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Sep 5, 2013

The Bank of America Tower – What Is and What Could Have Been

LEED Certification and Operational Energy Use


The Bank of America Tower is making headlines—of the wrong sort. Writers lambasted the iconic building, calling it a “toxic tower,” an “energy guzzler,” and exclaiming “LEED Lies!” After the public release of New York City’s benchmarking and disclosure information, the downtown headquarters of the multinational bank topped the charts in energy use and carbon emissions, despite receiving a LEED Platinum certification. Yet an evaluation of the Bank of America Tower’s energy use and green building certification is a bit more complicated than the one-dimensional headlines may suggest.

New Republic writer Sam Roudman instigated this discussion with his article Bank of America's Toxic Tower: New York's "greenest" skyscraper is actually its biggest energy hog, and recently followed up saying “LEED has done wonders to attract attention to the importance of green building, but we’re too deep in the game to accept claims, and not demand results.” This isn’t the first time an attack has been lobbied against the energy performance of LEED certified projects. Nor will it be the last.

Perhaps one of the more interesting, and contentious, components of Roudman’s article was the contrast of the Bank of America Tower to the recently retrofitted Empire State Building. Lloyd Alter, writing for Treehugger, quoted LEED founder Robert Watson as saying that the comparison of the Bank of America Tower and the Empire State Building is “stupid,” and that it is similar to “comparing Michael Phelps’ food consumption with an ‘average’ person of similar size.” Frankly, he is right. Comparing buildings based exclusively on size, number of floors, or geographic location ignores the activities that take place within the building’s walls.

While at its heart a LEED certification is not a direct comparison, the industry often uses the certification level as a metric for relating the environmental performance of one or more projects. Whether a certified project is compared to a base-case-scenario or to other LEED projects, the certification level is often used as a benchmark to evaluate the performance of buildings relative to a common baseline. By seeking to aggregate a diverse range of projects under a single label, a LEED certification results in encouraging a comparison based on certification level. This can often lead to an oversimplification of a building’s energy use or environmental performance to a single certification level, rather than the specifics of the certification or the underlying use of the space.

However, the primary issue at hand is the fact that a LEED certification may not return the performance intended or allow for the detailed comparison the market is beginning to demand. As long as the LEED program focuses on models versus actual performance when certifying buildings, the result will be substantial variation in building performance due to, among other factors, the building’s principal activity and occupant behavior. Ultimately, a focus on upfront design and modeled performance limits the continued engagement of energy professionals in fine-tuning systems during building occupation. In addition, with the development of green real estate investment funds, city targets for building energy-use reductions, and the expansion of building benchmarking programs, there is an increasing emphasis on measuring the actual energy performance of our buildings, and the associated environmental and financial impacts.

Returning to the comparison of the Bank of America Tower and the Empire State Building, perhaps it wasn’t quite as “stupid” as Mr. Watson contends. Rather than taking the approach of assessing them on comparative or absolute energy use, one can consider the opportunity each project represents. Both buildings are iconic structures that stand as testaments to their era and to the industries they support. The retrofit of the Empire State Building provided an opportunity to showcase the energy- and cost-savings potential associated with a deep energy retrofit. The outcome was a reduction in building energy use by 43 percent during the first year of operations and annual savings of $4.4 million. In addition, the deep energy retrofit model utilized is being applied to multiple commercial building retrofits throughout the country. The Empire State Building project exemplifies the broader impact a single iconic and innovative project can have by demonstrating the technical and financial opportunity associated with energy performance.

While the Bank of America Tower was attacked for its overall energy use, the building incorporated an innovative and exceedingly rare on-site co-generation plant that produces 80 percent of the energy the building consumes. In addition, the Bank of America Tower showcases innovative design features, including an under-floor air distribution system and rainwater collection, as well as a focus on regionally sourced and recycled content materials for construction. However, it is clear the Tower project team missed on one important mark: addressing the large energy consumption of the building’s primary tenants—trading floors.

