The Height of Sustainability

The owners of the Empire State Building are turning New York’s legendary skyscraper into a model of energy efficiency

Empire State Building

Credit: ? NYC & Company

Last April, on an overcast and rainy Monday, a crowd gathered on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building to hear of a plan both ambitious and audacious, the details of which had largely been kept secret. The journalists and other parties assembled that day already knew that the Empire State Building was undergoing a $550 million restoration. What may have come as a surprise, however, was that Anthony E. Malkin, president of the firm that oversees operations at the Empire State Building, convened a discussion not about the marble-clad lobby or Art Deco chandeliers, but about carbon footprints and greenhouse gases.

With former President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at his side, Malkin outlined a new and radical step in the building's restoration—the transformaion of the landmark skyscraper into a model of energy efficiency. Numbers had been crunched, mechanical systems analyzed, calculations checked and rechecked. The conclusion: Upgrading the ventilation system, the windows, and the chiller plant, among several other things, would reduce energy consumption at the Empire State Building by 38 percent, decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 105,000 metric tons over a 15-year span, and yield a projected annual savings of $4.4 million.

2010 Green Issue IconThe notion that a developer could help the environment, preserve a historic commercial building, and make good money in the process was nothing short of bold. After all, some experts had always claimed that the costs of retrofitting a building to make it energy efficient were steep enough to delay a return on the investment by many years. Malkin, however, was relying on statistics, engineering, and cold, hard economics. His approach was worlds away from some fuzzy, feel-good notion of ecofriendliness, and it posed a direct challenge to developers whose buildings feature all the hip green flourishes (the bamboo flooring, the engineered lumber, the wood finishes free of solvents, the vegetation on the roof) but still leak BTUs like colossal sieves.

Indeed, as Malkin emphatically told me, he would like ­nothing more than to "drive a wedge through the colloquial use of the word 'greening.' The bandwidth on sustainability is dominated by people who have the right intentions, who are moving qualitatively in the right direction, but who are quantitatively not functioning properly."

Of course, the Empire State Building is not some bungalow or three-story brownstone, but a complicated piece of architecture rising 102 stories, with 2.8 million square feet of leasable office space. It features a spire used for television and radio broadcasts, and an observatory that draws more than four million visitors a year. What if you could take a structure of this size, importance, age, and complexity and make it more efficient than 90 percent of the buildings in the country? It would be an experiment conducted on the grandest of scales, and its outcome might have consequences for the global real estate industry and the future of historic preservation, not to mention the air we breathe.

If our present economic climate would seem to discourage embarking on such a massive project, remember that the Empire State Building arose in far worse circumstances. Only someone with the guts—or the arrogance—of financier John Jakob Raskob would have dared to erect the tallest skyscraper in the world after the end of the optimistic Roaring Twenties, after the boom that saw a hundred skyscrapers nose their way up into the skies above New York. Raskob's vision was clear: create a piece of architecture that would boggle the mind, astonish the senses, and inspire a profound sense of wonder. If it dwarfed the Eiffel Tower in the process, well, all the better.

Even the location Raskob chose—the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street on a relatively unfashionable block—seemed a mistake. The old Waldorf-Astoria hotel had long dominated the site, but its owners were planning a move uptown, to more elegant surroundings. Raskob saw an opportunity. He engaged architect William Lamb and the construction firm of Starrett Brothers and Eken, and he named former New York Gov. Al Smith (still floundering after his loss to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election) as the building's president. If Raskob's skyscraper became a success, he believed, New York's business community would be inspired enough to pick up and relocate, making his building the epicenter of a new financial district. Fortune magazine called Raskob's move "a spectacular gesture." A spectacular gamble was more like it.

In October 1929, the stock market crashed, destroying the fortunes of millions, and by all rights, Raskob should have abandoned his scheme. But the financier was defiant, and a few months after the demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria, construction of the Empire State Building began.

Like the soon-to-be-completed Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Building, the Empire State rose higher and higher as the country plunged deeper into economic depression—an irony, to be sure, for these structures were meant to symbolize the exuberance of the times in which they were conceived. But if the Empire State Building no longer reflected the country's mood, it soon embodied a different kind of symbolism, the rising steel girders promising hope, and a way out of the abyss.

