The Empire State Building a model for climate action

The Built Environment

I’m encouraged when I find examples of sustainable climate action. Successful projects pave the way for others and remove uncertainty, especially when financial matters are considered. Climate action that reduces carbon gases, conserves energy resources and has a lasting impact are inspiring. New York Cities tallest skyscraper and iconic landmark the Empire State Building had a complete green retrofit finished last year that updates it’s place in history and is an example of successful climate action on a grand scale. All of the electricity for the building is now generated by wind power and is expected carbon emissions will be reduced by 105,000 metric tons over the next 15 years.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development calculates that in America 40 percent of energy is consumed in buildings. For commercial buildings the figure can be as much as 75 percent. Older buildings were built to take advantage of electricity when fuel was cheap and energy conservation was never considered. To tear down these old buildings is a waste of resources and often a loss of important historical architecture. The Empire State Building renovation has reduced energy consumption by 38 percent, cut 4,000 metric tons of CO2 annual emissions and will save $4.4 million in energy costs  annually. Tony Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings, the buildings owner said “Building owners and operators who are looking to cut costs while improving the value of  their buildings can use energy efficiency to accomplish these goals. We now have a proven model that works.”

In the beginning, Malkin who took over control of the building in 2006 was not initially concerned with energy efficiency. Malkin emphasized ” For us, the bottom line was dollars and cents. We wanted to invest the right amount of money in the right amount of order to maximize profit.”At  the time the 82 year old landmark was clearly showing it’s age: offices, hallways and restrooms were out of date and the observatory needed a major overhaul.  ” We had a large collection of low-quality renters” Malkin notes. In an effort to revive the 2.7 million-square foot, 102 story skyscraper Malkin assembled a team of leading organizations to formulate a plan.

The team of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Clinton Climate Initiative, Johnson Controls and Jones Lang LaSalle developed the ultimate plan which was approved early in 2009 and work began in April of that year. Eight key efficiency measures performed jointly by Johnson Controls and Jones Lang LaSalle were successful in a first year savings that totalled $4,393,796. According to Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, the decision to reposition the world’s most famous office building as a leading example of an economically viable, energy efficient commercial retrofit was made for its potential to fundamentally disrupt the market.

Here is how they did it:

  • 6,000 insulated reflective barriers were installed behind radiator units on the perimeter of the building. The barrier reflects heat back into the building and prevents heat loss to the outdoors.
  • 6,500 existing double-hung windows were dismantled and rebuilt onsite with a coated film and gas fill. This tripled the R factor of the window and reduced heating and cooling costs and blocked ultraviolet rays.
  • The advanced window glazing, improved lighting and office equipment cut heat gain and reduced the peak cooling by one-third which allowed for a renovation of the chiller plant rather than a complete replacement which saved on capitol expenditures.
  • Direct digital controls and sensors replaced old pneumatic control systems for intake of outside air to air handling units and reduced cooling and heating demand and improved indoor air quality for occupant comfort.
  • The chiller plant retrofit included upgrades to controls, variable speed drives and improvements to four industrial electric chillers for better efficiency.
  • Tenants have access to a digital online dashboard that shows energy consumption in real time with information on sustainability tips and benchmark indicators.
  • The biggest energy savings was a reduction in lighting power density in tenant space. Photosensors and dimmable ballasts were installed in perimeter areas and plug load occupancy sensors for personal workstations had the benefits of improved visual quality, reduced utility costs and lowered cooling demand due to less heat generated from electric lights and equipment. Total savings this past year were $940,862 on this initiative alone.
  • Old constant volume air handler units are being replaced with new variable air volume units that provide greater control, are more intelligent, reduce electricity demand and provide greater occupant comfort.

“Until now, the energy savings were all theoretical and all based on careful energy modeling,” said Eric Harrington, analyst with the Rocky Mountain Institute. “Now that we have a year of utility data, the Empire State Building deep energy retrofit story is proven to work.”

Another milestone for the Empire State Building is that it has become the largest commercial purchaser of renewable power in the state of New York. All of the electricity for the ESB now comes from the wind. Electricity generated by wind power can be sold on the grid as energy credits. ESB has signed a contract with Texas based Green Mountain Energy to purchase 55 m kilowatts hours of renewable energy certificates  annually, enough to supply 100% of its yearly electric consumption. The shift to wind power will result in a reduction of carbon emissions equal to turning off the lights in nearly every home in New York State for a week. “EPA is pleased to welcome the Empire State Building to the Green Power Partnership. We applaud their commitment to using 100-percent green power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said EPA’s Chief of Energy Supply and Industry Branch Susan Wickwire in a statement.

