Debate: Is The World's Greenest Skyscraper Green At All?

As the battle rages on, Co.Design hosts the discussion.

Editor’s note: Last Friday, Co.Design drew attention to a recent article in the New Republic by Sam Roudman that cast doubt on the Bank of America tower’s claim to be one of the world’s "most environmentally responsible high-rise office building[s]." Writes Roudman: "According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan. It uses more than twice as much energy per square foot as the 80-year-old Empire State Building."

That data seems to point to a failing in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system, which imparts rankings on buildings based on such factors as building materials, water efficiency, and indoor air quality. The BofA tower received Platinum, the council’s highest rating. It may have deserved that designation when it opened its doors back in 2009, but its post-occupancy energy consumption today seems less than virtuous.

Roudman’s criticism of LEED set off a firestorm of debate, with the eco-minded blog Treehugger offering up a counter-defense of LEED and the BofA tower, which Managing Editor Lloyd Alter lauds as "probably one of City’s healthiest buildings." Shortly after Alter posted his retort, Roudman contacted us with a request to publish his rebuttal. We were happy to host the debate. Here, we present both sides, republishing Alter’s post and Roudman’s response. As always, we invite the discussion to continue among Co.Design readers to weigh in with their own opinions.

LEED-Bashing: Is the Bank of America Building Really a "Toxic Tower"? by Lloyd Alter:

Cook+Fox’s Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park has been called "the world’s greenest skyscraper." That is an overstatement. I was originally critical in "Can an All-Glass Office Building Really Be Considered Green?" but after a closer look was impressed with its green features, from its co-gen plant to a giant icemaker. The design goes beyond energy conservation, which is only one of many features that the LEED certification system measures. Attention was paid to " health, well-being, and themes of biophilia." It’s well-rounded; in my post that asked the question "Is The Bank of America Tower "The World’s Greenest Skyscraper"? (Video), I concluded that the LEED Platinum tower had a lot going for it.

So I was surprised to see Sam Roudman’s article in the New Republic titled "Bank of America’s Toxic Tower: New York’s 'Greenest’ Skyscraper Is Actually Its Biggest Energy Hog."

One always knows that if an article starts off with Al Gore, then there is going to be green-bashing, he is the standard lightning rod and happens to be a tenant in the building. The article goes on to round up the other usual suspects like bike racks, even though that is not such an easy shot (you need storage and showers and change rooms to get the point). He notes 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, as is the LEED-basher’s wont.

Then one has to parse Roudman’s statement "According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan." Size matters, but if you delete those two words, in fact it is 53rd on the list of office buildings and financial institutions on the energy per square foot basis. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, it is 13th; even if you filter for size as well, it is not first.

Roudman acknowledges that the source of the problem with this building is the use inside, the trading floors and all the computers.

The biggest drain on energy in the Bank of America Tower is its trading floors, those giant fields of workstations with five computer monitors to a desk. . . .The servers supporting all those desks also require enormous energy, as do the systems that heat, cool, and light the massive trading floors beyond normal business hours. These spaces take up nearly a third of the Bank of America Tower’s 2.2 million total square feet, yet the building’s developer and architect had no control over how much energy would be required to keep them operational.

I have, in the past, been critical of the LEED program for certifying buildings that have laughingly inappropriate uses, like spaceports and parking garages. Perhaps a trading floor where bankers do the noble work of foreclosing on widows and orphans or flash-trading stocks should fall into that category. But in this case, I find it hard to criticize LEED or the landlord. This is what people do in New York City. They can’t tell their prime tenant that they can’t work round the clock on fancy computers. Imagine how silly it would be if the developer told the tenant that they had to put every trader in a big private office to keep the energy use per square foot down.

Martin Pedersen of Metropolis piles on and calls the failure to account for the type of use "a colossal oversight, given the nature of the building (traders generally operate with a minimum of three video screens in front of them). But it also painfully underscores the shortcomings of the LEED process."

