Building Inspiration Through an Iconic Retrofit

Editor’s Note: To learn more about energy-efficient buildings, check out VERGE@Greenbuild, November 12-13, in San Francisco.

In the 1933 movie King Kong, the Empire State Building sets the backdrop for the ape’s climactic defeat. Throughout decades of art and culture, America’s favorite building has hosted tragedy and inspired grand solutions. The building magnifies our indomitable spirit and aspirations that carry America forward.

Delve into the past — and the ideas that emerge are powerful.

Built during the Great Depression, the Empire State Building changed the course of real estate development in Manhattan, and it is poised to do so again. In a time of global warming and lackluster economics, is the “world’s most famous office building” leading us again to a more inspired way forward?

Today, the Empire State Building is more energy efficient due to a deep retrofit that will reduce its energy use by over 38 percent, saving $2.4 million in just the first year. Orchestrated by a team comprised of the Empire State Building Company, LLC; Johnson Controls, Inc.; Jones Lang LaSalle; and Rocky Mountain Institute, in its first year the retrofit saved 4,000 metric tons of carbon, equal to what 750 acres of pine forests offset. Once all tenant spaces are upgraded, the building will cut carbon emissions by 105,000 metric tons over the next 15 years.

“To me, ‘green’ is about money,” Anthony Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings LLC, said earlier this year at RMI’s 30th anniversary celebration on the 61st floor of the iconic building. “What we’re really doing here is providing a very real model about what the economic incentive is to owners and tenants that will yield paybacks.”

Existing buildings provide an enormous opportunity to make money and reduce energy use in the United States. Buildings are the single biggest electricity consumer in our economy. America’s 120 million buildings use 42 percent of the nation’s energy — more than any other sector. To put that in perspective, if our nation’s buildings were their own country, they would be the third biggest energy hog behind China and the U.S. In New York alone, buildings consume 80 percent of all energy.

While talk of the financial and energy benefit of the Empire State Building have dominated recent news coverage, there is arguably a much more important story — the many ancillary benefits generated. The building’s greatly increased comfort delivers greater tenant satisfaction, reduced vacancy rates, higher valuation, and has reduced maintenance cost through improved controls.

In short, it’s a better building for the owner and occupants. In a competitive market, that makes it a better product.

While the Empire State Building retrofit savings are impressive, its impact if extrapolated over the U.S. building stock is astounding. Gazing out from the building’s 60th floor, a sea of opportunity surrounds it. While each building is different, we can apply the motivations and processes that brought deep energy efficiency to the Empire State Building broadly across the U.S building stock.

The retrofit industry is growing. We can economically apply packages of efficiency measures to similar building types: portfolios of retail, residential and office are perfect candidates for an integrated design approach. It is time for other leading building owners to step up and follow.

“We knew that by retrofitting the Empire State Building, we would catch the world’s attention,” Malkin told a group of Aspen-area business leaders last year. “Through this project, we set out to prove or disprove energy efficiency retrofits’ economic viability. The program is designed to be open source, free, and widely available — so please rip us off!”

The world is very different from when the Empire State Buildings was built, with a few less giant apes and a lot more atmospheric greenhouse gases. Now, we face a dramatic moment: an opportunity to use an innovative approach on an iconic building to show that buildings have a key role to play in a sustainable low-carbon future.

Like the Empire State Building, many of the country’s existing buildings still have a role to play. Make them the hero, not the villain: Retrofit them. The keys to our future may be in building on our past.

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