Worldwide Lessons in City Planning

Worldwide Lessons Report with Urban Green Council

Atelier Ten provided research for this report from the Urban Green Council on the lessons that New York can take from its peer cities

Research group at Atelier Ten included Patrick Bellew, Meredith Davey, Volkan Doda, Amy Egerter, Emilie Hagen, Nico Kienzl, Claire Maxfield, Naree Phinyawatanya, Younha Rhee, Paul Stoller, Michael Tillou, Shanta Tucker, and Henry Woon.

As New York City is working to be a leader in the climate change effort, it must learn best practices from peer cities around the world to become a more resilient and sustainable city. Atelier Ten has a strong culture of sharing information, nationally and internationally. Rather than individual experts in a particular field, we work as a team to learn from one another and disseminate information. As the challenge of climate change is shared worldwide, it’s even more imperative that our individual cities share information to develop innovative solutions.

In 2015 Atelier Ten partnered with Urban Green Council, the New York affiliate of the USGBC whose mission is to transform NYC buildings for a sustainable future, to research energy efficiency codes and policies in five global cities. Dubbed Worldwide Lessons, a global perspective on how New York City’s building energy efficiency codes and policies perform in comparison to five sustainable cities in the world: Frankfurt, London, Singapore, Sydney and San Francisco — all of which are known to have a strong history of energy efficiency and green building practices. The goal of this research report was to inform strategic decision-making in New York City and help advance the goals of the ambitious 80 by 50 climate action plan being championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For Atelier Ten, this was an opportunity to showcase our global reach by highlighting Atelier Ten’s offices in 4 of the 5 peer cities: London, Singapore, San Francisco and Sydney (Frankfurt is the 5th peer). Building on efforts started in 2014 to foster more international collaboration, this project brought together the collective knowledge of Atelier Ten into an impressive 130-page technical report.

The three key outcomes developed for New York included:

  • energy codes must shift towards performance based outcomes and away from prescriptive solutions
  • building energy labeling programs create awareness that changes decision making
  • a more educated workforce improves building outcomes.

Targeting both commercial and residential buildings in each of the five peer cities, the areas of investigation included: climate, cultural context, energy codes, energy efficiency policies, green building policies, code enforcement, training, construction methods and materials, construction design process.

Distilling the findings into a brief summary was a challenging task, but a number of key trends and findings repeatedly came to the forefront of discussions with Urban Green.


Climate matters. New York City has the most severe climate of all the peer cities. Frankfurt and London’s conditions are similar but milder than New York City’s. Singapore’s equatorial climate requires no heating throughout the year, making it unique among the peer cities. Local climate was confirmed to be an important driver of specific energy code requirements and policies.

Energy code development and structure

London, Frankfurt and San Francisco have implemented energy codes that shift compliance away from prescriptive requirements to focus on whole building performance metrics. London uses carbon emissions as its compliance metrics, while San Francisco has developed time dependent valuation (TDV), an hourly estimate of source energy specific to California. Both of these shifts are in part a result of having strong climate regulatory policies in place at the state or national level.

Education is key to improving building energy efficiency

Energy code basic elements

A comparison of the minimum performance requirements of building envelope components within each energy code was also conducted. This was to determine the key differences between cities.

Infiltration: Frankfurt has the most stringent air-tightness requirements while London has the least stringent. Despite the air-tightness requirements being surprisingly low, London is the only city that requires air leakage testing. This ultimately leads to more carefully constructed envelopes. Generally, cities with colder climates place a higher priority on air leakage than cities with milder climates.

Insulation: Similarly, the minimum R-value of opaque wall insulation is also highest in cities with colder climates and less stringent in cities with warmer climates. New York City is the outlier in this category, as minimum insulation R-value is 40% less than its cold climate peers Frankfurt and London (R-12 required compared to R-20 average).

Fenestration: The warmer climate cities have more stringent requirements for fenestration with Sydney and San Francisco requiring the most protection from solar gain. New York City falls in the middle and Frankfurt and London have the least stringent requirements.

Building labelling

Energy Performance Certificates or Building Energy Labels, both of which are mandatory in the EU, have not made their way to US cities. New York and San Francisco are the only peer cities without mandatory energy labeling. In Sydney, the energy-labeling program has resulted in large improvements in voluntary energy efficiency improvements for commercial real estate. London also requires existing buildings to meet minimum performance criteria upon sale or lease. Unlike building codes that often only apply to new construction, building labels can help drive voluntary investment in energy efficiency.

Education and training

Educating designers, construction trades and building owners is also a critical aspect of improving building energy efficiency. In the United States, education is localised and as such, very little co-ordination exists between trade groups, NGOs and educational institutions. In the other peer cities, education appears to be better organised and strategised at a national level. The EU BUILD UP Skills Program helps member nations conduct a skills assessment and the subsequent training roadmap that prioritises development of the necessary skills to meet the goals of achieving near and net zero energy buildings.