Answer: “A window.”
New York may be building a reputation as a “green” city under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but anybody who has ever lived here has undoubtedly had to deal with the leaky windows and leaky faucets of the city’s aging housing stock. While gleaming new buildings built to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, learn more here) standards are springing up around New York, the city will only make headway in cutting its consumption of resources and output of pollution by finding innovative ways to make existing buildings leaner and greener.
New York City has lagged behind some other cities in the number of energy-efficient buildings, but several key steps by the city, and a few high-profile projects, have helped to get the ball rolling on green building. In 2006, the mayor announced PlaNYC, an initiative to make the city more livable for all New Yorkers while also reducing its environmental impact on the globe by the year 2030. As part of this project, last year Bloomberg unveiled an ambitious package of legislation that would have required buildings of 50,000 square feet or more to undergo an “environmental audit” every 10 years, and then make renovations to improve energy efficiency. The audits will still be mandatory – and will affect an estimated 22,000 buildings – but the renovations will be voluntary under the bill the mayor signed into law in December 2009. Nonetheless, many building owners are taking the initiative to improve the environmental performance of their properties because they see the significant cost savings as well as the appeal to tenants of improved services and green design.
But the largest retrofit project is the massive renovation of the city’s most iconic building, the Empire State Building. The building’s owners, Empire State Building Company, are investing $500 million in the upgrade of the Midtown landmark, $20 million of which will go towards boosting energy efficiency, making it the largest green retrofit of a large commercial building built before World War II (the building opened its doors in 1931). Since 43% of all the office space in New York City was built before 1945, creating models for greening older structures is essential for reducing the city’s environmental impacts. The Empire State Building has partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative, through its Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program, and the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit organization which provides recommendations on the design, construction and operation of green building techniques. The renovation project is being carried out by Jones Lang LaSalle and Johnson Controls. The remainder of the money will go towards other renovations, including refurbishing the building’s Art Deco lobby and the Observation Deck, as well as the interiors of the 84 floors in between.
The project was unveiled in April 2009, but now visitors to the Empire State Building can learn about the ongoing renovations at an exhibit that recently opened in the building’s second floor queuing area. While you wait for your elevator ride up to the Observation Deck, a series of video displays detail the stages of the renovation, the impacts of energy consumption, and ways that cities, buildings, and individuals can reduce their consumption.
The lives of most New Yorkers are pretty friendly to the environment – we ride public transport more than any other city in America, and we live close together – but our buildings could use improvement. Buildings account for around 70% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, so we can’t green our city without greening our buildings, both new and old. And if we adopt new environmental practices and principles for our buildings, maybe we won’t have to resort to keeping the windows open in the winter and closed in the summer (though even after the remodeling, the Empire State Building will still be one of the only skyscrapers with windows that open).
For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thanks to Rebecca Karrin (email@example.com) for taking some beautiful photos, and thanks again to Jon and Michael at the ESB Observatory for all their help. All photos are credited to Andrew Gustafson unless otherwise noted.