Posted: Jul 27, 2010, 5:36 AM
Join Date: Sep 2009
Location: New York City
Empire State Building: Can the tallest be the greenest?
$13m refit aims to cut building's energy use by 40% and save emissions equal to 20,000 cars
Tweet this (54)
Ed Pilkington in New York
guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 July 2010 21.41 BST
All 6,514 windows in New York’s tallest building will be replaced, and tenants will be advised on how to save electricity. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Corbis
When the Empire State Building was opened on 1 May 1931, having been designed in two weeks and built in an astonishing 15 months, it instantly became a symbol of human fortitude in the face of the Great Depression.
Now its current owners are attempting to reinvent it for the modern era by turning it into a green building symbolising human ingenuity in the face of inertia.
Its owners today unveiled new, environmentally friendly plans for the art deco building that stands on Manhattan's 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. By the end of this year, most of the work will have been completed in a $13m (£8.4m) investment designed to improve its energy efficiency, with the larger aim of providing a model that could spread across America and around the world.
For more than four decades, the Empire State had the distinction of being the tallest building in the world, a title it lost to the World Trade Centre in 1972. After the twin towers were destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, it once again became the city's tallest building, at 1,454 ft (443 metres) to the tip of its lightning rod.
But by 2006, when it was bought by Malkin Holdings, it had fallen into disrepair, a pale reflection of its former glory. Its 102 storeys were occupied largely by small businesses paying low rents, and the overall structure had a hangdog feel.
"When we took control of it, the place needed to be fixed. It was broken," Anthony Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings, told the Guardian.
Now the company is in the midst of a $550m renovation designed to put the building back on the map, part of which is the environmental project.
"We're doing this [making the Empire State greener] not because it's the right thing to do, but because it makes business sense. If we don't reduce our energy consumption, we will lose money and be less competitive against China, India, Brazil and the other expanding economies," Malkin said.
The makeover is expected to cut the building's energy use by almost 40%, reducing bills by more than $4m and paying back the cost of the refit in three years. That's a figure that is relevant not just to the Empire State but to the whole of New York city and other large metropolises like it.
Almost 80% of New York's energy consumption is through its buildings, mainly in the larger of the leaky older structures. Though politicians have tended to focus on energy consumption by individuals and tried to persuade families to cut their energy use at home, Malkin said the renovation of the Empire State Building would achieve savings in carbon emissions on a similar scale to comparable moves by 40,000 households.
The Empire State's retrofit will cut its carbon footprint by more than 100,000 metric tonnes over the next 15 years, the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road. If that record were replicated by just a fifth of the largest buildings in America, it would save 2.3bn metric tonnes of carbon emissions, equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas pollution produced by the whole of Russia each year.
At its most simple, the retrofit involves stripping out each of the Empire State's 6,514 windows and renovating them with an insulating film and a mixture of inert gases to make them four times more efficient at retaining heat or coolness.
At the high-tech end, the largest wireless network ever to be applied to a single building has been set up across the Empire State that allows valves and vents to be monitored and centrally controlled. Four central chillers have been replaced and smart air circulation systems have also been put in as a low-energy means of heating the building in winter and cooling it in summer.
Paul Rode of Johnson Controls, an energy management company that is leading the project, said the greatest energy savings have involved persuading the 300 tenants to use their spaces more effectively. As the occupants of the second largest office complex in America, after the Pentagon, much of the onus for change falls on them.
Each company renting space in the Empire State now has access to a website that records minute by minute how much they are spending on energy and compares it with other tenants in the building as well as to competitors in their industries externally.
Having revealed to the tenants their own consumption, the website then advises them what they can do to cut their bills by making basic changes, such as moving desks towards the centre of the building to release daylight into the space, switching lights off at night, or cutting back on air conditioning.
"We're showing what's possible without even installing a single solar panel, or a wind turbine or a geothermal unit, and you don't need additional grid capacity or any new power plants," Malkin said.
"This is low-hanging fruit that can be plucked easily and we should be getting on with it as quickly as possible."
A giant's highs and lows
• Constructed during the depression in 1930, the 102-storey tower was made from 60,000 tonnes of steel, and has 6,500 windows.
• In 1945 an Army Air Corps B-25 twin-engine bomber crashed into the 79th floor of the building in dense fog, killing 14 people.
• The building's mast (now the base of the TV tower) was originally designed as a mooring mast for airships, pictured. Because of several unsuccessful attempts and volatile wind conditions at 1,350ft, the idea was abandoned.
• The Observatory on the 86th floor opened in 1931 and was immortalised in An Affair to Remember (1957) starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and then as the meeting point for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
• The building is struck by lightning about 100 times a year. It acts as a lightning rod for the surrounding area
Source: Empire State Building Company