• Credit: Daniel Schwen / Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

Though it may at first seem counterintuitive, historic buildings offer one of the most promising fronts in the push toward greater energy efficiency. The 81-year-old Empire State Building (ESB)—a tower with serious historical bona fides—is one such project demonstrating the potential of sustainable design retrofits.

In 2008, property owner Malkin Holdings teamed with the Clinton Climate Initiative, Johnson Controls, Jones Lang LaSalle, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to undertake a comprehensive retrofit plan to reduce the 102-story-tall building’s energy consumption by 38 percent. The improvements in efficiency will translate to a savings of $4.4 million per year in utility bills and of 105,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 15 years, as estimated by RMI and Johnson Controls.

In May, one year after the completion of the first phase of retrofits, the Empire State Building Company reported that the project had exceeded its year one energy-efficiency expectations by 5 percent. The first phase included the refurbishment of the ESB’s 6,500 windows, the installation of radiator insulation in the building envelope, retrofits to its chiller plant and building management system, and a web-based tenant energy management system.

  • Afternoon lighting conditions in a typical perimeter office at the Empire State Building after the lighting retrofit

    Credit: Whitney Cox / Courtesy Lutron Electronics

    Afternoon lighting conditions in a typical perimeter office at the Empire State Building after the lighting retrofit

The project team is now beginning its plans to retrofit the ESB’s lighting systems and controls. At a July 17 press conference on the building’s 80th floor, Malkin Holdings president Anthony Malkin announced that lighting design and manufacturing company Lutron Electronics Co. has joined the project team to address lighting energy savings. “One of the biggest wastes in tenant spaces is lighting,” he said. “People just don’t turn off lights or they end up getting headaches from poor lighting.”

Lutron president Michael Pessina said, “The ESB’s goal of a 38-percent energy reduction is very aggressive, so we are proud to be collaborating with them on this effort.” The company, which plans to use its existing product line on this project, is developing a configuration that will reduce the ESB’s lighting energy consumption by an estimated 65 percent.

Lutron’s scope of work will cover the ESB lobby and an additional 250,000 square feet of commercial office space. While energy savings will come partly in the form of replacing an average of 200 existing fixtures with more efficient fluorescent or LED light fixtures per floor, Lutron will also emphasize user and automatic controls that will reduce energy consumption: A typical retrofitted floor will feature 50 wireless wall switches, 75 wireless occupancy and vacancy sensors, and 15 daylight sensors.

The dimming controls and wireless components will allow users to adjust light intensity to supplement natural light and adjust lighting levels to reduce energy usage throughout the day, such as during peak demand hours. An energy performance dashboard will allow tenants to monitor their energy use—and their expected savings—and fine tune their usage further.

The lighting retrofit is largely aimed at providing tenant-controlled energy reductions, Malkin said. “In New York City, 80 percent of the energy consumed is from buildings, and 50 to 60 percent of building energy is consumed by tenant spaces.”

Though he did profess a personal interest in environmental issues—his wife is a longstanding trustee on the National Resource Defense Council—Malkin was quick to point out that the ESB retrofit is a calculated business strategy. “This is hugely important to prospective tenants,” he said.