You may remember when Triple Pundit ran a short article last month about the green transformation of New York City’s Empire State Building. To refresh your memory, the Empire State Building was built during the Great Depression in the 1930’s, and became an icon for progress, technology and American industry. Today the building is still iconic, but is has also become symbolic of New York City’s unbelievable consumption of energy and the fact that buildings contribute almost 80% towards the city’s total Greenhouse Gas emissions.
In April, the owners of the building announced a major undertaking: the Empire State Building is going green and earning back its previous reputation for modernity and technological progress. The project will cost $25 million, but the investment will be recouped by savings on energy bills within 5 years. The fifth floor of the building is being turned into an on-site “factory” where the original windows will be taken for thermal-resistant glazing. The radiators will all be altered to ensure that heat stays trapped in the building, rather than being released into NYC.
The most notable detail about the revamp plan is the fact that the city is investing in making efficiency improvements to an older building, rather than tearing it down and building something new and flashy. It begs the question- what makes a bigger impact? Erecting huge, inspirational and iconic buildings that scream “sustainable progress” from their living rooftops? Or investing time and money into existing buildings to make them more environmentally efficient?
San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom might like to weigh in on this question.
In May of 2008, Newsom announced plans for the new San Francisco Public Utilities Commission building to be constructed at 525 Golden Gate Avenue. The building was to be a poster child for sustainable design and architecture, with photovoltaic cells, wind turbines and sophisticated water-saving technologies. Mayor Newsom expected the building, and San Francisco by default, to provide an example to the rest of the world that good design is green design.
Unfortunately, all plans for the much-hyped SFPUC building have been put on hold. The price tag on the new building was estimated to hover around $188 million dollars. In September, the economy tanked and investors became skittish. Finally, the SFPUC made a statement saying that plans for the building were being shelved indefinitely.
In March of this year, Newsom wrote a column for Triple Pundit recommending that the city invest in making sustainable improvements to older buildings. Newsom states that “by retrofitting our existing structures there is the potential to create thousands of green jobs.” He acknowledges the logistical challenges associated with modifying an existing structure rather than starting from the ground-up, but makes a solid environmental and economic case for updating older buildings. Is Mayor Newsom back-pedaling because he lost funding for the SFPUC project? Or has he simply realized that improving the efficiency of old buildings is more sustainable than tearing them down to build new, LEEDS-platinum buildings?
Mayor Bloomberg, of New York City, has some ambitious goals when it comes to reducing his city’s carbon footprint. In reference to the new and improved Empire State Building, he says it shows “the rest of the city that existing buildings, no matter how tall they are, no matter how old they are, can take steps to reduce their energy consumption.” Because of his efforts to lead by example in terms of green building, Mayor Bloomberg is enjoying some excellent press, and probably making Mayor Newsom green with envy.
The question, however, remains. Monolithic buildings with cutting-edge green technology, LEED certifications and huge press coverage no doubt inspire the masses to “go green.” But does all this cacophonous progress bode well with the underlying goal of the sustainability movement, which is to conserve that which already exists and to avoid the creation of new, unnecessary stuff? Do big examples breed small changes? Or do small changes make big examples?