Existing Buildings "to Live" for

Before heading to Peru today to address the Peru Green Building Council's annual meeting, I stopped in at the Skanska offices in the Empire State Building. Skanska's LEED Platinum offices are gorgeous, but they are also designed to be energy efficient, water efficient, resource efficient and the indoor environmental quality is "to live" for.

That's just the kind of deep green tenant spaces the grand old lady of New York real estate deserves, especially in light of its own announcement yesterday that the Empire State Building's energy retrofit program, completed in 2011, is saving $2.3 million for the second year in a row -- beyond expectations. It just goes to prove again that even historic, commercial buildings can become energy-efficient and economically sustainable.

According to a Clinton Foundation press release yesterday, the Empire State Building's energy-efficiency retrofit program was developed by the Clinton Climate Initiative in partnership with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Johnson Controls, Jones Lang LaSalle, Rocky Mountain Institute and the Empire State Building. While the core of the building's retrofit has been completed, some tenant spaces are still being retrofitted with high-performance workspaces. When they're done, the building is expected to save $4.4 million a year on energy costs, which is a 38 percent reduction in energy use that will also mean a reduction carbon emissions by 105,000 metric tons over the next 15 years. In fact, if every commercial building in New York City replicated this program model, carbon emissions would be reduced by 4 million tons.

The magnitude of reduction in carbon emissions would be a great achievement, and if it happens, some of the credit will also go to organizations like Urban Green, USGBC's NYC Chapter. Under the leadership of Russell Unger, and a star-studded board that includes several prominent New York developers and architects, the people behind many existing building retrofits were spotlighted last week in the second annual EBie awards.

The highlight of the night was easily the acceptance speech by "The All-Rounder" Winner Ken Fais, Vornado Realty Trust's Chief Engineer at 1740 Broadway in NYC. The audience was moved by the obvious emotion in Ken's voice as he thanked his team for their incredible accomplishments in improved energy performance and reduced water use, including an ENERGY STAR rating above 90! When operations teams work hard to make significant environmental improvements in existing buildings, their work usually goes unheralded. Through the EBies, these heroes are getting their long-overdue recognition, and the idea that existing buildings can dramatically improve their performance gets more traction.

And energy efficiency in existing buildings doesn't just happen in New York. Yesterday USGBC awarded a LEED-certified plaque to the headquarters building of Chattanooga's electric utility, EPB. It is the first building in the world to get to LEED certified using an innovative new pilot credit that allows projects to satisfy an energy pre-requisite in the LEED for Existing Buildings: O&M Rating System by demonstrating an energy improvement of 20 percent over a 12-month period, as compared to a three-year baseline.

To achieve the required 20 percent increase in efficiency during the year-long LEED performance period, the company programmed most computers to auto-power off after 30 minutes of inactivity, optimized its air handling units' performance and installed lighting sensors throughout the building.

To understand the importance of this pilot credit, imagine two buildings of the same size and usage profiles: one has an ENERGY STAR score of 15, which improves to 55; the other starts at 80 and ends up at 95. The second building is exceptionally efficient. But the planet is far better off because of what the first building did. And because we have millions of those kinds of commercial buildings in the United States, this is a game-changing approach for LEED and speaks to the rating system's flexibility and continual evolution as a tool for market transformation.

On Tuesday, President Obama, using the power of executive order presented a bold plan to help mitigate climate change. Besides its pressure on reducing carbon emissions from power plants, It also included various actions -- ramping up the Better Buildings Challenge, loan guarantees for efficiency projects, and stronger efficiency standards -- that underscore the point that retrofitting our existing buildings is a huge cornerstone in getting to the future we all want.

And if the spate of activity this past week is any indication, I have no doubt that we're on track to get there.