Co.Design

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]

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