I will tell you what I think is a colossal oversight:

• Looking at energy use per square foot, or energy density, without looking at population density. How much energy is being used per person? Perhaps the Bank of America packs them in tighter than they do at Goldman Sachs? What accounts for the energy use differential?

• Taking a rough numbers like the New York Benchmarking Scores and trying to filter them in a way that produces the ugliest picture. One Bryant Park is not the biggest energy hog in the City, (it’s 53rd on an energy-use per square foot basis) it is not even the biggest financial institution energy hog on a per square foot basis.

• Bashing LEED for giving points for doing "easy things" like building near public transportation or restoring Bryant Park, let alone tossing the the bike rack lie. For a developer, building without parking is risky. Building near public transportation is expensive. None of it is "easy."

I find it hard to believe I am defending a giant glass tower occupied by a predatory bank. However whenever I see the words Al Gore and bike racks, I see an anti green building screed. When I see what is probably one of the healthiest buildings in the City labelled "toxic," I get angry.

Every urbanist and architect says that New York is so green because of the way people are packed in and the fact that they don’t drive. They claim that energy use per capita is the metric that matters. Yet here they don’t know that basic metric and call the building a toxic energy hog. That’s not fair to the architects, the building or the LEED program.

Sam Roudman responds:

In a recent blog post, Lloyd Alter, managing editor at Treehugger took issue with my piece criticizing the Bank of America Tower’s environmental efficacy in the New Republic. It made him "angry." I’m sorry that it did, but only because he got angry for the wrong reasons.

My central point is not too complex: the building’s owners made grandiose claims about the building being good for the environment, claims like "most sustainable" and "most environmentally responsible." Based on an analysis of the tower’s energy consumption and emissions, the built environment’s greatest environmental impacts, I found that in comparison to other gigantic bank and office buildings, the building performed among the worst in the city. To borrow a technical term from Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, this is bullshit.

Let’s start with the first thing that bothered Alter: "One always knows that if an article starts off with Al Gore, then there is going to be green-bashing, he is the standard lightning rod and happens to be a tenant in the building."

Al Gore is not just a tenant in the building, he is not an ancillary character trampled in my bloodlust to destroy something pure, green and beautiful. Gore spoke at the opening of the tower, which is to say he officially lent his credibility to the building’s environmental claims. Gore’s investment company which focuses on "sustainable investing" is a tenant of the building in part because of its supposed environmental benefit. When one of the most famous environmentalists in the world vouches for the benefits of a building that is not good for the environment in the areas (energy, emissions) that matter most, well I would say that’s an important thing to note.

Next, Alter takes issue with my analysis of the building. In my analysis I compare buildings of similar size and function to buildings of similar size and function, rather than just compare all the buildings of a similar type, regardless of size. I did this not to cherry pick data, but because, according to a variety of building scientists I’ve spoken to in my investigating and reporting: this is the most accurate comparison you can make. When you compare buildings, you want to compare like with like, including metrics like size, function, and location. The more similarities the better the comparison. The energy consumption of a building per square foot might be higher, even significantly higher on a building of 70,000 square feet than one that is 2.2 million square feet (like the BofA Tower), but guess which building has more impact?

Also, Alter’s analysis and evidence of my "cherry picking" do a better job of proving my point than his. Alter took all financial and office buildings and sorted them descending based on their site energy usage, regardless of size, and found the BofA Tower was 53rd. The Bank of America Tower is one of two buildings in this list one million square feet, the only over two million. The first seven or eight in the list have energy numbers so high as to be less than credible (check out the 2012 energy benchmark report for background), and of those remaining only six are over half a million square feet.

