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How The Empire State Building is Redefining Sustainability and Supporting the Economy in New York City

Dana Robbins Schneider - the author of this post - leads Jones Lang LaSalle’s (JLL) Energy and Sustainability Services division in a region anchored by New York City, Boston and Washington DC.

There are more than 900,000 buildings in New York City alone. These structures, both historic and contemporary, literally define a city like New York. Landmarks like the Empire State Building draw in thousands of people every day for work and tourism. Yet these structures also place a high demand on our environment and national resources. Across the United States, the operations of existing buildings account for more than 36 percent of total energy use and over 65 percent of electricity consumption. In major cities, such as New York City, commercial and residential buildings consume 75 percent of total energy use.

I believe this is actually good news. With our pioneering work at the Empire State Building, the most famous office building in the world, we have proven that there is a business case for implementing a program to substantially reduce this impact. Eighty percent of the buildings that exist in New York City today will still be here in 2050. While there has been significant progress in energy and sustainability performance requirements and guidelines for new construction, there has been less of a focus on developing quantitative and transparent processes and case studies for owners and stakeholders to follow to green older buildings like ours. Yet our work with the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) and its partners has shown that retrofitting existing buildings is the best way for a city to become environmentally sustainable. Investing capital in making buildings more efficient has one of the best ROI’s an owner can make.

When CCI approached us about retrofitting the Empire State Building, we realized we had an extraordinary opportunity to not only reduce our environmental impact and cut our expenses, but also to create a replicable model for other developers to do the same. In one day, the Empire State Building alone consumes as much energy as 40,000 single family homes. The energy retrofit will save $4.4 million annually in energy costs, and reduce 105,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years—equivalent to removing 25,000 cars from the road. In addition, we retrofitted 6,514 windows in the building, which helps reduce summer heat load and winter heat loss, and retrofitted HVAC units to optimize the existing building control system. Our retrofits have also helped to stimulate the local economy while creating more than 250 local and regional jobs over the course of the retrofits, from manufacturing to construction and engineering.

In retrofitting the Empire State Building we not only wanted to lessen our impact on the environment but, more importantly, to provide an example for developers and governments around the world that sustainability is an economically feasible reality. If the largest 20 percent of buildings in New York City alone replicated the Empire State Building’s commitment and reduced their energy usage by 40percent, New York City’s energy usage would be reduced by 25percent. This commitment is not based on the owner’s dedication to environmental stewardship. This commitment is based on the team’s commitment – and contract – to deliver a minimum 38percent energy reduction, saving $4.4 million annually with a 3.1-year payback.

It has been a profound privilege to act as the program manager for the development and implementation of the replicable process, implementation of energy projects, and ongoing Measurement & Verification of the performance of the energy retrofit of the Empire State Building. The retrofits demonstrate that greening buildings has immense environmental and financial value. Already during the retrofit process, we have had several instances of owners, vendors, loaners and developers who were driven to take action themselves. They recognized that the process, tools, and strategies we used are easily adopted and fulfilled with a brief payback period and significant annual savings. I believe that the Empire State Building alone has changed the way people view their ability to make a difference while making a profit. Just think what a difference we can make in reducing energy usage while generating revenue. We have demonstrated that the two go together successfully. I have never worked on a project where we were not able to identify energy projects with a five year payback or less. Now, it’s time to get started on the other 899,999 buildings in New York!