Inside the Retrofitted Empire State Building

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This "model office" on the 42nd floor of the Empire State Building boasts LEED-certified features including recycled carpeting and furniture, energy-efficient lighting and plug load occupancy sensors.

More than 3.5 million visitors pay $21 to stand on its observation deck every year, but the Empire State Building’s biggest financial endeavor is well below the 102nd story.

In October 2010, the Empire State Building (ESB) completed its historical, avant-garde energy retrofit – a $20 million investment that is expected to reduce the building’s energy usage by up to 38 percent, resulting in $4.4 million in energy savings annually.

According to Jean-Yves Ghazi, director of ESB Observatory, the retrofit addresses more than just the building’s consumption; it’s also about education for the public. Today, every attendee must pass through a short sustainability exhibit before heading to the observation deck.

Unveiled in July 2010, the sustainability exhibit explains in the detail the new features of the ESB.

“This is an icon of energy efficiency,” Ghazi says as he points to a sign of bold letters comparing the building’s CO2 emission savings to taking 20,000 cars off the road. “We blended concept with facts. We put the story into layman’s terms [for the sustainability exhibit].”

Drastically reducing the footprint of New York City’s largest building is surprisingly less than glamorous. Other than the exhibit, the iconic building looks the same as it did 10, 30, even 50 years ago. That’s on purpose, according to Paul Rode, business development director for Johnson Controls.

Unlike modern construction that uses lightweight materials, the 1930s structure is dense, weighing in at 100 pounds per square inch. Rode says that, contrary to his own previous notion, this heavy foundation actually turned out to be a benefit.

Much like a home weatherization project, the retrofit focused heavily on heating and cooling. It started with the windows. Reusing 96 percent of the existing glass and frames, workers refurbished 6,514 windows to make them four times more efficient. The ESB also added insulation behind radiators to reduce heat loss. More sophisticated updates included air handler replacements, whole-building control system upgrades and a chiller plant retrofit.

The renovated building also hosts a wireless network with sensors that gauge tenants’ energy usage. Rode says that giving companies hard numbers on their energy usage has yielded unexpected competition; in turn, these tenants are significantly reducing their loads.

While the project is one of the largest of its kind, it received only $2 million in state funding and nothing from federal. According to Rode, the ESB wanted to serve as a “model” for other commercial properties. So far, similar initiatives are underway in more than 30 buildings across the U.S. and one major landmark in Australia.

Studies suggest that working in a LEED-certified office space increases employee retention and morale. Rode says the retrofit has been a key selling point for potential renters considering an office space in the ESB. He also notes that, even with the upgrade, monthly rent is still consistent with market value.

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