City of Ithaca Moves Towards Adoption of Green Building Policy

Ithaca’s development boom has so far been mostly free of sustainability requirements, relying on the good will of developers – or the promise of tax abatements – to incorporate green goals into new construction.

But that may change soon as the city seems poised to introduce new construction rules that could dramatically impact sustainable development, potentially without driving up the price of economic development to unreachable levels. This Green Building Policy (GBP) will be formally introduced next month.

Two options were put forth earlier this month to the Planning and Economic Development Committee to mull over, an “easy path” and the “whole building path.” The easy path is a pick-and-choose system, with a list of criteria that correspond to a certain number of points: once the project has reached a certain set amount of points, it can be approved. The points list has not yet been finalized, but as it was presented last week would include traits including building shape, home size, low-flow shower heads, high-efficiency lighting, etc.

The whole building path adheres closer to established national guidelines like LEED certifications or Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index scores. Developers can choose which path to take, though the easy path has been designed to ensure relatively achievable thresholds. The whole building path was established primarily for developers with design constraints that may force them off the easy path.

The team lists the policy’s anticipated results as a reduction of carbon emissions to levels 40-50 percent under the NYS Energy Code for new construction, 70 percent better than existing building stock, lower or similar construction costs and a flexible enough policy that it can be continually adjusted as carbon emissions goals change over time.

The presentation team named the four tenets of a successful GBP as affordability, impact, flexibility and achievability. Some of these have been roadblocks in the past to implementing GBPs in the city, but Nick Goldsmith, the Sustainability Coordinator for the Town and City of Ithaca, believes they’ve hit a healthy balance in this incarnation. The group responsible for the plan’s formulation was Goldsmith, local architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collab, Ian Shapiro of Taitem Engineering and David West of Randall-West, who made up the consultation team, as well as a steering committee made up of officials from both the city and the town.

The construction costs aspect is one of the most important for policies like this, to ensure it does not exclude smaller developers who may not have the means to incur higher project costs. While there are certain criteria in the points system that would cost more to achieve, like some of the renewable energy aspects, there are others that can be reached which would have, as stated, lower or similar construction costs. These have to deal with simple building shape or wall-to-window ratio, both of which can lead to greener buildings but don’t come attached to a high cost.

“Part of the project was a big focus on equity considerations,” Goldsmith said. “This has to have a big impact on energy usage, that’s the whole point, but without having a harmful economic impact. [...] Not every path is going to be lower cost, but you can comply with lower costs.”

Another consideration for the GBP is its implementation: finding the perfect equilibrium between mandatory compliance and softer incentivization tactics. It appears the group has settled on a balance, acknowledging their goals can not be met simply be encouraging action with positive factors like tax incentives or public recognition of successful projects. There must be some mandatory aspects, possibly in the form of code requirements or ordinances to strengthen the motivation for compliance.

As mentioned above, certain developers may not be able to make the concessions necessary for the easy path, and would then have to meet the whole building path standards. That path, he said, probably would lead to higher construction costs, though it might end up that larger entities are the only developers to use that path anyway, places like Cornell University which have plenty of money to spend on energy efficiency and also a specific aesthetic that may not yield itself to the easy path design.

While not necessary, Goldsmith said it is probably preferable to have one uniform policy between the city and the town, in order to make it easier for developers to understand and avoid confusion. That goal comes with political challenges as the policy moves through both Common Council and the Town Board for approval, though.

There are still parts of the proposal to be ironed out, including the full points system list and the full scope of what the policy will impact. Goldsmith said it’s still unclear how the policy’s final form will address certain variations of new construction, such as renovations both residential and commercial.

“There’s a lot of opportunity when it comes to different types of renovation, like replacement of a heating system or a roof,” Goldsmith said. “It needs to be defined, what renovations will qualify, but some type of renovations will have some criteria around it.”

-- Ithaca Times, 1/23/18