So, Has Anyone Heard About This Empire State Building Thing?

Yeah, the Empire State Building isn’t exactly NYC’s best kept secret. But a host of recent articles finally give the iconic skyscraper’s ambitious green retrofit the attention it deserves.

empire state building green gbnyc

It’s a strange thing to write: when will someone in New York City finally notice the Empire State Building? Obviously there are some of us (ahem) who find it easier to lavish attention on the city’s worst real estate projects, but the idea that the Empire State Building is somehow lacking for attention — the same Empire State Building thronged by tourists and towering over midtown, the same one from King Kong and Kavalier and Clay — just looks wrong, here on the pixelated page. But, considering that what is arguably New York City’s biggest and most ambitious green retrofit is going on in the city’s most iconic skyscraper, it’s surprising that so little attention has been lavished on a project that not only cries out for it, but is eminently deserving of it. So it is with great relief, dear readers, that we can report that — finally — someone is paying attention to NYC’s most famous very tall building. (And yes, that includes us: the only article currently up on our site with the Empire State Building tag, besides this one, is this year-old post about Skanska USA’s LEED-CI office space on the ESB’s 32nd floor — although to be fair, covering green building in NYC isn’t really our beat, at least relative to fervid punditry)

I don’t know if this qualifies as disclosure or bragging, but I should mention that I’m one of those people — I wrote a short piece for the Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis section about California-based green building company Serious Materials and the fifth-floor fabricating facility (in a space a little bigger than the average Manhattan luxury condo) that is turning the Empire State Building’s 6,514 existing double-pane windows into ultra-efficient super-insulating glass units. As cool as the window retrofit is, though — and it’s way cooler than I was able to make it sound in those 500 or so fairly hurried, newspaper-correct words — it’s only one part of the eight-pronged retrofit in process at the Empire State Building. There’s obviously a lot more to that retrofit — which was conceptualized with help from the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Clinton Foundation, and is being overseen by Johnson Controls and Jones Lang LaSalle — than a neat little window workshop, of course, but perhaps a bit too much for a newspaper story to put it all into terms a lay-reader could understand, let alone care about. gbNYC readers, of course, will look at this rundown of the retrofit’s eight different aspects and clap their hands in childlike glee; the average reader, with all due respect to average readers everywhere, is probably going to dial out somewhere around the emergence of the phrase “radiative barriers.” Still, given that this is the Empire State Building — and given the strong personalities, macro-scale expenditures and boldface trends at work — it’s amazing that it took this long to get some attention.

My Metropolis post wound up running as a sort of digital sidebar to a longer piece by the Journal’s Anton Troianovski, who uses Malkin Holdings LLC’s ultra-voluble and hugely quotable president, Tony Malkin, as a way in to a discussion of both the Empire State Building’s retrofit and the market for big-ticket green retrofits in general. And when I say “ultra-voluble and hugely quotable,” what I mean is:

At a panel discussion put on by a real-estate think tank earlier this summer, Mr. Malkin called it “outrageous” and “a crime” that a popular benchmark for the environmental sustainability of existing buildings didn’t do enough to push landlords to improve energy efficiency… Mr. Malkin insists green-building advocates and governments aren’t doing enough to reward landlords who spend money to make their real estate more energy-efficient. Office building landlords should be required to disclose energy consumption in the same way that auto makers must publicize how many miles their cars get to the gallon. He’s being partly driven by his concern that the U.S. uses too much energy. In his panel remarks, he warned that if the rest of the world follows this country’s energy consumption model, “We’re all going to die and we’ll go to war along the way.”

I talked to Malkin for my piece, and I can pretty much vouch for all that sounding exactly the way it should — except that you should read those words really quickly and with perfect diction if you want the real effect. But while Malkin’s rage against LEED will be familiar to some of our readers and some of Troianovski’s article reads to those more familiar with the topic as LEED Creep For Beginners — as it must, since not everyone reading his story is as nimble with the acronyms as gbNYC’s readership — the article does a really fine job of situating the retrofit within the broader context of the green retrofit scene.

The same can be said of Darius Dixon’s piece on the retrofit in the New York Times, which goes further behind the scenes on the retrofit’s ambitious conceptualization — which Paul Rode of Johnson Controls, who was witness to the back and forth between the Rocky Mountain Institute’s big-concept aficionado Amory Louvins and the more bottom line-oriented personages from Johnson Controls and JLL, described to me as a sporadically polite year-long battle of intellectual tug-of-war — and its final execution. There’s still not a lot of dork candy here for we gbNYC types, sadly, and if I learned one thing in the process of (over)reporting my piece, it’s that a piece that went in depth on the retrofit’s specifics would be both fascinating and incredibly long. I’m going to go over the notes I took during my conversation with Rode — a fascinating and opinionated guy who was a member of gbNYC favorites The Urban Green Council — to try to serve up some of those juicy (read: dorky) specifics in a later post. For now, though, let us all at least rest easy knowing that finally — finally — attention is being paid to the Empire State Building. Someone other than the 32,000 people and 15,000 tourists who visit every day, that is.

about gbNYC

gbNYC is a multi-disciplinary consulting and real estate services firm. In addition to representing office tenants and commercial buyers in leasing and acquisitions, we also provide innovative consulting solutions from a unique, green building perspective. We advise on green building financial incentives, comment on proposed green building marketing strategies, author white papers, treatises, and market analyses, organize seminars on the LEED process and professional accreditation, and provide advice and analysis on green building risk management and the overall state of green real estate, leasing, and construction, in New York City and beyond.

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