Fresh out of college in the early 1990s, Cecil Scheib was one of three like-minded Stanford graduates to found an ecovillage in the rolling hills of northeastern Missouri, on a plot chosen for its affordability, fertility, and lenient zoning restrictions. They wanted to show that small collectives could change the world, that people could live an ecologically sustainable lifestyle that was also comfortable—and happy. “While I was there I got to build houses, install off-grid power systems, run village-scale composting, grow my own food, and a million other life skills that amazingly still come in handy—even in New York City,” he says. And Scheib and his co-founders made their way without the aid of government agencies or corporations. “We all vote with our dollars, and we chose to spend our dollars on solar panels and seeds instead of utility bills and plastic-wrapped produce.” It worked: each Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage resident reduced their impact by an average of 90%, compared to the typical American consumer, and the village has been featured in The New York Times and on Morgan Spurlock’s FX TV series 30 Days.
But Scheib realized that larger-scale organizational leadership was ultimately necessary for widespread progress. “I don’t think we have time to persuade and educate every individual and hope that they change their behavior,” he notes. So today Scheib is a New York State licensed engineer, LEED-accredited energy manager, and NYU’s assistant vice president for sustainability. And to further his goal of grand-scale impact, Scheib recently played a key role in compiling a comprehensive set of recommendations for energy consumption in New York City. The 80x50 Buildings Partnership’s “Blueprint for Efficiency” was a collaborative effort by 40 of the city’s leading building and energy stakeholders—including NYU. It brought together groups as diverse as the Environmental Defense Fund and New York Working Families as well as commercial realtors and developers. The name "80x50" refers to its goal of cutting 80 percent of the city’s emissions by 2050.
Recognizing that buildings account for 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, the partnership focused on how existing structures can adapt to lower the city’s overall carbon footprint. Those exceeding 25,000 square feet are of particular concern, especially considering that 2 perent of the city’s buildings—including the Empire State Building, the Woolworth Building, and the Williamsburg Savings Bank—account for half of the city’s energy consumption. “It’s on that scale that New York City began its approach to regulation,” says Scheib, who was instrumental in crafting the report’s recommendation to implement efficiency credit trading, which will allow owners who exceed energy-savings targets to sell their credits to those who reduce less.
Scheib recently returned to his role at NYU after six years, having worked as the chief program officer for the Urban Green Council, which convened the 80x50 Buildings Partnership last year. In that time, public awareness and investment in sustainability has changed considerably, he says. “When I last worked at NYU, between 2007 and 2012, we were still explaining to people what global climate change is, and why it is important. Today, we have more of a consensus.”
While NYU used to approach saving energy as a matter of upgrading equipment—replacing old lighting with LED lights, for example, or upgrading old air conditioning systems to more energy-efficient ones—Scheib says the approach today is more focused on user experience, citing a recent Harvard study that shows cleaner air improves cognitive function. “Our buildings are old, which means they’re drafty,” he explains. “Not only are we paying too much to heat and to cool them, but they are also too hot in the winter, and too cold in the summer. So by focusing on the health and comfort of our buildings’ occupants, we are also contributing to the university’s academic mission.”
This holistic approach extends, also, to energy saving targets, and Scheib notes that the 80x50 Buildings Report proves how useful a portfolio approach can be. Rather than focus on universal energy reduction goals and regulations for each of the 180 buildings owned or leased by NYU, a portfolio approach considers the institution’s total energy savings as a single goal, and targets the buildings that will produce especially effective changes. Often, these are buildings that need renovation most. “By keeping new construction to a minimum, you are also saving energy,” Scheib explains. “And by pooling buildings and trading energy credits, you can meet energy targets in the cheapest and most efficient way.”
While institutions throughout New York work to meet their goals, there are also key steps we can each take to effect change in our own communities. Scheib—who is on the Board of Directors of both the Urban Green Council and Dancing Rabbit—encourages all of us to simply “ask more questions.” Inquiring with a landlord or employer about how they operate their buildings, he notes, lets them know that people care—and may inspire a rethinking of practices and process. On a more personal level, Scheib encourages: “Put down the laptop and do something in the real world with your hands. Bake bread, grow a garden, build a shed, fix a bike, but learn how to make your physical environment more sustainable with your own hands.”