The work rate was astonishing, with more than 3,000 men erecting something like a floor a day, riveting the massive array of steel in driving rain and heavy winds. The sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine documented their precarious labor (which, given the dangers, resulted in an absurdly low death count of six) in images as iconic as the building itself. The photographs elevate the routine into the realm of the heroic, portraying ordinary men perched on cables and beams a thousand feet in the air, seemingly nesting in the clouds, as a glimmering cityscape lies languid beneath them—enough to make the slightest acrophobe break out in a cold sweat.

In January 1931, the topmost beams were affixed. A few months later, the building was finished. In little more than one year's time, 57,000 tons of structural steel had been assembled, 10 million bricks and 200,000 cubic feet of stone laid in place, and 1,172 miles of elevator cable installed. The result was an Art Deco masterpiece that New Yorkers and tourists fell for instantly, the lofty spire as captivating as the Moderne canopies, the marble lobby, and the observation deck on the 86th floor.

Recently restored, this observatory provides some of the finest views of New York and its surroundings. I made my way up on a warm November day, and looking north, my gaze took in the whole of Manhattan, its entire scope captured in one neat, ordered vista, bracketed by the Hudson and East rivers. The skyscrapers of limestone, glass, and concrete in the foreground gave way to Central Park, which on this late autumn day looked like a dense patchwork carpet of earthy yellows, purplish browns, and deep burgundies. Down below, the streets were a flurry of movement and sound, but from the top, the most chaotic city in the United States seemed possessed of a great serenity, at once monumental and compact.

Of course, it isn't from this vantage point, but rather from deep within the building, in spaces hidden away from the throngs of tourists, where the biggest surprises await.

When prospective (or current) tenants want a glimpse of what energy-efficient office spaces in the Empire State Building will eventually look like, they are taken to the 42nd floor, to a kind of model showroom. And if they're expecting something akin to the lobby's Art Deco richness, they are in for a jolt. The space I toured was decidedly contemporary—bright, airy, and sleek, with an open floor plan and a panoramic view of midtown. Joining me were Paul Rode of Johnson Controls and Dana Schneider of Jones Lang LaSalle, two experts in the field of sustainability and building retrofits who have been intimately involved with the work here. (Their firms, along with the Clinton Climate Initiative and the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, are partners in the project.)

Maybe it's because I work in a basement, beneath the unflattering glare of fluorescent bulbs, but the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming amount of natural light pouring in through the windows. I soon learned that maximizing daylight in the room meant that the interior lighting systems could operate at significantly reduced levels, while still producing illumination required by code. "There's a real misconception in the marketplace," Schneider said, "that it's going to be dark when you're operating well below recommended levels, but daylight is far more powerful than you may think, and ultimately, people prefer to work in natural light."

"In this entire building," Rode added, "most of the light comes in at the east and south elevations, and in the west elevation during the afternoon. So here we are facing north, and we're in the back half of the building—in the worst-case room. This is as bad as daylighting gets."

The illumination levels here adjust automatically; a control system dims the lights depending on the time of day and who is occupying the space. "If I leave the room," Rode said, "the occupancy sensor takes over and says, 'OK, nobody's been here for 15 minutes; I'm shutting everything down.' "

Even the furniture comes equipped with sensors. Schneider knelt to point out an infrared sensor tucked away under a desk. "The furniture has an integral energy manager in it," she said, "so if it's not sensing someone at this desk, it will power down all the plug loads and report back to our tenant energy manager. That way, you can actually track the energy being used. Isn't it amazing?"

Tenants can monitor their overall energy usage by viewing a kind of computerized dashboard, which takes raw data and translates the numbers into digital graphs.

"This is all about load reduction," Rode said as the three of us walked over to the windows. "For example, take these windows. Better windows mean reduced loads."

The retrofitting of the Empire State Building's 6,500 windows represents one of the project's most ambitious aspects. At a rate of 50 a day, workers have been taking out the old Thermopane windows, breaking the seals, inserting Mylar sheaths between the panes, and resealing them with krypton-argon gas inside. All of this is being done on site.

Rode tapped gently on one of the windows. "You can't even tell that there's a piece of film in there that's suspended between the two panes. That film—they call it a heat mirror. It blocks the sun's most potent rays, so we can cut down on air conditioning. It also creates two pockets to provide additional insulation, so we don't have to heat as much in the winter."

"Can you open these windows?" I asked, gazing out at the Chrysler Building, directly across from us.

"Air conditioning wasn't widely used until the 1950s," Schneider said, "so buildings built before then had to have operable windows. This was how you air conditioned a building—by opening the windows."

