Three cities blaze a path for sustainable planning and green building.
WRITTEN BY Kiley Jacques

Opening: Rendering of Cornell’s new tech campus on Roosevelt Island. Above: Cornell Technion Campus will be designed according to LEED, Net Zero, and Passive House principles; the campus promises to be one of the most environmentally friendly and energy-efficient campuses in the world.

New York City; Oakland, California; and Knoxville, Tennessee, have made local strides in sustainability and resiliency that set an example for the globe. With LEED v4, they are now able to take even bigger steps. Whether building skyscrapers, developing waterfronts, or designing affordable housing, city leaders are demonstrating the ingenuity inherent in LEED strategies. The application of LEED v4 to such varied projects demonstrates its capacity for supporting city plans with sustainability built into their promise.


New York, New York
Among the U.S. cities taking proactive steps toward meeting global prerequisites for green building design, New York is a forerunner. Mayor de Blasio’s desire to see the city emerge as “the global leader in sustainability and resiliency” has resulted in the “One City, Built to Last” plan developed by the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. It calls for measures to improve the energy efficiency of the city’s buildings and to adapt to more renewable energy sources.


“One City, Built to Last, by Mayor de Blasio, builds off Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC from 2007, New York’s first comprehensive plan for sustainable growth,” explains Laurie Kerr, director of policy at Urban Green. PlaNYC set the goal of reducing the city’s carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. It launched the first major efforts by any jurisdiction to address energy use in existing buildings: the Greener, Greater Building Plan; the Mayor’s Carbon Challenges; and the Green Codes Task Force.


“PlaNYC grew out of the realization that marrying planning with sustainable strategies was the best way for the city to grow and maintain quality of life,” says Kerr, adding that the realization that 75 percent of the city’s carbon emissions come from energy used in buildings helped concentrate efforts on the building sector. “Then Hurricane Sandy happened, which made the urgency for sustainability and resilience even more clear to New York’s policy makers.”


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

One City, Built to Last is a move from PlaNYC’s “interim goal” of 30 percent carbon reduction by 2030 to the long-term goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050 (“80 x 50”). Achieving 80 x 50 will require three significant changes: New buildings will need to use roughly one-third the energy of traditional buildings; existing buildings must cut their energy use in half; and the majority of fuel used in buildings and cars needs to be electrified. “These are extremely demanding requirements,” notes Kerr.


In March of 2016, the New York City Council approved two important amendments to Local Law 86; they require all new city projects—starting in 2018—to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) v4 Gold certification, and to use less than half the energy of current code or of the average energy use of existing buildings as measured by benchmarking. “This is meant to create a knowledge base that can transform NYC’s design and construction industry,” explains Kerr.


Included in the new framework is the application of Passive House strategies. The term Passive House refers to a rigorous, voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building to reduce its ecological foot-print. “Passive House has had a slow movement in the United States, but is now picking up speed,” notes Kerr. “[It] has been gaining increasing interest in NYC as a strategy, especially for residential construction.” A major project is underway on the Cornell Technion Campus, where the first high-rise residential building in the world built to Passive House standards is under construction. Additionally, several multifamily projects are being considered. “It is likely that Passive House or at least Passive House–like strategies will move into the mainstream for most residential work,” says Kerr.


What is clear is New York’s determination to design low-energy intensive buildings—both large and small—that meet LEED v4 certification requirements. By diversifying its strategies to achieve optimal performance in a variety of capacities, it promises to build itself up as a sustainable city—indeed, One City, Built to Last.

Brooklyn Basin’s plan calls for 30 acres of waterfront parks, trails, and open space along with new marinas and renewed wetlands.

Oakland, California
Another city using LEED v4 certification as a tool for green development is Oakland, California. “We do sustainable building in a number of ways,” says sustainability manager of the City of Oakland Daniel L. Hamilton. He notes that, in terms of “active construction,” the Brooklyn Basin project—a new neighborhood on the city’s historic waterfront, surrounded by open space and views of the San Francisco Bay and East Bay hills—is probably the best example of the city’s commitment to sustainable building; it is the first LEED v4-certified Neighborhood Development project in Oakland.


This revolutionary venture will feature 3,100 homes (over 400 of which will constitute affordable housing), 200,000 square feet of retail, 32 acres of waterfront parks, and two marinas. According to Catherine Payne, the project manager overseeing permitting for the city, the city is taking 60 acres of “really dirty land” and cleaning it up to create “a pleasant living environment for a lot of people.” The objective is to both enhance and protect the waterfront. When complete, it will provide housing for up to 6,000 residents and create more than 10,000 jobs. It will also give Oakland residents access to a significant part of the shoreline previously closed to the public.
“How wonderful to take a vacant, underutilized piece of land in an urban center and apply land uses [of value],” remarks Payne, noting the difference between cramming units onto the waterfront and the approach being taken—one that is respectful of its sensitive location.


