Empire State of Green

New York’s most famous skyscraper shrank its planet-warming emissions by 40 percent. Can the rest of the city do the same?

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In a city brought to its knees by the Great Depression, the Empire State Building seemed to be the only thing that rose.

The stock market crashed mere months before construction began. While thousands of workers labored at breakneck speeds to assemble the 102-story edifice, Central Park turned into a shantytown and bread lines snaked through the city’s streets. Business was so bleak the building had only 20 tenants when it opened in May 1931.

But owner Alfred E. Smith demanded that all 6,514 windows remain lit, even in the unrented offices. He wanted the Empire State Building to be a beacon, visible across the city. Surrounded by scenes of astounding hardship, the building was his declaration of faith in New York’s future, inscribed in gleaming granite and steel.

The globe is again in the grips of a crisis — one that’s been particularly brutal to New York. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the Empire State Building to mostly empty out. Still, each night the lights atop its tower have flashed messages to the city and beyond: siren red to honor victims of the virus, blue and white for the medical workers fighting it.

And when the city finally reopens and the world starts to rebuild, those lights will aim to telegraph another kind of forward-thinking.

For more than a decade, the trust that owns the Empire State Building has been working to remake the monument as a model of sustainability. The elevators generate energy as they move, the window panes were refurbished to make them ultra-insulated. Even the multicolored lights flashing across the city are now efficient LEDs. Put together, the improvements have slashed carbon emissions from operations at the Empire State Building about 40 percent in the past 10 years; owners aim to cut an additional 40 percent in the decade to come.

Soon, the rest of New York City will find out whether it can do the same. An ambitious regulation signed into law last year imposes a strict cap on emissions from the city’s big buildings. No place in the world has such aggressive rules for existing structures, and many in the city were skeptical of the law’s goals even before the coronavirus pandemic complicated things.

But New York officials and the Empire State Building’s owners repeat the same mantra: “If we can prove it works here, then it can work anywhere,” in the words of Dana Robbins Schneider, Empire State’s senior vice president and director of energy and sustainability.

“That’s why we have to make it work,” she said. “We want to use this super-famous building that everybody recognizes as a beacon … to change the world.”

This is one of the 73rd-floor offices of the outdoor advertising firm JCDecaux, looking out over Lower Manhattan. Hidden within the modern interior are subtle innovations that dramatically improve efficiency.

The trick, Schneider said, was to implement those changes in the right order.

First, the Empire State’s owners wanted to improve the insulation of the building, so energy wasn’t wasted on heating and cooling that got lost to the outside world.

Behind each radiator, engineers installed reflective barriers that send steam heat back into the building.

The building’s approximately 6,500 double-glass window panes were refurbished and an extra layer of insulating film was added. Spaces between each pane were pumped full of krypton and argon gas, which prevent the transfer of heat.

An automated system raises and lowers the blinds in synchrony with the sun.

By controlling the amount of sunlight streaming through windows, the shade system achieves a balance between lighting the spaces and keeping them cool.

The next step was to increase the efficiency of electricity usage in the building’s interior.

Sophisticated, automated LED lights, spaced strategically throughout working spaces, reduce energy usage. LEDs emit highly directional light and give off very little heat, making them four times more efficient than traditional fluorescent bulbs.

Some tenants also use an automated system to control power use. At night and on weekends, the system will shut off designated power outlets, preventing “vampire energy” consumption by devices that are left plugged in.

The building’s 68 elevators use a technology called “regenerative braking,” which allows them to store energy each time they slow to a stop and feed that power back into the building.

Finally, with the building’s energy demand significantly reduced, the equipment that provides it with heat and power could be replaced with smaller devices, which are more efficient and less costly.

Schneider’s team sought to reuse resources they already had. Instead of buying new chillers, they gutted and refurbished the machines that have been in the building for decades. Even the condensate from the building’s steam heating system is recycled to warm the water that flows out of taps.

Bit by bit, the measures added up. From the steam room in the basement to the LED lights atop the tower, the Empire State Building’s electricity use has fallen by more than 40 percent.

Retrofits like this one are neglected — but powerful — tools for protecting the planet, experts say.

