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Bank of America's Toxic Tower

New York's "greenest" skyscaper is actually its biggest energy hog

When the Bank of America Tower opened in 2010, the press praised it as one of the world’s “most environmentally responsible high-rise office building[s].” It wasn’t just the waterless urinals, daylight dimming controls, and rainwater harvesting. And it wasn’t only the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification—the first ever for a skyscraper—and the $947,583 in incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. It also had as a tenant the environmental movement’s biggest celebrity. The Bank of America Tower had Al Gore.

The former vice president wanted an office for his company, Generation Investment Management, that “represents the kind of innovation the firm is trying to advance,” his real-estate agent said at the time. The Bank of America Tower, a billion-dollar, 55-story crystal skyscraper on the northwest corner of Manhattan’s Bryant Park, seemed to fit the bill. It would be “the most sustainable in the country,” according to its developer Douglas Durst. At the Tower’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Gore powwowed with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and praised the building as a model for fighting climate change. “I applaud the leadership of the mayor and all of those who helped make this possible,” he said.

Gore’s applause, however, was premature. 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. It also performs worse than the Goldman Sachs headquarters, maybe the most similar building in New York—and one with a lower LEED rating. It’s not just an embarrassment; it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.

Buildings contribute more to global warming than any other sector of the economy. In the United States, they consume more energy and produce more greenhouse gas emissions than every car, bus, jet, and train combined; and more, too, than every factory combined. When we’re not traveling between buildings, we’re inside them, and that requires energy for everything from construction to heating and cooling to running appliances.

The nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) unveiled LEED in 1998 as a way to measure a building’s environmental footprint. It has grown into the most popular certification system for green buildings, with some 50,000 buildings either certified or in the certification process globally. A stamp from LEED signals “green” to the public, and it’s good for more than just PR: Some certifications can be cashed in for tax credits. In fact, many cities, states, and federal agencies now require new buildings to work with LEED.

To become certified, buildings earn LEED “points” for specific environmental interventions. The rating takes into account a variety of factors, like building materials, air quality, water conservation, and—of course—energy performance. When they accumulate enough points, they are awarded certification, which comes in the flavors of Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum (the highest).

LEED has helped create a market for sustainability where one didn’t exist before. The problem is that real-estate developers have been able to game the system, racking up points for relatively minor measures. A USA Today series last October found developers accruing points simply by posting educational displays throughout a building and installing bike racks—and avoiding measures that might be more costly and effective.

The Bank of America Tower earned 50 points, two more than needed to be certified Platinum, including easy ones for working with a LEED-accredited professional, building near public transportation, and protecting or restoring habitat in Bryant Park. Most important, LEED certified the building under its program, which it designed for developers who have either no clue or no control over what their tenants might do inside the building. This is odd, since Bank of America knew full well what would be going on inside the building. Most likely, the Core and Shell program seemed an easy path to a better certification.

“What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want—namely, green publicity, not energy savings,” John Scofield, a professor of physics at Oberlin, testified before the House last year.

Governments, nevertheless, have been happy to rely on LEED rather than design better metrics. Which is why New York’s release of energy data last fall was significant. It provided more public-energy data for a U.S. city than has ever existed. It found the worst-performing buildings use three to five times more energy per square foot than the best ones. It also found that, if the most energy-intensive large buildings were brought up to the current seventy-fifth percentile, the city’s total greenhouse gases could be reduced by 9 percent.

Doing so, however, will require cities to think about more than just how they design buildings: It will also require them to rethink how tenants use them. 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. Assuming no one turns these computers off, in a year one of these desks uses roughly the energy it takes a 25-mile-per-gallon car engine to travel more than 4,500 miles. 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.

“We did not attack the demand side, meaning the user side,” says Serge Appel, who led the project team for the building’s main architectural firm. “We attacked, how do you produce the energy, and how do you bring that energy to the building?”

The USGBC, which operates LEED, similarly says it has no control over how the buildings it certifies are used. But LEED certifies new buildings before they are even occupied, basing its ratings on computer models that often end up overestimating a building’s performance. LEED has also been criticized for not revoking certification when presented with evidence that LEED building is not living up to its promise. “We are not the government,” says Scot Horst, senior vice president for LEED. “We can’t regulate anything.”

Certainly, many of the Bank of America Tower’s bells and whistles prevent it from consuming even more energy—and a lot of the energy it draws comes from cleaner sources than it otherwise could have. The building developers also showed me improved energy numbers for the year 2012, which will be released officially by the city in September. But the fact that the Bank of America Tower became slightly less energy intensive is hardly a triumph for the environment.

All of which goes to show that how businesses like Bank of America use their buildings is just as important as how they design them. This lets Gore’s firm, Generation Investment Management, partially off the hook, since it can’t control Bank of America’s actions. Generation would not comment for this article; still, it may want to revise its “Statement of Sustainability,” which boasts of its home in “one of the most energy efficient, ecologically friendly buildings in New York.”

Sam Roudman is a journalist based in New York. He has contributed to Popular Science.

Response from Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED at the U.S. Green Building Council: 

In his rush to criticize LEED by plucking a single example from the 45,000 plus buildings that make up LEED’s global portfolio, Mr. Roudman failed to tell the whole story. He did not explain, for example, that the building generates much of its electricity in its basement with a co-generation power plant, recovers waste heat for the various heating needs of the building, and employs innovative ice storage technology to shift grid power use to off-peak periods. As a result, the Bank of America Tower removes stress from the existing electric infrastructure far more effectively than comparable buildings. It also eliminates distribution losses inherent in grid-generated power, avoids consumption during peak periods and uses natural resources in a significantly more efficient way than many other buildings. 

If Mr. Roudman wants to tell an accurate story, he needs to explain the impact of these strategies and how they compare to other similar sized trading floors and similar building types in the city and other cities around the world. LEED encourages project teams to implement these types of strategies. The Bank of America Tower is an icon of innovation. Can they do more? Yes. Are they leaders? Yes. Is Mr. Roudman telling the whole story? No. Period.