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Empire State Building Going Green

May 13, 2009

The Empire State Building has recently made the decision to change all of its 6,500 windows as part of a retrofit endeavor to transform the tower into an eco-friendly model for the world.

Anthony Malkin, representing the owners, says that the multi-million-dollar project involving a massive upgrade of heating, cooling and lighting systems, will reduce energy consumption by 38%.

Making these changes in the Empire State Building is a huge move, considering that commercial buildings account for 78% of greenhouse emissions in New York.

If it can be done in a 1931 Art Deco skyscraper, it can be done anywhere.

Kathy Baczko at the Clinton Climate Initiative, part of former president Bill Clinton’s foundation, which is backing the project said, “It has a real rippling effect beyond this building and this city… it’s a new beacon for how you can be energy efficient.”

The retrofit will add $20 million to the $500 million cost of a general overhaul taking place at the famous tower.

The refurbishment planners predict that the full efficiency gains will be felt by 2013, bringing in a yearly savings of $4.4 million and putting the skyscraper in the top 10% of greenest office buildings.

Malkin, president of Wien and Malkin, which oversees the building for the owners, likes to emphasize the business side, like the potential to lure higher-paying tenants.

He spoke very ardently about the importance of preventing global warming from turning the world to “toast,” but seemed uncomfortable during an interview when it was insinuated that he was a tree hugger.

Malkin, 46, whose office carpet, shirt and even tie were ironically all shades of green said, “It’s not about greening…this is sound business. That’s what this is about.”

Organizers claim that what makes the project unique is its more holistic approach to the root of the problems such as variation in office temperature and finds solutions for them.

“People have looked at specific technologies, the lighting, or the heating, but not at the building as a whole,” says Paul Rode, a project executive with the engineering company Johnson Controls.

The analysis took 18 months in which 65 areas were modeled and eight were picked as targets for the retrofit. The projects ranged from window insulation improvements to even occupancy sensors for the lights.

The Empire State Building is best known for its incredible height of 102 tapered floors ending in a multicolored illuminated spire.

Rode says the remake will first begin in the cavernous underground chiller plant portion of the building, which he calls “a time warp.”

He says that all the archaic-looking fixtures and control panels are going to get a slick, modern technological upgrade.

The new software and hardware like motors and compressors will be revolutionary to a system currently pumping out heat and cold with little regard to actual demand.

Rode explained how the new windows would complement that newly ecologically modernized system.

“The first thing we noticed was that 6,500 windows provided a lot of light, but also heat,” he said.

The current windows are double-glazed. Each will have a third film added that have layers of argon/krypton gas and microscopic aluminum to insulate and repel ultra-violet sunrays.

“We want to let in the visible light, but not the heat-producing, non-visible rays,” Rode said.

A former nuclear engineer on navy ships, Rode said that in the beginning he was not looking forward to the idea of working on an office building, but the tower presents “very novel complexities” that have captured his imagination.

One of the greatest challenges presented is performing this complete rejuvenation without affecting the appearance of the historic building or disrupting the 10,500 tenants and nearly four million yearly tourists.

Malkin says that the elegant skyscraper provides “a big lab, a big test bench” for reducing the carbon footprint of older office buildings everywhere.

“Every single thing was done with the understanding that it has to be part of a replicable process.”

If the world ignores the challenge, then “it’s game over,” said Malkin. 

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