningful relief for new exterior insulation on existing buildings, added wall thickness for super-insulated new construction, and rooftop equipment. Green roofs, water retention systems, and landscaping will also be permitted to encroach above height limits. These simple measures will go a great distance in encouraging energy efficient real estate.

Many architects go to great lengths to encourage clients to adopt green building technologies, only to be thwarted by outdated and inflexible zoning regulations. Particular issues have been installation of sun shades, solar panels, and other equipment on roofs and walls, as well as the application of insulation into set-backs and yards.

This has been a problem for both new construction and retrofits. Older buildings often encroach into present day zoning envelopes. With new buildings, added costs of green construction are exacerbated by the loss of usable floor area when added equipment or wall thickness must be kept within tightly prescribed zoning limits. The resulting loss of usable space can make the difference in the developer’s willingness to incorporate these measures.

Because energy was once cheap and plentiful, we have many inefficient buildings. Exterior insulation is a critical part of the solution because it does not require that the building be vacated and gutted in order to achieve vast energy savings. Of course, this approach may not be appropriate in all circumstances, such as with historic structures.

In 1961, the planners that wrote the text did not imagine that roof space would be used for anything but the most basic shelter.  Most buildings were not restricted by height limits, but rather by setbacks and sky exposure planes. Rooftop obstructions were less of an issue. Today, most new zoning is contextual. Buildings are frequently built to strict height limits.

Now, designers, building owners, and residents see rooftops in a different light – they are a largely untapped resource for recreation, water retention, power generation and even food production. Zone Green will allow these uses to be developed where appropriate. Green roofs and water retention systems will reduce storm runoff into our overburdened combined sewer system. Landscaped roofs are a huge amenity in a city as short on open space as New York.

Zone Green makes good environmental as well as economic sense. City building officials will not be asked to enforce illogical out of date restrictions that prevent upgrades or new designs that are clearly in everyone’s best interest. Architects will have an opportunity to push the latest technologies and work freely to create exciting designs.

The Department of City Planning has done an excellent job of crafting the proposal to reduce impediments without imposing mandates. The old law no longer supported our growing need to create healthy, energy efficient buildings in New York. Zone Green provides us with a new opportunity to nurture our buildings and prepare them for New York City’s future.

David West, AIA, is a partner at Goldstein, Hill and West Architects, LLP

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