Sky High: How Are New York’s Roofs Changing? (UPDATE)


If you’ve ever wondered what goes on above the city — on New York’s rooftops — this new video series has some answers for you.

Mother Jones‘ James West and Tim McDonnell ascended the heights of NYC’s buildings to track changes in the skyscape. What they found was that the Big Apple’s roofs weren’t just going green: They were going white and solar-paneled, too.

We caught up with West and McDonnell to see what’s up with these surfaces.

This shift in rooftops, they told us, started in 2008, when a regulation was passed requiring that any new roof on a new building or any replacement roof on an old building had to be climate friendly. The two most common ways of doing that, they explained, are revamping roofs to be vegetated or white.

So…rooftop gardens?

No, says McDonnell.

“These green roofs are slightly different then what people might think of,” he said. “They’re more planted with certain plants that suck up carbon from the atmosphere. And rather than a garden, they’re actually mean to be low workload — they’re easy to take care of.”

West said that solar panels had also become a prominent presence — increasing sixfold over the last several years — but that businesses blame bureaucracy on making it hard to install them.

The biggest installer, for example, had to wait 8 months for the City to provide permits for a project — though the actual installation of the project only took 5 weeks, he said.

“People are very wary to get into this market” despite incentives, he said. “It’s notoriously difficult process to get approval from the Department of Buildings.”

Added McDonnell: “We talked to lots of people on the phone. This was definitely a pervasive problem. Every single person that we talked to had frustration with the Department of Buildings — even just blind fury in some cases. [For them] it’s an aggravating process.”

We reached out to the Department to see what’s going on with that. A spokesman said he’d get back to us with info.

UPDATE: Here’s what a Buildings spokesman had to say:

“Applications and plans required to install solar panels can now be electronically submitted to the Department, making it easier to obtain permits than ever before. However, permits cannot be issued if plans fail to comply with all applicable laws, especially fire safety regulations designed to protect residents and first responders. Reasons for disapproved plans have included: blocking egress, blocking firefighters’ access to the roof and impeding the function of engineering systems such as roof vents, fans or chimneys. If plans are disapproved, revised plans must be submitted in order to obtain an approval.”