design sustainability

Building of the week: the Empire State Building

empirestateI’ve featured a few low key places in this occasional series of sustainable buildings, so let’s go somewhere grander: the Empire State Building. The tallest building in the world at the time, it was completed in 1931, making it a notable entry in the Skyscraper Index recession indicator. It has been an icon of New York and of American ambition ever since.

The building is famous for its art deco styling and for being climbed by King Kong. It’s now famous for something else – a quite remarkable sustainability makeover.

Between 2008 and 2011, the owners transformed the building’s energy performance and cut its carbon emissions. The refitted building saves an impressive $4.4 million a year on its bills, while making the building more comfortable and desirable for tenants.

The refit included triple glazing 6,500 windows. Over 6,000 insulating panels were inserted behind radiators, and working spaces were configured to maximise natural light. Heating and cooling systems were replaced with state of the art technology and controls. Lighting was switched to LEDs and occupant sensors were installed to turn things off when rooms are vacant. A new tenant engagement plan encouraged recycling and more efficient working practices, and the building has already gained various new tenants looking to reduce their environmental impact. There’s a detailed case study here. The end result was a 38% cut in energy use.

A number of different organisations worked together on the project, including the Clinton Foundation and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and the Rocky Mountain Institute. As intended, the retrofit has proved to be economically viable and it is now inspiring others to do something similar. One World Plaza and the Port Authority in New York are now following the same model, and other skyscrapers in San Francisco.

The Empire State Building proves that even the biggest buildings can be retrofitted, and that it can be a sound business decision.


  1. Like this, which I’d heard about previously, but thanks for the update. My Great-grandfather was a joiner and was supposed to have been one of the joiners when it was built.

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