November 2017
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Greening the Henry Street Settlement

Rain gardens, solar panels and an efficient new mechanical system were some of the big ideas generated at the Henry Street Settlement eco-charrette last week. While those measures may be the most attention-getting of the future energy retrofit, the small ones – adding roof insulation, painting the roof white and installing efficient lighting  –  will also be critical to providing major energy and cost savings.

These ideas were generated at last week’s all-day workshop, attended by a group of prominent experts (see list below) in preservation architecture, green building technology, mechanical engineering and landscape architecture. See photos below. This interdisciplinary group volunteered their Saturday to investigate how to apply sustainability measures to the historic Henry Street Settlement Headquarters. Their goal was to develop a phased plan that can save energy, save money, provide a more comfortable working environment and contribute to making New York City more sustainable.

The organization is located in three circa 1830 Federal-style row houses on the Lower East Side, which are designated New York City and National Historic Landmarks. With a challenge grant from The J.M. Kaplan Fund and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, MAS has been working in collaboration with the Pratt Center, Li/Saltzman Architects and Thornton Tomassetti to demonstrate to policy-makers and the general public how to make efficiency gains and lower operating costs to small historic buildings without compromising their architectural integrity or impacting durability.

Defining the Problems

The charrette began with a review of two energy audits, an introduction to the historical context of the site and headquarters, and discussing the building’s operational challenges with Settlement’s director of facilities. Through those discussions it became clear that this building shares a problem with many in this city: overheating. One of the audits showed that some rooms are heated to more than 85 degrees in the winter, which causes the staff to open windows and even turn on the air conditioning in the winter. Experts agreed that what the building needs is a mechanical system that doesn’t waste energy or heat, which will drive down operational costs and make the building more comfortable for the people who work there.

Over the course of the day the experts discussed sustainability measures related to the building’s envelope, site, mechanical systems and water usage.  The challenge was to find a balance among measures that would improve energy efficiency, provide the greatest “payback” of those measures (i.e., how long it would take to recoup the investment) and improve the building’s comfort level and overall “greenness”.

Learning from the Past

Another overriding goal was to retain the architectural character of the landmarked buildings, including the historic features that make old buildings inherently green. Built long before electricity was used to provide light or fuel mechanical systems, these buildings were designed with energy-free techniques that provide natural light, circulate cool air in the summer and hold warm air in the winter.  These “passive systems” include large windows that provide natural daylight, cross ventilation to capture breezes and thick masonry walls that hold in heat. Historic photographs show that these buildings used awnings to shade the building in the summer and shutters to provide further protection from the elements in the winter. Over time, changes to the building’s interiors have blocked some cross ventilation and air conditioning units have prevented windows from being fully operational. The original historic windows were found to be in very good condition, although some of the replacement windows were malfunctioning. The experts decided to weatherize and not replace the windows, given their good condition, how they contribute to the architecture of the building and because recent studies question the efficiency gains and environmental impact of the replacement windows.

Sustainable Open Space

Bringing sustainability measures to Henry Street’s open space was another important topic. The headquarter buildings have rear yards (which once contained the nation’s first playground), and are adjacent to the small Martin Luther King Jr. Park. The sustainability of these spaces will be improved through the creation of a rain garden, in which water will be captured from storms, stored and then used to water the gardens. Creating such a system will also help achieve citywide sustainability goals by preventing stormwater from deluging the city’s overburdened sewer system.

Next Steps

What’s next? MAS’ consultant, Michael Kriegh at the Pratt Center, is compiling all of the ideas from the eco-charrette, determining paybacks and creating a phased plan.In the first phase, we expect that with a modest investment in adjusting the mechanical systems, the instillation of efficient lighting and other measures, the Settlement will realize a significant reduction in energy usage, and lower costs to operate its headquarters. Later phases will explore the use of solar panels, diverting storm water into a rain garden and new mechanical systems that will even further reduce energy usage and green the buildings. Once complete, the building will use less energy, be cheaper to operate, and perhaps most importantly to the people who work there, be healthier and more pleasant.

MAS is grateful for the generosity of the following participants