Meeting the Reality of Climate Impact Legislation in 2021

Meeting the Reality of Climate Impact Legislation in 2021

June 2, 2021

Ever-evolving climate legislation is causing mass confusion across the U.S. as building owners scramble to comply with regulations. From Los Angeles to New York City, climate impact legislation mandates benchmarking requirements, compliance deadlines, and significant fines and legal action potential.

What Are the Common Legislative Denominators?

Building Envelope

Infiltration alone is responsible for 20% of the total energy used to heat and cool a standard commercial building. This noted, numerous cities, such as Hartford in Connecticut’s Building Code, have air leakage requirements to encourage the implementation of passive house. Although passive house, or the tightening of building envelopes, is not a new idea, the practice is gaining momentum because of its effectiveness for energy reduction. Another national trend is the installation of blue, green, or solar roofs. In Washington, D.C., the construction code requires buildings to reserve 25% of roof area for future installation of sustainable energy systems.

MEP Systems

HVAC systems are also significant contributors to building energy usage and carbon footprint. California started the trend of environmentally conscious building regulations and laws over 20 years ago with Title 24. As of 2019, 27 cities require energy benchmarking and result in transparency with the public. New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act (Local Law 97) has a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goal of 80% by 2050. Along with benchmarking, numerous cities require energy audits every five to 10 years and retro-commissioning with evidence of MEP improvements. Such initiatives put words into action that requires improvements to reduce energy consumption and promotes sustainable design decisions.

Life Safety

Tied to climate legislation, cities have requirements for building occupant safety. As a result of unfortunate tragedies, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 13 requires automatic fire sprinkler systems. With tightened building envelopes decreasing infiltration, carbon monoxide poisoning is a concern in buildings with fuel-burning equipment. Carbon monoxide sensors must be installed in compliance with NFPA 720 and other local municipalities’ fire code amendments. Boston, Philadelphia, and seven other cities have facade ordinances that require exterior facade inspections and reports every five years to keep the public safe from falling exterior components and debris.

What Are the Solutions?

Building Envelope

Building owners can take measures to ensure that they comply with climate laws and carbon footprint regulations. Proper insulation around fenestration aids significantly in the reduction of infiltration and effectively tightens a building envelope. Rigid insulation below roof decks and spray foam along the interior side of mass walls reduce energy lost to compensating for outside air infiltration.

MEP Systems

Swapping out dirtier grades of oil, such as No. 4 and No. 6, in boilers for No. 2, natural gas, or even implementing electrification puts New York City buildings in compliance with Local Law 43 and helps building owners to meet GHG emissions limits in cities across the country. HVAC systems can be upgraded by including building management systems (modifying sequence of operations and improved economizer control), replacing constant volume systems with variable volume systems linked to a central control station, and installing seven-day programmable thermostats with time of day/occupancy-based reset schedules.

Life Safety

The fire protection systems of many buildings in New York City rely on a rooftop tank to provide water until firefighters show up and connect the hose to the main water line. However, these tanks are not sized to hold enough water for the sprinkler systems and only have a 30-minute capacity. The solution for this is to install a fire pump in the building that provides an unlimited water supply. This will result in more lives saved and reduces property damage and loss. Furthermore, building owners must install carbon monoxide sensors and automatic fire sprinkler systems in compliance with the NFPA and locally adopted fire code amendments.

What Are the Winners?

Implementing climate legislation can be intimidating and overwhelming, especially when looking at the fines and penalties for noncompliance and the looming deadlines. The first step is for building owners to take property improvement measures that require minimal capital investment and plan for future improvement measures down the road.

When complete, building occupants will enjoy increased life safety, improved indoor air quality, and comfort. Building owners will receive the benefits of increased property value and reduced operating costs, along with payback in the form of energy savings. Lastly, reduced carbon footprint, decreased GHG emissions, and a movement toward green and renewable energy sources benefit the environment. Staying up to date on the climate impact legislation allows building owners to avoid fines by remaining compliant with emissions limits as restrictions tighten.

Kimberly Ulishney is a mechanical engineering intern at Gannett Fleming. Read more about her internship story on our Gannett Fleming Careers blog. For more information on the architectural and engineering solutions our team can provide related to climate impact legislation, please contact Huzefa Irfani, AIA, architectural practice leader.


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