City of Oakland sustainability manager Daniel L. Hamilton with project manager Catherine Payne.  Photo: Emily Hagopian

City of Oakland sustainability manager Daniel L. Hamilton with project manager Catherine Payne.
Photo: Emily Hagopian

Payne compares Brooklyn Basin to a small city. “The Phase One Infrastructure is more or less built out,” she says of the project’s current status. Residents had their applications approved in 2009, and the developers are putting in the streets now; there will be four phases of street development. Soon, they will begin building the first 240 residential homes, and an affordable housing developer has begun work on two parcels of land slotted to support 465 units. They are also in the process of getting building permits for the approved Shoreline Park, which will comprise 10 of the 32 acres of park land—all of which will be linked by a pedestrian and bicycle trail system connecting the recently revitalized area of Jack London Square with Oakland’s eastern waterfront. Entitlements for Phase Two Infrastructure development are now being sought. “We are starting to see a lot of activity among all city staff in terms of building permits,” notes Payne.


Hamilton describes a greenhouse gas emissions inventory for the project that was published this year: “It really is one of the most innovative emission inventories anywhere in the world because we not only look at core emissions, which are emitted within our boundaries, but we also consider consumption-based emissions.” He refers to “upstream emissions” as those that come from all of the activities required to develop a property. “Buildings are a great example of how the traditional focus [of emissions inventories] doesn’t capture the real environmental impact of the buildings,” he explains. For instance, in a standard emissions inventory, buildings and energy use are counted as 35 percent of the emissions. But consumption emissions, things like fuel—extracted, refined, and shipped—are not counted. “In our core analysis,” says Hamilton, “building emissions have gone down 7 percent since 2005, which seems like a good thing, like we are on track. But when you look at a consumption inventory, you see it has actually gone up 4 percent. The reason is the fuels used in those buildings.”


By adding features like electric vehicle infrastructure and enhanced natural-gas appliances under new, more stringent codes, Brooklyn Basin developers are going the full distance to reduce consumption emissions. “We think [it is] critical that [we] do not just focus on what’s coming out of the HVAC systems—but that we look at the whole life cycle of emissions,” concludes Hamilton.

Some of the design components that aided in reaching the LEED v4 Homes Silver-level designation include: drought-tolerant, native, non-intrusive grasses and plants; use of local building materials, wood, roofing, concrete products, and services in construction; and highly efficient air-conditioned filtration system in the houses to improve indoor air quality.

Knoxville, Tennessee

Knoxville, Tennessee’s, commitment to “green homes for all” has expanded as the city takes steps toward sustainability and works to integrate affordable housing into its projects and systems. Nowhere is this commitment more apparent than in the Lonsdale Homes project, built by HomeSource—a nonprofit agency and forerunner in that city’s green building movement.


Since 2007, the city’s Energy and Sustainability Initiative has been in place and at work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the city and community by 20 percent by 2020. Mayor Madeline Rogero has been instrumental in those efforts, serving at the helm of the city’s Energy and Sustainability Task Force. “One of the things that came out of her leadership, and the feedback the board was getting, was the realization that here we are, as a city, caring very deeply about affordable housing and recognizing high utility bills mean a home is not truly affordable,” explains Erin Gill, director of sustainability for the city of Knoxville. With that realization, in combination with its sustainability initiative, the city decided to provide funds through the Community Development Department for affordable housing projects built to meet LEED or ENERGY STAR standards.


“We meet ENERGY STAR on all of our rehabs,” notes Community Development Director Becky Wade. “We would like all of our projects to be LEED certified—some of our Knoxville Community Development Corporation projects are—it is certainly our goal.”


The Lonsdale Homes are the first affordable LEED v4 homes in the world, and were developed with support from the Community Development Department, which provided federal housing funds to HomeSource for the project. These efforts are also being made by the local and regional utility providers as well as the Knoxville–Knox County Community Action Committee, which provides upgrades to low-income homes.


In the last few years, green building development in Knoxville has emphasized energy efficiency as a community priority, “especially for residents who don’t have the resources to make it a priority on their own,” explains Gill, who often hears people expressing the idea that green housing is prohibitively expensive. Knoxville is “breaking down that perception” and demonstrating that high-quality homes can be affordable and certified. “The additional investment that is required is paid back more than in full by the benefits it’s providing for the family that ultimately lives in that home. The Lonsdale Homes are really rooted in this concept of making sure our city is sustainable for those who really need the financial benefits that sustainability offers.”


Beth Eason, principal architect for the project, chair of the Tennessee USGBC advisory board and LEED Fellow, is a long-time leader in residential green housing development. Of HomeSource, she says: “They have continued to push themselves [in terms of] levels of sustainability with each housing project . . . they push for Platinum and they achieve it. When LEED v4 came out, HomeSource jumped right in and went for [that certification].”


Part of what HomeSource offers residents, says its chief operating officer, Chris Osborn, is a two-hour homeowner operation training session “to learn how to navigate their way around the house and manage it and to understand what their house is designed to do.” Some of the technology might be new to them and require explanation. “Feedback from residents has been extremely positive. All of them have seen their energy bills [and housing costs] go down,” notes Osborn.


With respect to Lonsdale Homes, Eason says: “It’s not just about energy efficiency. There are other wonderful features like large windows for natural light, porches, and . . . in some of the multihome projects there are common playgrounds and gardens.” It was important, too, that the homes be healthy. Materials like no-VOC paints and reliance on natural ventilation systems support clean living environments.


“It gets back to that holistic approach to sustainability,” says Gill, noting that these homes go beyond affordability to address the experience of the families living in them.