This means that in a list of the worst 5 percent of energy hogging office and bank buildings in New York City (Alter’s 53 buildings are the worst in a group of over 1000), the Bank of America Tower is by far the largest. If Alter wants to argue that the building shouldn’t be judged because it is only in the worst 5 percent of over a thousand buildings rather than the absolute worst, I would say great. Because that’s a very bad argument. Alter takes the superlative "worst" from my article’s headline and some tweets and then ignores my actual analysis, which even according to his analysis, is still right.

Alter’s next move is defensive:

"I find it hard to criticize LEED or the landlord. They can’t tell their prime tenant that they can’t work round the clock on fancy computers. Imagine how silly it would be if the developer told the tenant that they had to put every trader in a big private office to keep the energy use per square foot down."

That would be silly. The economics of New York City real estate might indeed dictate that developers must let the tenants do what they want. Interesting stuff, and important to understanding the legitimate impediments market forces pose to addressing global climate change. So how is it that I nonetheless find both LEED and the landlord so easy to criticize? It’s simple: they made misleading claims. If you are a building owner and you want to use a major amount of energy and produce incredible amounts of greenhouse gasses, you have every right to do so. But what you can’t do is also say you are doing a great thing for the environment. The absurdity of these two contending points is so bald, that the gleam off their pate seems to have blinded Alter.

Perhaps with a psychic inkling as to the faultiness of his number crunching, Alter points out what he considers to be my "colossal oversight."

"Looking at energy use per square foot, or energy density, without looking at population density. How much energy is being used per person? Perhaps the Bank of America packs them in tighter than they do at Goldman Sachs? What accounts for the energy use differential?"

These are all good questions—I would love it if this data that would be made publically available! But it’s not, and I would defy Alter to find me any such data available for the buildings of a major American city. What we have is the benchmark data, which has been described to me by experts as a game changer and a fundamentally new source of data to compare buildings. In this defense Alter is refusing a date with the prom queen because he heard that somewhere supermodels exist.

Alter’s post accuses me of "green-bashing." But I don’t attack the Bank of America Tower because I think green building is laughable, but because I think it’s very, very important. Climate change demands society change the built environment, and probably the entire building economy. 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.

What do you think? Tell us.

[Images: Bank of America, Kayla A via Shutterstock, Inhabit Blog via Flickr]

Add New Comment


  • Anthony Reardon

    Hmmm... merits to both sides of the argument.
    The idea of the LEED certification draws attention to the need to be greener, and is such it is beneficial to society to counter gross negligence. However, I think it can also defeat its own purpose by authorizing blanket claims of "green"- which can lead people to let their guard down and accept "as given" when the issues are actually ever deserving of our ongoing scrutiny.
    I wonder...why does anything have to be the "greenest"? Surely there is a benefit to reducing a complex aggregation of factors to something more psychologically digestible- I bet Al Gore would agree. However, in today's world of information, I intuit there is space for us to list out each factor distinctly. Actually, I think it's in our better interest to be reminded of each area of measurable improvement on a case by case basis.
    So I think the criticism of the LEED certification system wins in terms of constructive benefit to society.
    Best, Anthony

  • HAL 9000

    Interested in this exchange, I linked out to the New Republic original and started reading it. It was all-stop on the Error-Meter though when I read this claim about the trading desks:

    One of those desks, assuming its left on all year, consumes as much power as a 25-mile per gallon car uses to go 4,500 miles. I paraphrase, but the claim is intact. And that claim is completely wrong. Unless you make all five of those monitors 27-inch cathodes (doubt it), and the computer an overclocked six-core Xeon running Geekbench on and endless loop all year (also doubt it), the desk will be lucky to remotely approach what the car and its trip will consume in energy.Lets do some back-of-the-napkin math. A horsepower is ~740 watts.  That sets a Kia Rio going down the freeway (its most thermodynamically efficient mode) around 65MPH to be consuming >50kW per hour. Times that by the roughly seventy hours it takes to cover 4,500 miles and you've got a total consumption ~3.5 megawatt-hours. My Macbook Retina is burning roughly twelve watts as I type this. That's a kilowatt hour every three days, or roughly 350 kW/hrs for the whole year assuming I never turn it off. That's barely within an order of magnitude of the car's trip.