Climate policies often focus on emissions from power plants and cars. But in the fight against rising global temperatures, buildings are silent saboteurs. The processes used to construct them, the energy required to heat and cool them, and the electricity that powers them account for about 39 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

The problem is even greater in densely occupied cities. More than two-thirds of New York City’s emissions come from its buildings. And most of those buildings will still be standing 30 years from now, when U.N. scientists say the world’s net emissions must be zero to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

But if buildings are among the biggest contributors to the climate crisis, they can also be a city’s greatest tool for fighting it, said John Mandyck, chief executive for the nonprofit Urban Green Council. “The pathway to a low-carbon future is literally standing in front of our eyes.”

In 2007, New York adopted energy conservation requirements for all construction and renovations. But the city had no mechanism to make existing buildings significantly more sustainable; no one even knew whether such a thing was possible.

This quandary was on the mind of Ira Magaziner, the head of the Clinton Climate Initiative, during a chance encounter at a party with Anthony Malkin, CEO of the realty trust that owns the Empire State and 14 other buildings.

He asked: Would Malkin be willing to serve as a test case for an experimental “deep energy retrofit”?

Malkin offered to try it at one of the trust’s other properties, but Magaziner demurred. No one was going to pay attention to a retrofit at some anonymous building, he said.

It had to be the Empire State.

Quietly — in case the project turned out to be a bust — Malkin assembled experts from the engineering firm Johnson Controls, real estate manager Jones Lang LaSalle and the sustainability nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute. Their mandate was to devise a plan to incorporate energy efficiency into renovations the building needed anyway. No idea was too small or too strange, but Malkin had two conditions: Each measure had to pay for itself in energy savings within five years. And the whole process must be made into a publicly available blueprint.

“This is not just about the Empire State Building,” Malkin said. The energy-saving measures were implemented at every structure in the Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT) portfolio. Next, he wanted the process replicated around the world.

The “deep retrofit” — which added $31.1 million to previously planned renovations — was completed in 2010. A decade later, the Empire State Building saves more than $4 million a year on its electric bill; the project is expected to pay for itself twice over.

The experience converted Malkin into an energy-efficiency evangelist. He teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council to launch a “center for market innovation” to promote green retrofits. He helped develop standards for the nonprofit Urban Land Institute for conserving energy in tenant office spaces. He heads the sustainability committee for the Real Estate Roundtable, a national trade group, and lobbies for the creation of federal energy-efficiency programs.

Whether it was the millions of dollars of retrofit savings, or just the association with New York’s most beloved building, Malkin got people’s attention.

Owners of other big buildings in New York started coming to him for retrofit advice. The Urban Green Council invited the ESRT to help develop a “blueprint” for getting New York’s building emissions under control.

“An iconic building like the Empire State Building moving forward as it did, and not because there was a requirement but because they understood the benefits, is really significant,” said Donna De Costanzo, a director for climate and clean energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It demonstrates to other buildings what can be done.”

The retrofit of the 89-year-old landmark is expected to pay for itself twice over, in terms of lower energy costs.
The trust that owns the Empire State Building is remaking the landmark as a model of sustainability, including by refurbishing the window panes to make them ultra-insulated. (Photos by Biz Herman for The Washington Post)

LEFT: The retrofit of the 89-year-old landmark is expected to pay for itself twice over, in terms of lower energy costs. RIGHT: The trust that owns the Empire State Building is remaking the landmark as a model of sustainability, including by refurbishing the window panes to make them ultra-insulated. (Photos by Biz Herman for The Washington Post)

A landmark law

While Malkin preached the energy-efficiency gospel to anyone who would listen, the threat posed by climate change became increasingly apparent in the city he called home.

New York’s sewer systems are routinely overwhelmed by heavy rainfall. Summer heat waves are so extreme that in 2019, the electric utility cut service to more than 50,000 customers. In several waterfront neighborhoods, high tides spill onto streets even when the skies are blue.

Worst of all was Hurricane Sandy, which killed at least 44 New York City residents and damaged or destroyed almost 70,000 homes when it struck in 2012. Hundreds of thousands of people were without power; the subway tunnels that serve as arteries of the city were filled by surge from the rising seas.

