The scars and pockmarks of the aging apartments and housing units under the purview of the New York City Housing Authority don’t immediately communicate the idea of innovation. The largest landlord in the city, housing nearly 1 in 16 New Yorkers, NYCHA has seen its buildings literally crumble after decades of deferred maintenance and poor stewardship.

Just as the physical infrastructure has broken down, leading to busted elevators, picked-apart playgrounds, and crumbling façades, the agency has weathered a series of scandals in recent years over mold infestations and faked lead inspections. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 just added to the toll, flooding electrical and heating systems located in building basements. All told, this forsaken subsidized housing is in the midst of what local planners have called “demolition by neglect.” It would require an estimated $40 billion or more, at least $180,000 per unit, to return the buildings to a state of good repair.

Years ago, there was evidence of innovation hidden inside these units—in the kitchens. By the late ’90s, NYCHA realized that the existing fridges in many units were basically “gas guzzlers”—hugely inefficient, aging, and costly to the agency, which pays tenants’ electricity bills. In a collaboration with the local utility, NYCHA held a contest for appliance manufacturers, asking them to create smaller, apartment-size units with superior efficiency; the winner would gain access to NYCHA and a cadre of other housing authorities interested in a purchase plan of at least 20,000 annually. Maytag won, with its then-novel Magic Chef model, which helped NYCHA cut costs by increasing energy efficiency—and also slashed emissions. Ultimately, 150,000 of the fridges were purchased between 1995 and 2003. It was a model of using the agency’s heft and market power to drive innovation. 

Now NYCHA wants to do the same with heating and cooling. The Clean Heat for All Challenge is asking manufacturers to develop low-cost, easy-to-install heat-pump technologies for building retrofits. The proposed devices, which would need to fit within a standard window frame, would replace the ubiquitous window AC unit and efficiently heat and cool an apartment without using refrigerants or directly burning fossil fuels.

The agency is backing up the contest with a commitment to purchase and install at least 24,000 units of whatever model wins, part of a $250 million capital plan; meanwhile the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, is helping recruit other housing agencies across the state and nation to sign on and promise to buy new units. “We expect to utilize this mechanism again and again next time we have to meet a massive market demand,” says Emily Dean, NYSERDA’s director of housing decarbonization.

The stakes for the agency, for the winning company, and for society itself could be huge. Investing in more-efficient heating and cooling in buildings is good for people and the planet; finding an equitable way to do so at the scales and speed needed to meet the climate challenge would be transformative. 

“Eight million people a year buy window AC in the US, the HVAC industry is $100 billion a year globally, and the number of AC units on the planet will triple by 2050—mostly small, room-sized units like what we’re trying to push forward,” explains Vincent Romanin, an engineer and the CEO of Gradient, one of the startups that submitted a design for the NYCHA challenge. “This is a huge market signal that can speed up the approach of these technologies.” 

That’s not the only technological leap NYCHA and NYSERDA hope to make in coming years. RetrofitNY, a $30 million pilot program, seeks to support a new kind of whole-building energy retrofit that would basically attach airtight, weatherproof panels to the exteriors of older buildings—a technique invented and implemented in the Netherlands by a nonprofit called Energiesprong, which means “energy leap.” Not only would this high-tech cocoon dramatically slash energy usage, but it could be put in place without asking residents to leave. The first test project set to be completed, Casa Pasiva in Brooklyn, should fully open in October, after a pandemic-­era delay. 

“Doing these kinds of retrofits across our portfolio seemed infeasible a few years ago,” says Ryan Cassidy, director of sustainability and construction at RiseBoro Community Partnership, the nonprofit developer backing the Casa Pasiva project. “It may cost a little extra, but we have the means and methods right now.”

Historically, the only innovation many felt was needed for aging housing stock was demolition and new “green” construction. But it’s far more sustainable to retrofit existing buildings than to tear them down and build new ones. The climate crisis has created a fierce urgency around cutting carbon emissions, and any serious plan to do so needs to sink

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By: Patrick Sisson
Title: The future of urban housing is energy-efficient refrigerators
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Published Date: Thu, 23 Jun 2022 08:00:00 +0000

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