Green 'Net Zero' Buildings Sound Great. What's The Catch?

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When P.S. 62 opens in Staten Island a year from now, it may be the city's largest science experiment. It will be the first school in the five boroughs, and maybe even the first building of any kind, that can claim to be "net zero" — meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes.

How will it do this? First, by driving energy demand as low as possible and second, by creating an energy source — namely, solar panels — robust enough enough to meet that demand. The building envelope  or exterior skin  was constructed to prevent air leakage. Plus, 81 geothermal wells sit underground. In the winter, the building will shoot water down them to be warmed by earth’s internal energy. In summer, those wells will cool the water instead. As a result of these and other measures, P.S. 62 will use only half of the energy of a typical New York City school  low enough to be fully powered by its 2,000 solar panels.

“We ended up with this building that looks like no other school that anyone has ever seen,” said E. Bruce Barrett, vice president of architecture and engineering at the New York City School Construction Authority.

But the Staten Island school also has a big advantage that other sites in the five boroughs will find hard to replicate: space. Three acres of it  which is how much one needs for all those solar panels. In fact, some green building advocates worry that while net zero is catching on elsewhere around the country, it is just too impractical to put into practice throughout a dense urban city, and sort of misses the point anyway.

“Net zero is an interesting concept when you’re dealing with low buildings  any building that’s three or four stories  you can put solar on the roof,” said Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council. "It gets a little strange when you have a conversation in a city so known for its high rises."

951 Pacific Street in Brooklyn. (Paul Castrucci Architects)

A handful of architects and developers in the city share Unger's perspective. They are focusing more on reducing the energy consumption of their buildings and less on producing energy on site. Some have become adherents of a movement called Passive House  a German design concept that maximizes energy savings, largely through intense insulation. A number of buildings constructed according to these standards have gone up or are underway, including 951 Pacific Street in Brooklyn, a row house that's expected to come on the market this fall.