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MAS Launches Energy Demonstration Project with Henry Street Settlement

Thumbnail - Henry Street Settlement - Photo by Hazel Balaban

Can historic, landmarked buildings – perceived by many as energy hogs–be transformed into energy efficient properties, without compromising their iconic character?

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) is embarking on a demonstration project to show that the city’s most treasured historic buildings can improve their energy efficiency without significant aesthetic changes or large capital outlays.

MAS selected the landmarked headquarters of the Henry Street Settlement as the site for the project.  Located at 263-67 Henry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the three c. 1830 Federal-style row houses were among the first buildings to be designated as landmarks by the newly-formed Landmarks Preservation Commission in the mid-1960s. See photos below. The buildings are also National Historic Landmarks, the nation’s highest-ranking historic buildings (less than 2,500 historic places in the United States bear this national distinction). The buildings are ideal for the project because of their age, relative lack of alterations and, in terms of size, configuration and ubiquity in New York City.

The goal is that with modest investment, the Settlement will realize at least a 25 percent reduction in energy usage, and lower costs to operate its headquarters.

To ensure that these results are replicable, MAS and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will write a manual on improving the efficiency of historic buildings.  Both projects are supported by a challenge grant from The J.M. Kaplan Fund.

MAS is working with the Pratt Center for Community Development, which will be the project’s consultant, guiding and managing the energy retrofit.  In addition, Li/Saltzman Architects and Thornton Tomasetti are providing pro bono consultant services. The project’s first phase will explore inexpensive measures that will have no impact on the landmark building’s architecture, like thermostatic and lighting control, retro commissioning, and weatherization. Later phases will explore ways to make more substantial cuts in energy usage and the use of renewable energy sources like solar panels. This summer, a group of experts in architecture, engineering, green building and mechanical systems will gather in a weekend charrette (an intensive design workshop) to develop creative solutions.

“Roughly 55 percent of New York’s building stock is more than 70 years old, and any serious efforts to build a more sustainable city must include solutions for making these older buildings more efficient” said MAS President Vin Cipolla.  “This project really is a challenge to show that if you can improve the energy efficiency of a landmark at a modest cost, you can improve many of our city’s older buildings.”

“Henry Street has a history of ‘firsts’ and we are thrilled that we are the first in this important project,” said David Garza, executive director of Henry Street Settlement.  “Any opportunity we have to lower our operating costs is most welcome, because it will enable us to spend more dollars on our programs which directly benefit our clients, some of New York’s most vulnerable residents.”

“As part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s groundbreaking PlaNYC initiative, the Landmarks Preservation Commission formed a ‘Green Team’ two years ago to review agency policies and regulations to identify green strategies that have minimal impact on the historic fabric of the City’s landmarks,” said LPC Chairman Robert B. Tierney. “What we found confirmed what we knew, that there are many simple, inexpensive strategies for ‘greening’ historic buildings. By partnering with MAS, we hope to educate owners of landmarked structures on the ways in which they can make their buildings more energy efficient and help the City reduce its carbon footprint.”

“There is a misguided notion that older buildings cannot achieve high levels of energy efficiency,” said Wolfgang Werner, Thornton Tomasetti’s director of sustainability. “Many historic structures have intrinsic features, for example solid exterior walls or effective natural ventilation, that enhance energy efficiency, and we can and should integrate these older, ‘low-tech’ approaches with modern, energy efficient designs.”

Michael Kriegh, the lead architect at the Pratt Center for Community Development said, “The work Pratt Center has been doing in its Sustainable Houses of Worship Program has repeatedly demonstrated that energy savings of 15 to 25 percent are available with modest investments that quickly pay for themselves. When I walked the spaces at Henry Street Settlement House I immediately knew similar gains would be possible and that the changes needed would have little impact on the physical structure of this landmarked building.”

Judith Saltzman of Li/Saltzman Architects said,  “While historic buildings, built before the era of inexpensive energy and widespread use of mechanical systems, typically utilize many sustainable features, there are opportunities for improvement. Respecting the integrity of existing structures, while integrating appropriate new systems and technologies, will make our historic buildings truly sustainable. The Henry Street Settlement project should serve as a prototype for small historic buildings throughout the city and the country.”

MAS has been exploring how preservation can be integrated into New York City’s climate change, green building and sustainability agendas. MAS’s advocacy for a more sustainable New York included eight roundtable discussions of interdisciplinary groups of experts in 2009, followed by a ground-breaking conference on Preservation and Climate Change in the fall of 2010.