Bill McKibben, THE NEW YORKER
A 1999 graduate in sustainable design from the University of Virginia, Dana Robbins Schneider led sustainability efforts for many years at the commercial-real-estate giant J.L.L. As the director of sustainability at the Empire State Realty Trust, she oversaw an energy-efficiency retrofit of the iconic Manhattan skyscraper on Thirty-fourth Street, which demonstrated how landlords could save both carbon and money, and which helped pave the way for Local Law 97, the city’s effort to force large buildings to improve their energy performance. (Our interview has been edited.)
How did the Empire State Building retrofit come about? What are the bottom-line before-and-after numbers?
The Empire State Building’s ten-year energy-efficiency retrofit started as an exercise to prove—or disprove—that there could be an investment-and-return business case for deep energy retrofits. Once it was proven, it was implemented to save energy and reduce costs for both the tenants and Empire State Realty Trust. We partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative, Rocky Mountain Institute, Johnson Controls, and J.L.L. to manage the project. Through the rebuild, we were able to cut emissions from the building by fifty-four per cent and counting, which has saved us upward of four million dollars each year, with a 3.1-year payback. We have attempted to inform policy with local, state, and federal governments to share what we’ve learned to reduce emissions—and to meet E.S.R.T.’s target for the building to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
As a result of the retrofit, the building is in the top twenty per cent in energy efficiency among all measured buildings in the United States. E.S.R.T. is the nation’s largest user of a hundred-per-cent green power in real estate and was named Energy Star Partner of the Year in 2021.
What were the key interventions? And do people working in the building even realize that much has changed?
The biggest lesson we learned was that there is no silver bullet—there is silver buckshot. A combination of measures that interact effectively delivers optimal savings. More than fifty per cent of the energy consumed in an office building is consumed by tenants, so the actions of tenants are critical. Landlord-tenant partnerships are the only way to drive deep energy-and-emissions reductions in the built environment.
The best practice for the lowest-cost implementation of energy-efficiency strategies is to make the right steps in the right order. Start with the envelope, or the exterior, of the building. Each project contributes to the success of other projects, so, when we measure effectiveness and R.O.I., it’s important to look at how each project interacts with another.
We were able to decrease energy use through strategic tactics throughout the building, with an emphasis on the reuse of existing resources. We executed eight major projects, which included:
● Renovation of the central chiller plant.
● On-site refurbishment of all sixty-five hundred and fourteen of the building’s double-glass windows, for which we reused more than ninety-six per cent of existing materials, to quadruple their performance.
● Reflective insulation placed behind each radiator, to reduce energy.
● Regenerative braking technology added to each elevator, to store energy instead of heat.
Do you hear from other building owners wondering how to do this? What do you think are the keys to getting it done?
From the earliest announcement, we have shared all our work for free with the public, and we have rolled out best practices from the Empire State Building’s deep energy retrofit to our entire portfolio. E.S.R.T. has a target to achieve carbon neutrality as a commercial portfolio by 2035. With Local Law 97 emissions limits effective in 2024, many building owners are unsure of how to make their buildings compliant. Our chairman, president, and C.E.O. serves on the LL97 Advisory Board and on the LL97 Technical Pathways for Commercial Buildings Working Group to develop and improve policy based on practice, and we are the only commercial landlord to serve on the Implementation Advisory Board.
The Empire State Building has long been a modern marvel, and we intend to keep that reputation as we transparently share our research and best practices in our annual sustainability report. As we prove that it works in the “World’s Most Famous Building,” which this year celebrates its ninetieth anniversary, we prove that it can work anywhere.