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Modern again – Sustainability for a mid-century legacy

New York is a sea of buildings; there are almost a million of them in an area of little more than 300 square miles. A staggering 90% of New York’s electricity consumption feeds them and 50% of its solid waste arises from their construction. While these environmental impacts sound fairly frightening the real crisis is their average age: If they were people the average Manhattan building would be collecting its pension, and some of the most iconic buildings – Empire State, Flatiron, and Chrysler – would be in their grave!

Discounting the iconic structures that mark the skyline, the vast majority of NYC architecture is somewhat ordinary and chronically dated in design. Like London, Paris, and cities across the world that developed from the mid-century, post-war economic boom, they are a legacy to the uninhibited visions of then-forward thinking architects such as Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller. Coincidentally, those decades heralded the promise of limitless, cheap nuclear power, making energy efficiency concerns for these buildings all but nil.

Back in late 2015 I joined a half-day series of seminars called “Modern all over again” hosted by USGBC to address the already-present crisis facing developers, architects, engineers and building managers. It explored the building practices of the modern era as well as the current business, design, and conservation benefits of retrofitting and renewing these mid-century structures.


Award-winning author and historian Thomas Mellins set the stage by presenting a brief look at the “mid-century mindset,” and some of the conditions that led to millions of square feet of commercial office and public housing being constructed without concern for energy efficiency. This was followed by the keynote address, “Reinventing the Grid”, by Audrey Zibelman (Chair, New York State Public Service Commission), which explained the complete shift we need to make in how we think about energy. The afternoon that followed was divided into panels that dealt with various kinds of building stock and the challenges and opportunities they present for retrofit: “Revitalizing Public Housing”, “Renewing Midtown” and “Refurbishing Mid-Century Icons”.

A fellow Brit, Mark Elton (Sustainable By Design, London) explained that 29% of energy use in the UK is wasted compensating for poor insulation and lack of airtightness, critically in the country’s public housing. New York real estate comprises a similar share (“The Projects”, to quote many a rap artist) facing exactly the same issues, and the Department of Planning is now having to approach how to maintain, manage, upgrade and repair aging, inefficient, and downright ugly mass architecture, most of which is permanently occupied with residents that cannot be relocated elsewhere. Mark’s outlook is that “The right improvements can save tenants 80% on their energy bills, and that saves on rent arrears—if you can pay your energy bill, you’re more likely to pay your rent, too. There’s also a huge public health piece: we have a problem with affordable warmth that manifests in excess winter deaths; we have mould, we have asthma… The National Health Service takes an interest in all this because it really is preventive care.” New York City take note!

The key theme developed during the afternoon was that it is now time to act! Today’s opinion of mid-century development is that the haste, aspirations, and misguided forward-thinking of architects had created challenges that must be urgently addressed, before the risk of doing nothing created swathes of poorly functioning, expensive and uninhabitable buildings fit for nothing but the wrecking ball. In today’s economy and environment, destruction is not the solution. Nor is the eviction and relocation of millions of inhabitants in a city with such limited floor space. The critical lesson forthcoming for planners, architects and engineers was to “Do it once, and do it right!”


Parallels between New York City and London are many, both in age of building stock, their problems, and the solutions that each structure of government is enacting to deal with them. Similar to the UK Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS), the New York City government has recently launched its Greener, Greater Buildings Plan (GGBP) targeting energy efficiency in the largest of New York’s buildings. The GGBP consists of four regulatory laws called Local Laws 84, 85, 87, and 88, which are being gradually introduced to cover benchmarking; energy conservation, auditing and retro-commissioning, and lighting upgrades & sub-metering respectively.

It feels like New York is a step along the way towards tackling the problem, yet still lagging behind targets set and initiatives underway by its Atlantic cousins. The above regulations only apply to buildings over 50,000 square feet and those only within city limits; what the remainder of the building stock in the city, state and country is doing is something I am yet to discover!

If you are interested in the sessions I attended, videos are available online here:

And if you would like to discuss how your next project could be more energy efficient and sustainable, please contact us.

By Amy Bettison



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