In general, as we continue to make buildings more efficient, through programs such as LEED Core and Shell, tenant energy use and occupant behavior will make up an increasing share of a building’s total energy consumption. While trading floors are highly energy intensive due to computing power requirements, long hours, and other factors, the iconic nature of the Bank of America Tower missed a unique opportunity to showcase both new technologies and innovative owner-tenant dynamics to incentivize whole-building energy efficiency.

The lack of emphasis on operational energy use at the Bank of America Tower stands in stark contrast to other industry leaders with energy intensive computing requirements, including both Google and Microsoft, which are making great strides to reduce the energy intensity of their buildings and their overall operations. Increasingly, major corporations on the cutting edge of technology and business are demanding energy efficient and green certified buildings when identifying new office locations. While the Bank of America Tower initially received praise as “the world’s most environmentally responsible high-rise office building,” the recent criticism highlights the magnitude of the missed opportunity to be truly innovative in addressing overall building energy use.

The primary takeaway from the arguments and counter-arguments about the Tower, is that an opportunity remains to address the Bank of America Tower’s operational energy use. A whole systems integrative design approach not only takes into account the innovative energy systems and building envelope, but also identifies specific measures for operational energy use reductions and engages the building’s tenants to craft and achieve a high performance building. Hopefully, moving forward, new buildings like this will take the additional step of addressing future tenant energy use during design and construction through a whole systems integrative design approach.

Image courtesy of ben bryant / Shutterstock.com


Showing 1-2 of 2 comments

September 13, 2013

a bit roundabout, this article, and a very generic conclusion. I expected a lot more from RMI:
What are the occupational differences, by the numbers? And how can trading floors as a use do better? Anything from RMI's server farm work that could be applied? How much of the difference is simply an all-glass building vs. one with a more reasonable window-to-wall ratio? It's not enough to sprinkle 'integrative design' pixie-dust over glaring (literally?) problems like this one.

September 13, 2013

I look forward to the day when proponents of LEED can simply point to their energy data and say -- "it speaks for itself -- LEED buildings are on the whole saving primary energy." That day is not here. Instead they provide complicated arguments explaining why their buildings are really more energy efficient even though they don't actually save any energy.

The conclusions of the 2008 NBI study have been discredited. We now know that the LEED buildings in that study (a self-selected subset of all certified buildings) used the same amount of source energy as did comparable conventional buildings.

I have just published a study of 2011 Energy Benchmarking data from NYC office buildings where the data clearly show that the 21 LEED-certified office buildings identified save no energy or green house gas emission relative to other NYC office buildings. (I actually left the Bank of America building out of the list of 21 to at least give LEED a chance.) (See www.thepragmaticsteward.com.)

The 2011 NYC benchmarking data show that the source EUI for the Empire State Building was 198 kBtu/sf, 22% lower than the mean for all large NYC office buildings. That's good -- but it is not obvious how to reconcile this with the 43% savings claimed above. (Maybe the building, prior to renovation, was using 20% more energy than other NYC office buildings.)

The USGBC has been gathering energy consumption data for their certified buildings since 2009. This should now include first year energy data for more than 700 buildings certified under NC, EBOM, or CS. Yet the USGBC has not made these data public. Where is the report to tell us how they are doing? Instead they issue a press release (Nov. 2012) in which they cherry-pick the data to tell us the average Energy Star score for about 1/4 of these buildings -- proudly claiming it is 89. They apparently don't realize that 1/4 of all US buildings (presumably) fall into the top 25% and so have Energy Star scores ranging from 75 to 100 -- which yields an average of 87.

Reducing building energy use is hard business, particularly when other demands push plug loads onward and upward. I am willing to concede that the Bank of America Tower and the Empire State Building are more efficient (in some sense) than other buildings. And this may even be true for the majority of LEED certified buildings. But efficient as they may be -- the evidence says they are, on average, using no less primary energy. Maybe this is all the fault of the tenants, not the building owners

The goal of a football game is to win the game -- not put up yardage. If energy efficiency is not a route to reducing primary energy use maybe it is time to abandon the metric. You cannot lower CO2 levels unless you lower CO2 emission, and you can't do that if you don't lower energy consumption. Simply being more efficient doesn't do it.

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