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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

P.S. 62, being built on Staten Island's South Shore, will have 2,000 solar panels to generate as much energy as the building uses. (Chris Mossa/WNYC)

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. 


Matthew Schuerman


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Comments [3]

BJK from Queens

"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."
One doesn't need to dig 80 geothermal wells or install thousands of solar panels to achieve substantial energy savings.
Two recent projects being completed prove that remarkable energy savings are achievable and practical in an urban area:

Aug. 14 2014 12:06 AM
Quinn Raymond from Brooklyn, NY

One thing this article really missed was the importance of factoring transportation into calculating a building's energy use. This is REALLY aggravating, because Chris touched on density but didn't quite make the leap to the most relevant point here.

While the steps taken in this school's construction are admirable, the main point is that NYC's density is key to energy efficiency. You don't actually need to produce energy locally per se, and when buildings like this are low-density they dramatically increase energy use over time.

Of course if the local NIMBY's in this area had their choice the school wouldn't be built at all...

For more information on this concept, please check out:

Aug. 13 2014 06:05 PM
Michael from NYC

Since it is being built under the direction of the SCA it will cost 3 times what it should to maintain and repair. The number of schools they have built that can't even get a final certificate of occupancy is astounding.

Aug. 13 2014 07:31 AM

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