The superstorm, which cost the city an estimated $19 billion, bore unmistakable fingerprints of climate change, scientists say. Warmer waters in the Atlantic powered the storm. An unusual weather pattern linked to Arctic sea ice loss slammed it straight into the Northeast coast.

New York City Council member Costa Constantinides, who sponsored the city’s building law, invoked that history when lawmakers voted on climate legislation in April 2019.

“We know there are major impacts from stronger hurricanes and increased precipitation,” he said. “There are talks about the Rockaways, Coney Island and neighborhoods in Staten Island being wiped off the map by the end of the century if we do not act.”

“Our children and our children’s children implore us to do this,” he urged.

New York’s Climate Mobilization Act was passed 45 to 2.

Its centerpiece building law asks thousands of structures to do what the Empire State has already achieved: cut emissions 40 percent in 10 years. If it’s successful, the carbon cuts will be equal to taking 1.3 million cars off the road annually. According to Constantinides, that would make it the largest single emissions-reduction policy implemented in any city in the world.

The first effects will be felt this year, when buildings will be required to publicly post letter grades based on energy-efficiency scores provided by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Empire State Building has an A. In 2017 the Urban Green Council found the median grade for city office buildings was a B-. For large residential buildings, it was a C.

In 2024, the 10,000 buildings that generate the most carbon will be subject to a strict emissions cap. By the end of the decade, those limits will tighten and the law will expand to cover all buildings 25,000 square feet or larger — nearly 60 percent of the city’s developed area. Any structure that exceeds its cap could be fined hundreds of dollars for each excess ton of carbon emitted.

To avoid burdening important public buildings or causing sudden rent increases for low-income residents, some affordable housing, hospitals and houses of worship will not face carbon caps if they implement a prescribed set of energy-efficiency measures.

But government buildings are required to change faster than the rest of the city; they must curb emissions 40 percent by 2025.

It will be a monumental effort. An analysis by the Urban Green Council found that it will take roughly $20 billion for buildings to comply with the 2030 target; in 2018, city buildings spent just $235 million on retrofits. Some 141,000 additional architects, engineers and technicians will be required. Millions of tenants will need to be taught to reduce their energy use.

And after all of that work, Mandyck said, “if no other cities act, New York Harbor is still going to flood.”

Of all the challenges presented by efforts to reduce building emissions, this may be the greatest. Action taken by one of the tallest buildings in the city and one of the biggest cities in the world means nothing if it isn’t replicated, over and over again.

100 Van Cortlandt Park South, part of a housing cooperative in the Bronx, is the same age as the Empire State Building but faces different hurdles in achieving energy efficiency.
Some building owners are worried about the cost of making structures energy-efficient enough to satisfy city code changes. (Photos by Biz Herman for The Washington Post)

LEFT: 100 Van Cortlandt Park South, part of a housing cooperative in the Bronx, is the same age as the Empire State Building but faces different hurdles in achieving energy efficiency. RIGHT: Some building owners are worried about the cost of making structures energy-efficient enough to satisfy city code changes. (Photos by Biz Herman for The Washington Post)

‘How are we going to get the money?’

Eleven miles and an hour subway ride north of the Empire State Building, at the offices of Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, Ed Yaker considered what it might take to bring the Bronx apartment complex up to New York’s new code.

It wouldn’t be easy.

The co-op received a D grade for energy efficiency last year. Unless it can nearly halve its emissions before stricter carbon standards go into effect in 2030, Amalgamated could face fines of up to $1 million.

As co-op treasurer, Yaker has to find the money to retrofit 11 buildings constructed over the course of three generations, each in need of different kinds of repair.

The oldest part of the complex, a modest brick structure in which Yaker was born and raised, was opened the same year as the Empire State Building: 1931. But unlike the art deco behemoth downtown, Yaker’s building shows its age. The cast iron radiators rumble. The wood floors creak. The gas stoves can’t be replaced with electric without overtaxing the Depression-era wiring system.

The retrofits needed for the entire co-op to meet its targets will cost about $20 million, even with clean-energy credits and tax rebates. Amalgamated is overseen by New York State’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal, which means it can’t easily raise fees. And Yaker worries about where he’ll get the necessary loans.

