Some buildings transcend their physical structure. They inhabit a spot in our minds just as concrete as the foundations poured underneath them. It is impossible to think about these iconic buildings without conjuring up memories. The Empire State building is one of these icons. When we think about it, we can’t help but think about its place on the New York City skyline and the golden age of the skyscraper. We can’t help but think of King Kong swatting planes from the top floor or Spiderman swinging from the spire. It is just as much a functioning office building as it is a part of our cultural heritage.
But what we don’t think about when we think about these historical buildings are the aging machines and systems that all have to run in conjunction in order to keep them habitable. The Empire State Building is a testament to an age when skyscraper technology was just hitting its stride. It was a massive project that stood as the tallest building in the world for forty years, completed with the vision of an intrepid few and hard work of the forgotten many. But, even with this history, it is not modern. The technology that it was built around is dated, even if its image is as hardwired into our understanding of American architecture as the Mona Lisa and Starry Night are to fine art. But now, the Empire State Building is becoming another kind of icon, one that can help teach other older buildings how to better consume energy, interact with the electrical grid, and be more sustainable for our collective future.
To help make this transition from symbol of how humans can conquer the physical world to a beacon of hope for how we can help save the natural one, the Empire State Building has used an incentive from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to modernize and invest in smart energy efficient upgrades. The purpose of the program is to reduce carbon emissions and enable future grid integration for applications such as demand response and load shifting. Their incentive program helps building owners find, evaluate and fund smart-building technology and energy efficiency upgrades. To best achieve this NYSERDA has identified Real Time Energy Management (RTEM) as a way to help jumpstart the modernization process. “RTEM offers a flexible way for owners to improve their bottom line and their tenant experience at the same time,” said Patrick O’Shei, NYSERDA’s Director of Market Development. By installing cloud-connected meters, sensors and automated controls, these upgrades help owners improve building operations and save, on average, between 10-20 percent on annual energy costs. Many projects in the program see a short-term payback on their investment. In addition, an RTEM system can help a building’s day-to-day operations. It can produce insights that can reduce staff time, diagnose issues within buildings, and enable preventative maintenance.
Building owners who work with qualified vendors can receive incentives up to thirty percent of total eligible project costs. For some major RTEM upgrades at large buildings, this has amounted to project incentives of over seven figures. Since there are many possible upgrades to older buildings, NYSERDA will also advise building owners on the best-suited technologies for their building type, condition, mechanical equipment, and budget.
The Empire State Building is one of the original adopters of NYSERDA’s RTEM program, leveraging new software-based programs to help better understand and continuously optimize its energy use. Empire State Realty Trust’s Dana Schneider, spoke highly of the program, “It was one of the easiest incentive programs we have ever used, even easier than some of the prequalified ones.” They were able to use RTEM technology providers Johnson Controls and Cortex to bring all of the building’s sixteen substations under one dashboard and help building engineers make more data driven decisions.
Schneider admitted that there are still a lot of systems for these existing large buildings that are run manually. “People assume things are more automated than they are,” she said. “Even the most sophisticated buildings have select manual systems because we can’t risk tenant discomfort or interruptions.” With RTEM infrastructure in place more parts of the building’s operation can now be automated. Not only that, but it can create the flexibility that will make a building an asset to an electrical grid, not just a consumer of it. Buildings of the future will be able to react to the needs of a city, shifting loads and enabling storage accordingly. This clean energy future can be achievable when a critical mass of buildings are equipped with RTEM capabilities.
This is just the first step. The ownership has plans for the Empire State Building’s energy efficiency that are big enough for its stature, one that would likely make the original designers proud of how their creation is still inspiring the world. Once energy usage is being reported onto one dashboard and recorded into an organized database, it can then be used to optimize operations thanks to a wealth of new computing tools. In addition to the efficiency that can be gained by making systems perform more precisely, Schneider thinks that motivating tenants to reduce consumption is a huge area of opportunity. NYSERDA provides a bonus RTEM incentive for projects that incorporate tenant comfort and amenities. RTEM systems can be designed to provide tenants with personalized control over cooling and heating. Each tenant’s energy usage can also be benchmarked against their historical consumption and compared to other similar occupiers to help promote energy reductions.
The first tenant of the Empire State Building to participate in the program was the global project development and construction firm Skanska. They invested in their offices to achieve LEED platinum certifications. Beth Heider, the Chief Sustainability Officer for Skanska USA explained her company’s financial goals for the energy efficiency upgrades. “The goal was that the additional initial investment would be recouped over the life of our 15 year lease,” she said. “In fact, our $210,000 investment was recovered in less than five years, and we are on track to realize a total net benefit of nearly $500,000 in energy savings over the life of the lease.” At 1.88 watts per square foot Skanska is one of the “best performers” in the building, using a benchmarking program that would only be achievable with RTEM technology.
One of the most impressive things about the office’s low energy use is that it came while the occupancy was dramatically increasing. Heider explained, “The original design occupancy anticipated 90 employees. Today, we have 130 employees assigned to our ESB offices and conference space that will accommodate 98 more occupants. We have densified our standard occupancy to nearly 150 percent of the original design and with a full house, we are at 250 percent.” By increasing the efficiency of the office while simultaneously decreasing its energy use, the Empire State Building was able to help Skanska to achieve their sustainability goals, one of the company’s core values.
Iconic buildings are as much a part of our ongoing cultural conversation as they are historic anchors of our cities. As we embark on our journey into a smarter, cleaner world, we need to remember to bring these buildings with us. If we want them to inspire our children and their children just like they did our parents and grandparents, we need a mixture of good policy, meaningful investment, impactful programs, and smart people. The innovative work that Empire State Realty Trust, NYSERDA, and their partners are doing will hopefully inspire others to modernize our older buildings, iconic or not, and help ensure their operations are as timeless as their style and as robust as their construction. Propmodo will be diving deeper into the Empire State Building project in the coming weeks, along with other buildings undergoing the RTEM upgrades.
The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on Energy Efficiency
The nearly global lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 virus has brought New York City to a standstill and left office buildings empty. This has caused much hardship for people, businesses and buildings alike. But, it has also created a rare, if not once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity. Buildings like the Empire State Building are almost never empty, but now they are finding themselves with almost no occupancy while residents shelter in place and work from home. The infrastructure and RTEM investments made at the Empire State Building prior to the shutdown are allowing Empire State Realty Trust to understand its energy use in ways never before possible.
“We are doing some aggressive work, in partnership with NYSERDA, to develop a technological and economic roadmap,” said Dana Schnieder. Her team is leveraging the real time energy management technology that they have created for the Empire State Building to understand how building energy uses change when tenant loads go down with extremely low occupancy. They plan on not only applying what they learn to the rest of their portfolio, but also sharing it with the world. “We are using the Empire State Building as our laboratory,” Schnieder said.
While energy efficiency and sustainability has been a huge focus, Empire State Realty Trust has always put tenant comfort and wellbeing at the forefront of their operation. “Indoor environmental quality has always been important, efficiency is done in the context of this,” Schnieder explained. Without RTEM’s advanced energy and environmental condition monitoring tools it may seem like efficiency and air quality are at odds. But from what the Empire State Building team has been learned in their ongoing studies is that many times that the two go hand in hand. “We look at understanding and optimizing our energy use as additive to tenant comfort and wellness,” Schnieder said. She hopes that these hard times will have the silver lining of helping building owners and managers understand the correlation between the two in a much more sophisticated way.
From its inception the Empire State Building has been a pillar of resiliency and innovation and, even during a global pandemic, continues to be an example of a city’s grit, a country’s optimism and the heights of human innovation.