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Beyond ‘Green’: The Empire State Building Retrofit

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Photograph courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Bellet/Flickr, Creative Commons license

Many conversations at the American Renewable Energy Day (AREDAY) conference in Aspen focused on what needs to be done, what can be done realistically, and what isn’t being done to transition the United States away from fossil fuels.

So it was refreshing and inspiring to hear about something that has been done: retrofitting New York City’s Empire State Building so that it will cut energy consumption by 38.4 percent, creating jobs and generating revenue in the process.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who consulted on the project, and building owner Anthony Malkin discussed the retrofit at AREDAY Friday. Malkin said that the goal for the project was to go beyond “green building” standards that don’t address economics and lead to a chase for “points”: “Put bike racks and a shower in [your building], get three points. Put in a green wall with plants and a water feature in your lobby, get points.”

The $550 million Empire State Building project went way beyond bike racks and water features. It called for refurbishing each of the building’s 6,514 windows while reusing 96 percent of the existing window glass; insulating the radiators with heat-reflective shields; using energy-efficient lighting, including sunlight; upgrading the chillers and air-handling units; using demand control ventilation to adjust the amount of outside air needed in the building; giving tenants online tools to monitor energy use; and upgrading the building’s controls for energy use.

Malkin said that there was an incremental cost of $13 million for the energy-specific measures beyond planned upgrades, but that because the retrofit saves the Empire State Building $4.4 million per year, it will pay for itself in less than four years. It also will cut the building’s carbon emissions by 105,000 metric tons over 15 years, which Malkin and Lovins noted is equivalent to taking 20,000 cars off the road.

Another (unexpected) benefit, according to Malkin: “We are seeing our building attract a much higher quality of tenant.” In this way, the project is making money in addition to saving it, because he is able to charge more in rent and increase his profit margin.

The Empire State Building retrofit was meant to be a model for what’s possible, and the hope is that other building owners will adopt the same measures. “There were a lot of people who didn’t believe this could happen,” Malkin said. “And look at the ramifications.”

You can learn more about the project at esbsustainability.com.