"And yes, you still can open them," Rode said, proceeding to do just that. "There are times when you just want to open the windows."

Today was certainly one of those times—gentle breeze, glorious sunshine—and I was struck at once by how quiet the city was from this height, how absent were the honking cars, how the sounds of city life combined into a low background murmur, barely more audible than a rumble.

Schneider directed my gaze below the window, to the radiator unit. "This," she said, "is a bigger deal than you may realize. In almost all buildings in New York City, if you take out the radiators, behind them is just a masonry wall." Without some kind of insulation in place, those radiators end up heating the outside of the building as well as the interior, resulting in significant heat loss. The solution to this problem involves installing 6,500 insulated reflective barriers behind all the radiator units in the building. "Something as simple as this insulation—and this is simple—is great in terms of controlling heat flow," Schneider said.

We continued through the suite as Schneider and Rode told me about the carbon dioxide sensors, the air-handling units, and various other technologies.

So what, I wondered, has the response been like so far from the current tenants in the building?

Two corporations, it turns out, have already moved into energy-efficient office suites, and both (according to Anthony Malkin) are happy with their spaces. Most of the other tenants have leases that are set to expire within four years. With rental rates sure to increase, the owners must convince tenants that saving money on energy bills will make their high-performance spaces cost-effective over the course of a 10-year or 15-year lease.

As for the leases themselves, the owners of the Empire State Building have modified certain aspects to encourage energy efficiency. And they are offering consulting services to tenants who wish to redesign their spaces—the goal being to use less energy without compromising on design. In one case, the owners reviewed proposed design plans for a tenant, identified energy-saving modifications that would require no additional investment, and incorporated those changes into the lease. As Schneider pointed out, the building's owners "are giving tenants the tools, and telling them how to implement these guidelines within a certain budget price point. Most of the building's tenants agree to that, because why wouldn't they?"

"It is a no-brainer," Rode added, "and the data is supporting that."

"There's a misconception that it costs more to implement these technologies," Schneider said. "It doesn't."

The Empire State Building, of course, has its infrastructure already in place, meaning that the chiller plant or the exhaust fans or the condenser water system can be updated rather than replaced. "If this were a brand-new building," Rode said, "and a tenant was moving in, and nobody had done this exploratory work ahead of time, then yes, there would be a premium to pay."

"Ultimately," I said, "the bottom line is profit, isn't it?"

"Look, nothing we're doing here," Rode said, "is for the sake of being green solely. This is a win-win situation: You can be green and be profitable."

"Let me tell you why all of this is important from a preservation perspective," Anthony Malkin told me. "A lot of energy was consumed to put historic structures up in the first place. It's crucial that that energy isn't lost, that you refit those buildings the way we've done with the Empire State Building."

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 38 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. That's why retrofitting them is crucial. And though the incremental costs of reconfiguring a historic building can be substantial, the Empire State Building model can provide a template for owners of older office buildings. Perform a sensible retrofit, and the benefits are clear: higher occupancy, increased rents, reduced utility expenses, lower maintenance and repair costs, and a cash flow that can be used to fund other capital improvements. Indeed, Malkin told me that creating "a transparent, replicable, quantitative energy efficiency assessment" that could be used on any building was a fundamental goal of the project.

Work on the building's systems is to be completed soon, and the tenant spaces will be finished by 2013. If this grand experiment works, the Empire State Building will attain a score of 90 according to standards established by Energy Star, a program managed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy—meaning that it will perform better than 90 percent of buildings in the United States.

"We're taking a building that is 78 years old," Malkin said, "to the peak of modernity, to the forefront of efficiency, without affecting the core elements of its character."

John Jakob Raskob's dream of a new financial sector rising up around his skyscraper never did materialize—Wall Street was content to stay right where it was, and the new Waldorf-Astoria became a magnet for newer skyscrapers uptown. Less than half of the Empire State Building was leased out upon its completion, with the offices above the 41st floor remaining largely empty, thus earning it the unflattering nickname "the Empty State Building." One could argue that the vision for a 21st-century Empire State Building espoused by Malkin and his team would allow the building to finally realize its potential, to thrive as a collection of cutting-edge office spaces that turn a profit while treating the environment more gently than in the past. In other words, for the first time in its history, this building as a practical, utilitarian space might finally rise to its symbolic value as an icon of progress, as the soaring embodiment of man's daring and accomplishment.

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