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Dutch program inspires near net-zero energy usage

As energy conservation grows in importance from both a financial and environmental standpoint, and as the task of preserving affordable housing intensifies, New York state is launching a bold initiative to confront both challenges. RetrofitNY, pronounced “Retrofit New York” and administered by NYSERDA – the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority – has the goal, in the agency’s own words, “to spearhead the creation of standardized, scalable solutions and processes that will improve the aesthetic and comfort of residential buildings while dramatically improving their energy performance. RetrofitNY is working aggressively to bring a large number of affordable housing units to or near net-zero energy use by 2025, and provide new business opportunities in the State of New York.”

An ambitious statement. But it is backed by a strong governmental commitment and the proven track record of a European exemplar.

RetrofitNY is one of the cornerstones of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s initiative, “Reforming the Energy Vision,” a $30 million commitment that will take its place as part of NYSERDA’s $5.3 billion Clean Energy Fund. The state has set a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2012 levels by 2050. And Cuomo has stated his desire to apply deep-energy retrofits to 100,000 affordable dwelling units by 2025.

Dutch Treat
RetrofitNY is based on the Dutch Energiesprong  (“energy leap”) program, launched in 2013, that has brought 1,500 units of affordable housing to net-zero energy, with 20,000 more units already in the pipeline. Energiesprong is now being employed in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Under the Dutch system, tenants pay a surcharge to the local housing authority equal to the savings from their pre-retrofit energy bills that repays the loan that covered improvements. Contractors must present their solutions in an integrated package that can be scaled up and mass-produced. According to a December 2016 report in Architect magazine by Courtney Humphries, “Many proposals have included laser-scanning each building and then building a custom exterior shell in an off-site factory using prefabricated insulated panels with integrated siding – similar to like exterior insulating systems, or EIFS – and including energy-efficient windows and doors.”

The success of this innovative and entrepreneurial approach caught the eye of Loic Chappoz, NYSERDA’s Multifamily Residential Program manager. Previously, he was an energy consultant, commercial pilot and fuel efficiency specialist for the airline industry.

“The results [of Energiesprong] came onto my radar a couple of years ago,” he recalls. “And I asked, ‘Could this work in New York? Could this bring our affordable housing stock up to our energy efficiency goals?’  We started studying the European program; it took a while because a lot of people were reaching out to them. Then we sent a technical consultant over to answer the basic questions: Are the tenants happy? How does the construction work? Are they achieving their stated benefits? We confirmed that the program and its results were real, so we were left with the original question: Is this going to work in New York? We have different climate zones, energy costs and rates of consumption.”

Though the affordable housing portfolios in the four European countries differ substantially from those found in New York state, after careful analysis NYSERDA officials grew confident that comparable results could be achieved and paid for.

“Our solutions should fit into current financing frameworks. We engaged people on all sides of New Market Tax Credits,” Chappoz recalls. “Agencies, owners, developers. We also went to the construction side and asked them what are the hurdles to implementing some effective approach to our energy reduction goals for the state. Though we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, everyone was very positive on all fronts.”

NYSERDA outlined four key and collectively comprehensive actions to transform the building renovation industry:

  1. Aggregating demand among building owners and harnessing their collective market power.
  2. Mobilizing the building industry to develop innovative technical solutions to substantially improve affording housing buildings while residents continue to live in their apartments.
  3. Working with financial organizations to fund projects by capturing energy savings.
  4. Engaging regulatory agencies to help facilitate widespread adoption.

Chappoz stresses that NYSERDA aims to encourage the creation of new solutions but not specify or limit what they should be. “We have some ideas, but more about what the solutions need to achieve. We are careful not to bridle the creativity of the industry experts.”