“A less indebted and less supervised entity” — like Empire State — “could borrow more easily,” Yaker said. “But we’re affordable housing, and we’re getting beat up on a lot of other fronts.”

To prove his point, Yaker hauled out the last two apartment management checklists issued by the New York City Department of Buildings. “These are all the codes we are mandated to follow,” he said, flipping the pages of the dictionary-size books.

In 2019, the list was 866 pages long. Facades had to be inspected. Gas lines had to be upgraded. Pipes needed to be improved.

Now, energy use has to be completely overhauled. This year, with the new building law added, the checklist is 947 pages.

“It’s an overwhelming task,” Yaker said. “It’s great New York is doing this ... but they never think about, how are we going to get the money?”

Cost is just one item in a long list of building owners’ worries, said Zach Steinberg, vice president for policy and planning at the Real Estate Board of New York. The trade association had supported a proposal that would regulate energy use, not carbon emissions, and that would mandate percentage reductions rather than establish emissions caps.

“We agree with the goals” of the Climate Mobilization Act, Steinberg said. “We have concerns about the approach.”

Building owners are worried about being penalized for their tenants’ energy use, which represents the bulk of emissions and which owners can’t control, Steinberg said. They’re worried about unavoidable emissions from the city’s electric grid, which is about to become more reliant on fossil fuels as a nearby nuclear power plant is shuttered. They’re worried that renting to energy-intensive businesses — TV studios, data centers, trading floors — will make it impossible to meet the targets that have been set for them.

“Buildings can’t be asked to do more than they can do,” he said.

Even Malkin — who was selected to serve on an advisory board that will help implement the building law — said he is frustrated with the city’s focus on carbon reductions, to the exclusion of energy efficiency. The rule can incentivize owners to simply wait for upgrades to the grid, which the state controls, rather than take measures to reduce electricity use in their buildings. “A sustainable economy is one that consumes less,” Malkin said.

City officials counter that the law is aimed at carbon because that’s the element that ultimately needs to be eliminated.

“We had to change the currency of the conversation,” said Mark Chambers, director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “It’s not about anything else.”

Energy conservation is still on the agenda, he added; a code passed in March requires buildings undergoing construction or renovation to implement many of the same efficiency measures as the Empire State.

Chambers also noted that the law includes a slate of services aimed at helping buildings meet their targets. Low-interest loans are available to help owners cover upfront costs. Some $30 million has been committed to a “retrofit accelerator,” which will offer guidance and provide resources for implementing efficiency measures. The city is studying the possibility of developing a carbon trading system for buildings, and the advisory board can propose adjustments to the law that will help bring buildings into compliance.

Meanwhile, officials are analyzing emissions data from across the city so they can make sure assistance reaches the buildings that have the furthest to go to avoid incurring fines.

“We don’t want your cash,” Chambers said. “We want your carbon.”

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: A hallway in the Empire State Building in 1929. A view from the windows of an incomplete office in the building that same year. The Empire State Building is one of the most famous examples of Art Deco architecture. Here it's pictured with the American Radiator Building - now known as the Bryant Park Hotel - in the background. The Empire State, looking south from Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, under construction in 1929. (Photos by Irving Browning/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

FROM TOP: The Empire State, looking south from Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, under construction in 1929. A view from the windows of an incomplete office in the building that same year. The Empire State Building is one of the most famous examples of Art Deco architecture. Here it's pictured with the American Radiator Building - now known as the Bryant Park Hotel - in the background. A hallway in the Empire State Building in 1929. (Photos by Irving Browning/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

Image: The Empire State, looking south from Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, under construction in 1929. (Irving Browning/New York Historical Society/Getty Images)
Image: A view from the windows of an incomplete office in the building that same year. (Irving Browning/New York Historical Society/Getty Images)
Image: The Empire State Building is one of the most famous examples of Art Deco architecture. Here it's pictured with the American Radiator Building - now known as the Bryant Park Hotel - in the background. (Irving Browning/New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

Building a beacon

Despite their misgivings about the specifics of the law, Yaker and Malkin had been forging ahead with retrofit plans.

