CUIMC is Taking Action

April 18, 2022

The clock is ticking. The more you read about sustainability and green energy and anything within the scope of climate change, the more countdowns and deadlines you will see in the literature. Arguably the most significant is the Paris Agreement’s ambitious limit of global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2050.[1] New York City has enacted deadlines with some of its local laws, as well. Deadlines such as January 1, 2025, when required compliance with Local Laws 88 goes into effect, and 2030 when Local Law 97 goes into effect, both of which affect Columbia University.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center's (CUIMC) buildings will have to reduce their carbon emissions up to 60% by 2030 to comply with Local Law 97. Failing to comply will result in penalties of a minimum of $7 million every year, which translates to almost 28% of our total energy budget in fines or penalties. Cumulatively, the penalties incurred between 2024 and 2034 would approach $37 million if we maintained business as usual.

In 2019, CUIMC initiated a “deep energy audit,” which is explained as, “A deep energy retrofit audit is an integrative design and analysis process which targets a 50% or more source energy reduction in an existing building. The approach considers all building systems, including the building envelope, to find all possible energy conservation opportunities and synergies between building systems.” After a six-month selection process that included interviews, site visits, proposals, and presentations, CUIMC elected to work with Wendel Architects & Engineers to perform the audit, which began in March 2021.

CUIMC’s Director of Energy Management and Sustainability, Indrajeet Viswanathan, says the audit’s results “will create a roadmap for a phased investment approach for the mitigation of carbon emissions in line with Columbia’s Plan 2030 and eliminate the steep penalties or fines of the future.”

The study includes a comprehensive building-by-building evaluation to address the challenge of electrification of heating across the campus. The solutions proposed through the study will not only keep in mind the deadlines of NYC local laws, but also prepare us with gradual short-, medium-, and long-term paths for reduction of overall energy consumption, electrification, and eventually net zero emissions as stated by President Bollinger. Implementing those solutions will offer immediate and long-term effects. CUIMC will save money on utilities while we “go green” and over the next few decades, the campus will comply with NYC local laws and align with global climate goals.

The thing about these deadlines and the energy thresholds they represent is that we play a part in it, too. It's not just businesses and corporate entities, we are each active consumers of energy in the workplace, at home, and everywhere in between. As the Plan says, “Success will require transformational change across campuses, schools, and departments. Its success is heavily dependent on participation from all of us at all levels.” This means going beyond the new zero-emission buildings and finding ways to update the CUIMC spaces that we work in every day. It also means looking at the existing buildings, the systems within them, and even our long-time habits of energy use.

The audit is looking at 100% of the ways that we use and lose energy. From facades to windows to insulation, every part of each “building envelope” is under review. Things that most of us don’t look at like HVAC units, chillers, heating mechanisms, and even elevator motors are included. And then there’s everything that we turn on or off, or plug into the wall, referred to as “plug loads.” Our monitors, printers, phone/tablet chargers, desktop fans, and even our coffee makers and water coolers also are getting audited. 

Once finalized, the results of the audit will guide the next ten years of decisions that will ultimately align CUIMC with all the local laws and with Plan 2030. With that said, we’re not sitting around and waiting for the audit. Some changes have already been implemented and others are currently underway. Several buildings had heating and cooling pipes wrapped to conserve energy. Another change you might see happening across the campus is the replacement of existing incandescent and fluorescent lighting with LED instruments.

Because it’s not just renovations to the spaces we work, it’s also renovating how we work in them. While many of the changes might be virtually invisible to us as end-users, we still can and must be open to changes required from us. We can unplug things we’re not using. We can commit to drinking from reusable or recyclable coffee cups rather than disposable ones. We can be intentional about turning lights and other things off when they’re not being used. We can reduce garbage output by recycling. By making a few small changes, we can each contribute in meaningful ways to the goals for 2030. We can help bring the change by being the change.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this series of articles. We hope they have been informative not just about CUIMC’s efforts but also that they have given you some ideas about what you can do. We are proud of what we have already accomplished and are committed to doing even more; we are grateful for your participation and contribution. Together, we look forward, and together, we move forward.

Read Part 1: CUIMC Facilities Management Celebrates Earth Month 2022

Read Part 2: Recharge NY and Hydropower in Washington Heights

Read Part 3: Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) at CUIMC


[1] (United Nations Climate Change, n.d.), accessed 03/25/2022