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Is New York's 'Greenest' Tower Really Toxic?

When it comes to the energy debate, as it is with all other subjects, knowing the facts is key to justifying where you stand. But so many articles that I read exaggerate, misinform and pick and choose convenient facts to make their arguments it makes me wonder if people still do real research. I wrote about this in my article about the fracking debate, and I recently came across an article about green buildings that exactly demonstrates the carelessness and misinformation that frustrates me so much.

There has been a lot of harsh criticism surrounding the validity of New York City’s so-called “greenest building” – the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. This began with an article from New Republic referring to the building as Bank of America’s “Toxic Tower”, of which the author Mr. Roudman claims that instead of being the pinnacle of the green building for high-rises, it is actually one of the city’s largest “energy hogs.” Many articles followed with a version of this, without so much as to investigate the claims stated within the article. I guess the words “Bank of America” “LEED” and “Toxic” were enough to grab the headlines. Views on the Big Corporate that is BoA aside, while some of the observations about the Tower are indeed valid, much of the green-building/LEED- bashing seems unwarranted and somewhat heavy-handed.

Let me begin by looking at what I agree with. The Bank of America Tower, which is rated Platinum (under the LEED Core and Shell Rating System) is reportedly doing worse than one of its counterparts, the Goldman Sachs building, which was certified at a lower level. While I don’t know why exactly this is, there are a few possibilities.

One of the main components that has been sending the building’s energy consumption sky-high, and Mr. Roudman’s article is right about is its energy-intensive trading floors. With 3-6 computer monitors to each desk, and hundreds of desk on each floor, that is surely going to rack up a high energy bill. Not surprisingly, these computers are left switched on after work hours and on weekends. One major difference between the trading floors of BoA and Goldmans is that at BoA the CPUs for each computer are situated under each workstation, whereas at Goldmans they are operated through a central network. That may incur somewhat higher upfront costs but would surely save a lot of energy and money in the long run. What he did not account for is population density. The trading floors are much more densely packed with people than the average office space, which should also count for something. But yes, although even with those savings a trading floor would still be heavily energy intensive. But what are you going to do, tell banks to stop trading?

The other point is that the Bank of America Tower was certified under the LEED Core & Shell Rating System, which is designed for buildings who do not have control over the majority (50% or less) of the building and so many of the calculations are based on default occupancy numbers and energy modeling, and not actual numbers and statistics.

Yes, technically as the building received certification for the Core & Shell program once, it does not have to recertify, which seemed to be a sore point for Mr. Roudman. But that was not intended as the be all and end all. As a new building ceases to be new, it’s certification also loses its significance. Which is why LEED has another rating system – Existing Buildings – Operations & Maintenance, intended to certify existing buildings and provide an ongoing assessment of a building, with reapplication mandatory every 5 years in order to retain its certification.

Since the Bank of America Tower opened in 2010, it should ideally pursue LEED – Existing Buildings O+M certification in around 3 years time, and every 5 years after that, in order to maintain LEED certification. Since the Existing Buildings rating system require continual assessment of the building’s operations, if the building is indeed falling behind in any one category, as Mr. Roudman is suggesting it to be, particularly in energy use, it will lose points and be at risk of not achieving Platinum status again. Whether or not BoA intends to pursue this certification is another question.

There are a few other issues tackled unfairly (in my opinion) by Mr. Roudman in his assessment of the BoA Tower’s LEED certification and current performance. Many of these are articulately rebutted by Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger

The first of these is the claim that the Tower is “New York’s largest energy hog” according to New York City data released last fall – when it is actually ranked 53rd among office buildings and financial institutions on an energy per square foot basis (and 13th for greenhouse gas emissions). So, not great, but definitely not the worst, and setting quite a misleading note as he uses this to set the tone of the rest of the article to say “it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.”

Mr. Alter also accurately critiques Mr. Roudman for acknowledging that LEED “‘takes into account a variety of factors, like building materials, air quality, water conservation, and- of course – energy performance’ – and then proceeds to ignore everything but energy performance.” Indeed, not anywhere does the article comment on how the building is performing against any of the other LEED metrics.

Finally, Mr. Roudman picks on some of the “easy” credits that were earned by the Tower to achieve Platinum certification – including “working with a LEED-accredited professional, building near public transportation, and protecting or restoring habitat in Bryant Park.”

Working with a LEED AP only gets you a maximum of one point, and most projects do that anyway. But what is wrong exactly with achieving “easy” credits? Mitigating the effects of climate change is an enormously daunting task, so when we are presented with a few “easy” options that will help the cause, why not? If one manages to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging the use of public transportation and protect and restore natural habitat in the middle of one of the most urbanized parts of the planet “easily”- surely that would be a win-win situation? Looking at it another way, they could have built the Tower in the New York or New Jersey suburbs, where construction would probably be easier and cheaper, and have all the employees commute to the building by single-passenger cars. I don’t think the fact that a credit can be achieved easily should take any significance away from the effectiveness of its objective.

I don’t believe that the LEED rating systems are perfect. There are loopholes and ways that people can game the system. I am also not pro-big banks like BoA. However whenever I come across an article as one-sided as this, I feel like you need to look on things from the other side. I hope you’ll agree with me too.

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donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on August 14, 2013

Well in a way this article provides its own argument for improving the LEED program.

“One of the main components that has been sending the building’s energy consumption sky-high, and Mr. Roudman’s article is right about is its energy-intensive trading floors. With 3-6 computer monitors to each desk, and hundreds of desk on each floor, that is surely going to rack up a high energy bill. Not surprisingly, these computers are left switched on after work hours and on weekends.

It amazes me how a building could get a top rating when its use is clealry not energy efficient. This is the problem with the LEED program. The main reasons why this building is ‘green’ or at least greener than its compatriots is because

  • Its location. The likelyhood is that most users of this building do not drive to it and use either public transport or other means (e.g. walking) to get to it. If all of these people drove to the building, the external impact of this bulding would be far larger e.g. if the building were located in Phoenix sprawl.
  • It does not take up much space horizontally. Thus it does not need to maintain said open spaces and does not contribute to sprawl. In other words water is not used compared to many other platnium buildings were a lot of watyer is used to water their open spaces.

However the LEED ignores the embodied energy and the non use of energy to a large extent. Yet somehow it gives a building its highest rating despite large amounts of energy being wasted. One reason is that it has seemingly a lot of high tech items that score points in the LEED program. While the ICE batteries sound nice, they ultimately represent a waste of energy as any battery is not 100%. However ice batteries are horrible. However that said there are many obvious energy improvements that should be adopted.

LEED now needs to expand away from highlighting and rewarding fancy gadgets and start scoring buildings on how they are used and accessed. This kind of idea would eliminate thouusands of computers being left on which in turn keep the air con humming. Quite often I expect that the major CO2 impact of a building or workplace is due to how people access it and how it is used.

 

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