Hal Bergman

New York City has been a leader in sustainability policy under Mayor Michael Bloomberg since he took office in 2002. Part and parcel to that leadership is Bloomberg's trademark PlaNYC 2030, which has received a great deal of national media attention for its move to reduce traffic congestion by creating more pedestrian-friendly areas in the city and the expansion of alternative forms of transportation, such as bicycle lanes. But a far less widely noticed legal change, as part of the city's Greener Greater Buildings Plan, has dramatically altered energy-efficiency standards for virtually every building in New York City.

Historically, New York state's lighting efficiency requirements only applied if a building was new, or if more than 50 percent of it was being altered. Since most of New York City is already built out, the rules seldom apply there, where most new lighting is installed as part of renovations. Even when applicable, the requirements were seldom enforced.

In 2009 the city council passed a series of ordinances—local laws—to promote energy conservation. The first of these, NYC Energy Conservation Code, Local Law 85, required all new buildings as well as any renovations or alteration projects to meet the state energy code. Simultaneously, the New York City Department of Buildings started to enforce the rules and reject permits for plans that failed to comply. At the same time, but separate from the energy code, the city also passed Local Law 88: Lighting Upgrades and Sub-metering. It states that large nonresidential buildings must retrofit luminaires to comply with the code by 2025—and also provide separate meters for each tenant, or have them submetered, if the space exceeds 10,000 square feet.

In 2010, the city passed Local Law 48, requiring that manual-on, automatic-off occupancy sensors be provided in a few space types, such as offices and classrooms.

All of this has major implications for lighting designers, who now find themselves spending more time doing lighting calculations than design in order to document a project's code compliance. “It means there's more work out there, but the work is a little less fun,” says Jack Bailey, a partner at One Lux Studio, a New York City–based lighting design firm. “It's gone from [being] an extremely lax regulatory environment, where there was no applicable energy requirement, to one where plans were being rejected. People have had to learn it [the new codes] in a hurry.”

These new retrofit requirements mean lighting upgrades are needed, and to meet the new strictures, a lighting designer is more necessary than ever to decipher the complexity—and nuances—of the code.

Lighting designers on the whole have been working with stricter energy limitations for some time. For example, a designer renovating a bathroom can no longer simply use a 100W incandescent source. Instead, the present code allows anywhere from 21W to 69W installed, depending on the chosen compliance path. The new requirements have forced lighting designers to shift away from sources they once used, such as incandescent and halogen, to other sources, such as compact fluorescents, LEDs, and ceramic metallic halide lamps, even though the color temperature is cooler. “The color is not as rich,” Bailey says. “You particularly notice the difference with high-efficiency sources. What's lacking—even though the technology has gotten very good—is the warmth [found] in low-light applications like restaurants, hotels, and residences.”

However, the code does create incentive for manufacturers to make technical improvements to luminaire and lamp choices, which expands lighting options. “It's a virtuous cycle,” Bailey says. “Products are becoming more efficient and that improves the efficiency of lighting systems overall.”

Energy codes will only continue to grow more strict. “It makes it more difficult to do good lighting well,” Bailey says. “Look at retailers on Madison or Fifth Avenue and you'll see [ceramic metallic halide lamps] where they used to have halogen,” Bailey says. “That's being driven by the code.”

Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation who also writes about architecture and urban planning for Next American City and other publications.