“If you want a sound solution to the coal issue, you need to get serious about designing and running buildings very differently,” says Amory Lovins, “This is not a problem of technology and economics, but of adoption. We need to take to scale what is done.” Energy consumption by buildings is the source of a large percent of the problem of global warming. Climate action on residential and commercial buildings in the form of retrofits is not complicated or excessively expensive and will pay for itself in just a few years. Insulation, windows, lighting and HVAC upgrades are all it took for the Empire State Building to save millions of dollars annually and  reduce tons of carbon emissions. Home owners, real estate developers and commercial building operations can and should take action about world climate change.

The owners of the Empire State Building say that if a green retrofit can be done there it can be done anywhere and everywhere. “We knew that by retrofitting the Empire State Building, we would catch the world’s attention,” Malkin said. “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.”

To learn more about the Empire State Building sustainability project check this out:

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promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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25 Responses to The Empire State Building a model for climate action

  1. Veronica says:

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  2. T. Caine says:

    Couldn’t agree more. These kinds of green renovations are invaluable, especially when they involve national landmarks that resonate with the common perception of what “America” consists of (many say that the Empire State Building is one of the most well known buildings in the country, certainly the best known tower).

    New green towers, like One Bryant Park up the street, are great but in a decidedly different way. Most of our built environment is primed for reuse and New York is a great example of this. Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC noted that 80% of the buildings that will be in New York in 2030 are already here. That’s an important statement and projects like this show that retooling what we already have is not only possible, but financially attractive. We need more of these examples.

    Interestingly enough, one of the new tenants in the building is Skanska, which leased out an entire floor. The firm I work for actually did the design work to make it a LEED Platinum interior, so it goes to show that the effort to make a high performance/ecologically responsible building will attract tenants that not only value it, but are willing to further contribute.

    • Mahalo for contributing to the conversation. Building owners looking to attract quality tenants and tenants looking for quality buildings could play a vital role in advocating a sustainable urban future.

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  5. This is a great post, I live in New York and didn’t know this happened. You have a great blog, I’m a fan!!!


  6. McEff says:

    That’s another interesting and thought-provoking piece, Dohn. One of the most interesting aspects is that the motivation for carrying out the work was increased profit and not necessarily concern for the environment. If everyone could get this message, that energy efficiency equals cost efficiency, then the world might be a better and more sustainable place.
    Cheers, Alen

    • Precisely. Malkin made it clear it’s about profit that drove initial action. Once he saw where that could be done he was on board. Although to be fair he and his wife are big supporters of the World Wildlife Fund. Saving money and reducing carbon emissions do not have to be political issues or separate goals.

  7. jarwillis says:

    I suppose it is a tribute to the plurality of the US that it gives us some of the most inspiring stories about climate action, like this one, and some of the most depressing.

  8. winsomebella says:

    This is very encouraging and informative…….good news 🙂

  9. It will be interesting to see if this sets a lasting precedent for future large-scale retrofitting projects or if this milestone will be pushed to the wayside. As you said, if they can do it here, they can do it anywhere… So why aren’t they?

  10. misscorinne says:

    This is wonderful! While I really applaud new green construction, it’s extremely important to preserve these older, architectural masterpieces. So excited that they have figured out how to have it both ways!

    • Mahalo Miss Corrine, I had read about the wind aspect of the project a few months ago. It stayed in my mind and then finally went to do the research. 40 to 75 percent of energy is consumed by buildings. Action can be taken that will make a BIG impact

  11. FeyGirl says:

    Really wonderful news…. I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of these investigations on tv, but nothing so concrete. May the forward motion continue!!!

  12. Cathy says:

    This is great news, and a very interesting post. Let’s hope this trend continues with other well-known buildings demonstrating how everyone can save energy (and money).

  13. What an inspiring story… really wonderful to know it Can be done… let’s hope it catches on! thank you so much Dohn

  14. jpgreenword says:

    I had read about the planned retrofit of the ESB, but had no idea of when the work was supposed to be done. This is an incredible example of intelligent design. Oops! That’s not what I meant 🙂
    Seriously, it is all about changing how we think about design and energy consumption. It is encouraging to see how much of the work in fighting climate change can be done by reducing consumption through efficiency and conservation.

  15. Thanks for bringing attention to this. I hope this sort of thing catches on in other places.

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