Empire of green

Niki May Young
Monday 13 Apr 2009

Green revolution hits existing iconic architecture

New York's most iconic building has announced a $20million eco-refit as an addition to its $500million renovation efforts to attract new tenants. As the Art Deco Empire State Building undergoes these drastic efforts we spoke with industry experts to ask what implications eco-retrofitting will have on the architecture profession.

The Empire State Building is not the first existing building to go green. In March last year following a multi-million dollar green outfitting, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago was awarded a Silver LEED certification and became the world’s greenest certified commercial building. Several other buildings have become high profile due to their greening efforts, but the Empire State Building is the most notable existing building whose status preceded the ecological cause.

According to the U.S Department of State, buildings account for an estimated 36 percent of overall energy use, 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and 12 percent of water use in America, exemplifying a major area of interest for ecologists. But what part should the architecture profession play in the challenge to lower these figures?

“Architects are going to be an integral component of our efforts to decarbonise the built environment,” said John Alker, Public Affairs Manager, UK Green Building Council. “They should be absolutely central to major refurb projects in commercial buildings and will increasingly be of use on smaller developments including homes, especially social housing, given the scale of the carbon reductions needed and what that means for the fabric of the home, heating and cooling.

“Clearly a major challenge is to maintain design quality of the building during major refurb - and even to enhance it.”

But Jan Klerks, Research & Communications Manager for the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in the US and ex leader of the Dutch Council on Tall Buildings, explains that the balance between design quality and green design is temperamental: "Green design is a bit more than just sticking up a wind turbine on top of a skyscraper.

"The way in which an architectural refit can damage or benefit the existing design depends, as always, on the commitment of the commissioner, the knowledge of the architect and above all, budgets."

While legislation has existed and evolved for years to enforce sustainable measures in new buildings, existing buildings have remained trapped in a non-legislative time warp, without the available funding to enhance efficiency. The investment shown at the Empire State Building, however, is indicative of a new trend in retro-thinking, another example being California's Green Building Action Plan. According to this plan, "all existing State buildings over 50,000 sq ft must meet LEED-EB standards (including meeting an Energy Star rating of at least 75, or equivalent established by theCEC) by no later than 2015". Green investment is on the rise, there can be no doubt, with the Green Business Council forecasting that the market for green architecture and buildings will reach $60 billion in the US by 2010, up from $7 billion in 2005. But this latest trend in investment in existing buildings provides a new challenge in the architecture society, and a welcome economic opportunity.

However, Klerks is keen to assert the moral burden throughout the construction industry: “I think everyone involved holds responsibility towards sustainability as it takes a holistic approach on several levels.

“It (green retrofitting) generally requires a long term view, which is why occupants who own the building themselves tend to be more open for this than project developers. As such, green building design is more than a niche, it is more like a general awareness. I don’t think it’s a matter of design over sustainability or vice versa, it is up to the architect to translate this agenda into proper design.”

Niki May Young
News Editor

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