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Reaching New Heights: The Greening of the Empire State Building

Acrophobes and the faint of heart need not apply. All others will be delighted to discover that the alpha male of skyscrapers, the Empire State Building, has reinvented itself as a supergreen structure. A top-to-bottom, four-year renovation of the historic landmark began in 2009, with the chief goal of maximizing energy savings. Like King Kong, construction workers clambered around the storied 102-story building, barely noticed by the stream of office workers and visitors that it swallows up every day.

During the retrofit of the 86-year-old building, each one of its double-paned 6,514 windows was removed from its frame, taken apart, and cleaned. The original two glass panes were then sandwiched together around a heat-reflective layer of film, filled with inert gas to beef up their insulation value, and reinstalled. Similarly, an insulating barrier was tucked away behind each radiator. LED fixtures replaced metal halide lamps and floodlights. HVAC sensors were added to monitor air quality and turn off systems when they're not needed. And deep in the bowels of the limestone building, the cooling plant’s four chillers were modernized and made more efficient.

The result? The Art Deco building achieved both LEED Gold and Energy Star status and scored a Green Power Leadership Award from EPA. It has saved millions of dollars in heating, cooling, and lighting costs. Tenants like the Swedish construction company Skanska have been jumping on the green bandwagon too, at a dizzying pace. Skanska's USA headquarters, located 32 floors up, sports an underfloor air distribution system, daylight sensors, and water-conserving bathroom fixtures, all adding up to a LEED Platinum office space.

King Kong would have felt right at home among the succulents and ferns of the building’s four green roofs, spread out over three floors, the 21st, 25th, and 30th. These roof terraces, whose surface area totals 9,350 square feet, help counteract the so-called heat island effect that plagues New York and other big cities, where dark-colored roofs absorb the sun’s rays and make the hot summers a few degrees hotter. A fitting footnote: In 2004, after the death of King Kong actress Fay Wray, the Empire State Building stood in darkness for 15 minutes.

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