Amalgamated allocated $6 million to replace its half-century-old boiler and install motion-sensitive LED lights in all public spaces. Yaker obtained a low-interest loan from the city to buy computer-controlled “cozys” that will cover the old cast iron radiators, improving efficiency. In October, a geothermal company surveyed the campus and found that the co-op could reduce emissions nearly 9 percent by heating and cooling its two biggest buildings with air pulled up from the earth.

“All of these things are money-savers,” Yaker said. “To me, that’s a win-win.”

Downtown, Empire State Realty Trust partnered with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and other major buildings to figure out how to cut what Schneider calls “the next 40 percent” of emissions. Their goal was to develop a technical plan for meeting the city’s long-term emissions targets using technology that is already within reach, then make the findings publicly available as “road maps” that other buildings could follow.

Schneider and her colleagues planned to assess the Empire State Building, from its upper decks, where they have considered installing wind turbines, to three stories below street level, where cooling tunnels that predate air conditioning could be used to help moderate heat.

Meanwhile, other cities were working on their own versions of New York City’s law. Washington, D.C., passed an energy-efficiency standard for big buildings, and Washington state pledged to set performance targets for existing structures by the end of this year. Boston, Los Angeles and St. Louis said their own building plans were soon to come.

But then the novel coronavirus struck, and New York slowed to a stop, and the future that Malkin, Yaker and others had been building toward became suddenly insecure.

On March 16, when Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) ordered the closure of all nonessential city businesses, the number of people visiting the Empire State Building each day fell 95 percent. Nearly 200 tenants, representing a third of the ESRT’s annual revenue, asked to defer their April rent payments. Thousands of solar-panel installers and other clean-energy workers lost jobs as the economy shut down. The city’s independent budget office estimated the closures will cost New York almost $10 billion.

Worst of all, some 16,600 New Yorkers have lost their lives to the virus — a number that is growing every day.

No one can predict how the pandemic will play out or promise when the hardship will end.

But — for now, at least — sustainability work continues apace. This month, eight climate working groups were assembled to lay out plans for achieving the goals of the legislation. None of the targets or deadlines for the building law have changed.

Yaker obtained an essential work permit that allowed him to restart upgrades on Amalgamated’s boiler. And he’s using this down time to attend clean-energy webinars — sometimes two in one day — and apply for as many grants and incentive programs as he can find.

The virus “may change the timetable of getting work done,” he said. “But it won’t change the commitment to go forward.”

At the Empire State Building, engineers are trying to “make lemonade from lemons,” Schneider said, taking advantage of the absence of tenants to better understand the building.

Image: The building is a prominent feature of the Manhattan skyline, as seen from Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, Queens. (Biz Herman for The Washington Post)

One of the most startling discoveries: Energy use dropped by just 28 percent, even though almost no one was in the building. The rest was “vampire” energy — power that gets sucked from outlets by unused computers and other equipment left plugged in, Malkin said.

Malkin calculated that tenants in normal times are probably paying a third of their electric bills for unnecessary vampire usage on nights and weekends. When tenants return to the building, he plans to show them his math; he suspects they’ll be eager to implement plug-load controls once they see it.

“Fixing this phantom energy consumption could radically change the total power consumption,” he added. “That’s the kind of the work we’re doing using the Empire State Building as a lab.”

Asked whether the financial toll of the pandemic will alter the ESRT’s sustainability plans, Schneider shook her head. “Now is not the time to give up on what’s important,” she said.

Half the goal of the retrofits is to save money; economic concerns only make the case for energy efficiency more compelling. The other half is to counter climate change — a problem that hasn’t gone away.

And then there’s the unquantifiable goal of the Empire State Building’s original owner: to be a beacon in a moment of darkness. To convey confidence — this time with regenerative elevators and LED lights — that better days will come.

Gabriel Florit contributed to this report.

About this story

3D models of JCDecaux's North American headquarters featured above courtesy of project manager Cindy Samuel of JCDecaux and principal architect Mark DuBois, project manager Deborah Fantera and 3D modeler Gui Nunes of Studio DuBois Architecture. Editing by Lyndsey Layton. Graphics editing by Monica Ulmanu. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Andrew Braford and Jake Crump.

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