Sears Tower: A Green, Modernized Icon


Last month, we ran a story on the debate over green building. We posed a simple question: which is more sustainable? To retrofit an old building in an effort to make efficiency improvements to something that already exists? Or to build a new, revolutionary and electrifying green building that gets people excited the world over?

Last week the city of Chicago joined the conversation. On June 24th, the owners of the Sears Tower announced a highly ambitious plan to “go green.”
The Sears Tower was completed in 1973 and was, at that point, the tallest building in the world. It stands at 108 stories, and is still the tallest building in America. It has the highest restrooms in the Western hemisphere and is slightly crooked by design. Its carbon footprint, in other words, is enormous.
The retrofit will cost $350 million, but will reduce the building’s energy usage by 80 percent. The buildings website claims that the greening project will conserve 68 million kilowatt hours per year, the emissions equivalent of 5 million fewer hours of cars driving on the highway, 50 thousand fewer barrels of crude oil, or 10 million light bulbs turned off. The refurbishment plan will also create 3,600 green jobs in Chicago. As I said, it’s an ambitious plan.
A quick rundown of the plan is in order, because it’s really quite comprehensive. The walls will be installed with new insulation and the old single-pane windows will be replaced, cutting the annual heating bill in half. New boilers will be installed that are almost twice as efficient as the old ones. New elevators will use 40 percent less power. Smart lights will monitor natural daylight and adjust themselves accordingly. Solar panels, wind turbines and meadows will populate the building’s roofs.
The retrofit has two goals. The first goal is to set a sustainable benchmark for skyscrapers across the planet. The second goal is to serve as a green building “laboratory” with ongoing data collection and adjustments. The building’s website states: “buildings are the world’s largest contributor to carbon emissions. Therefore, we must create a new generation of green buildings and retrofit existing structures to make them more energy-efficient.”
The most interesting part of this project is the compromise between new construction and retrofitting. The Sears Towers is being refurbished, much like New York City’s Empire State Building. The original plans for the Sears Tower included blueprints for a hotel directly adjacent to the tower’s entry plaza. The hotel was never actually built, but the plans have made a comeback with all this talk of green retrofits. A new hotel will be built that is powered by the energy savings created by the new and improved Sears Tower. The hotel will be a net zero building with a mind-boggling and almost sci-fi plethora of green building technologies. Some of these features include: sky gardens, integrated wind turbines, double-wall envelopes, a solar deck, rooftop gardens and even a street level interactive art wall powered by a fuel cell.
Gordon Gill, an architect for the project, says “sustainable architecture in new buildings is important but not enough to address the climate and energy crises facing our world. We have to apply what we’ve learned to our existing stock of commercial buildings, especially iconic structures such as Sears Tower, which we hope will inspire similar initiatives around the globe.” By combining a record-setting green retrofit with an exciting new green building, the owners of the Sears Tower may have resolved our debate.

Rebecca Greenberg is an MBA candidate at the Presidio School of Management. Prior to her studies at Presidio, her professional experience was primarily focused in corporate retail merchandising at both Gap Inc. and Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Having traveled extensively in the developing world and having worked in corporate America, Rebecca is very passionate about applying business principles to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

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