    I'm hardly a green-thumb, and my own nickname for BOA Tower is 'TARP Tower' given that's ultimately what paid for it. So I tend towards skepticism of shticks like the LEED system by default. But obviously the stats bandied around in these articles are making some seriously flawed assumptions.

  • Shaun

     I don't think your macbook retina is a valid example. Also, moderate use on a 13 inch MBP-Retina is supposed to be 49-53W. But if you are talking a more likely computer for trading desks, I have a Thinkpad W530 which has a 170W power supply and regularly draws over 100W.

  • ToddHuge

    Fascinating article.  It underscores the real urgency we face to reduce CPU power needs while simultaneously improving overall efficacy.  No doubt, BoA has a monstrous super computer to handle their trade transactions.  All the players have them and they are standard operating equipment.  BoA, I assume, owns the building, so they should have accounted for it like they account for HVAC and lighting.  Perhaps, all banks should pony up 'gas guzzler' taxes for their super computers too.  Since banks grease the wheels of industry, they would have a direct incentive to improve computer efficiency and reduce their overall power consumption.  But then again, the rich do enjoy their meaningless trophies (e.g., Platinum LEED rating).

  • Shaun

    Roudman still misses the point. If a real analysis is to be done, then a mathematical model must be applied to the building to estimate what the environmental impact would be if it was not LEED certified. If the LEED certification helps the building reduce its' environmental impact AT ALL, then it is successful. Comparing apples to oranges and then making a deduction based on that is sensationalism at its' best.

  • Michael McClain

    I agree with Shaun's point. Does
    the BOA use more energy than other buildings? Yes. But the
    questions that should have been asked next are "Why?" And does this
    energy use still fall in line with the goals that LEED, the developers, and the
    Architects set out to achieve given this building type? How much better is the
    building performing under LEED than under standard practice is what Roudman
    should have been questioning.

    If this is a debate, you might also
    want to look at Alter's other post:


    And the response from the developer:


    And actually investigate the report
    Roudman used for his analysis:


    The Bank of America Tower utilizes a
    co-gen plan to produce power onsite. This creates a situation that is not a
    pure energy comparison issue, but is a site vs. source energy issue. Apples to
    Oranges when trying to compare to other buildings like the Empire State
    Building or even Goldman Sach's as Roudman does. To my knowledge, both
    buildings don't have on-site power generation. 


    And, the City Data that is being
    referenced, acknowledges the fact that "energy systems, such as central
    boilers, chiller plants or co-generation facilities...can be complex to
    bench-mark...and [the] methodology is not aligned with the EPA
    protocols...[and] we intend to amend the rule to correct this problem."


    The report also states that there is
    a "disclosure exemption for the scores for buildings with high intensity
    uses like data centers, trading floors, [etc] compromise more than 10% of the
    floor area...We will work with he EPA and property owners to improve the data
    and accuracy of these uses."


    I believe Roudman has the right intentions - seeking
    to back claims of environmental responsibility with actual data should be done.
    It's the only way to continue to progress and accurately address the issues we
    face. But doing so in a way that doesn't account for the realities of what is
    happening in the building only obscures the real issues, and using
    sensationalist words like "toxic" as the main header is more a
    reflection of a desire to drive page views, ad revenue and editorial agenda than
    an honest attempt to evaluate the issues the data presents.

  • Bridget G

    In Australia and New Zealand the NABERS and NABERSNZ tool is used to measure the energy performance of buildings and enable any building to be compared to another in an apples with apples way.  It is mandatory to get this rating in Australia. Usually green building tools give ratings based on predicted performance not actual - tools like NABERS help the building owners to identify whether their building is operating as it should be and recognise where changes need to be made.  The way a building is managed and used can create a huge impact on it's efficiency.