RetrofitNY will be structured around successive design-build competitions to achieve affordable, replicable retrofit solutions intended to reduce energy consumption by at least 70 percent. It is anticipated that each round of competition will generate solutions that will build on previous practices and be shared industry-wide. These rounds will be driven by public subsidies and other sources of funding, but the goal is that once the various solutions are established and tested, they can be implemented on a large scale with little or no subsidy. The first competitive round, to be launched early in 2018, is designed to identify a set of technical solutions and ways to bring costs down to be able to scale upward, and should provide proof of concept. A professional jury will review the proposals and select finalists.

Most of the units in Energiesprong were two-story row houses with gable roofs, which are typical of public and assisted housing in the Netherlands, making retrofit design approaches somewhat easier. The roofs lent themselves to solar photovoltaic panels and slim mechanical sheds could be added to the outsides of houses to contain new heat pumps, ventilation units and hot water storage tanks. Though New York affordable housing stock comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from high-rise to row house to buildings adapted from other uses, such as schools or warehouses, RetrofitNY will begin by concentrating on the two most prevalent types of affordable housing in the state: two-story row houses and groups of row houses that have been converted into apartments, which are typical of the upstate region; and seven-plus-story apartment buildings, which are prevalent in New York City, Rochester and Buffalo.

Other building types will be addressed in subsequent rounds. Ideas as exotic as encasing older buildings in airtight exterior envelopes are being considered.

Preserving existing public housing is central to the program. Many of the buildings date back to the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s and were built under the Mitchell-Lama program. That 1955 New York State law, sponsored by New York State Senator MacNeil Mitchell and Assemblyman Alfred Lama, was aimed at increasing affordable housing by using eminent domain to acquire properties that were then turned over to developers who received tax abatements, low-interest mortgages and a guaranteed return on investment, as long as the properties remained in the program. At that time, builders were using new, economical techniques and materials, such as precast concrete walls, but energy efficiency was not a major concern.

Today, many of those structures are plagued with deterioration and maintenance issues and expensive, inefficient energy systems. Some were not designed to have opening windows. The governor’s office estimates that about 75 percent of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 are standing today, so it is imperative that these structures be brought up to modern environmental and efficiency standards so that they remain in the affordable housing portfolio.

“This is really a market creation endeavor,” says Chappoz. “Energy efficiency is the enabler for much wider benefits, such as better-looking buildings and happier tenants. We need to create solutions that are attractive and make sense for everyone, including the residents, who may not be paying for utilities themselves. We are using the energy savings to achieve greater benefits to affordable housing for everyone. For example, if you’re more comfortable in your home, that will lead to better health. A more aesthetic environment can lead to a happier lifestyle and better living.

NYSERDA’s flow chart for RetrofitNY includes the following steps:

  • Define what is needed through collaboration with key affordable housing stakeholders to determine what architectural, engineering and construction criteria will need to be met. Considerations include health and comfort of residents, building aesthetics, limiting disruption during retrofit, cost-effectiveness, decreased energy consumption, long-term savings and on-site generation where practical.
  • Create demand by working with public and private housing partners to aggregate a large number of units.
  • Accelerate innovation and test solutions through the Proof of Concept design competition to motivate industry suppliers. This phase will focus on building types that are similar in terms of size, age and construction materials to insure scaling and replicability standards.
  • Develop financing solutions through collaboration with housing agencies and financial institutions.
  • Identify and address regulatory issues to minimize barriers, such as building codes and owner/tenant regulations. Consideration will be given to effects on the energy grid of demand management, peak load reduction and potential distributed energy opportunities.
  • Analyze and publish results of each cycle so that lessons learned from prototyping and early round pilot installations can be integrated into the program going forward.
  • Scale up so that comprehensive retrofit packages will become more advanced and cost-effective to the point where they can be widely implemented with little or no public subsidy on various affordable housing building types as well as other sectors of the residential, commercial and institutional real estate market.

“With RetrofitNY, we want to accelerate innovation, rather than work in silos,” Chappoz states. “We want to have teams work together to share their progress and solutions. And with more than 1.7 million units to focus on, it will be a large enough market for everyone.”

Story Contacts:
Loic Chappoz,
Sue Gold,