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Smarter Buildings Make for a Sustainable Future

Recently I was in Los Angeles on vacation and business. Well north of the city by the ocean, the sky was blue, every day was beautiful. But in the valleys and closer to LA the air was well ... beige. It's much better than it used to be in 1979 when I worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena and the air was brown. Still, we need to use less carbon-emitting energy, increase energy efficiency and clean up the air -- for the planet and our health.

It brought back painful reminders of my own home town, New York City, where you can find buildings that gulp energy and are breeding grounds for greenhouse gases. Each year, buildings release more noxious carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the environment than all of America's cars do.

I'm not just talking about single-family homes with their outdated insulation and leaky single-pane windows. I'm talking about offices, apartment buildings, factories and warehouses. Buildings in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago may have been state-of-the-art at one time (who can forget images of Chicago's gleaming structures in The Devil in the White City), but take a look at these structures today and their environmental scorecards are as low as you can go.

Here in New York, people pay one of the highest energy rates in the country, which drives $15 billion of energy bills for our buildings every year. More than 75 percent of CO2 emissions in New York come from heating, cooling and providing electricity to buildings. That's more than double the national average.

As a nation, our energy costs will continue to rise as we experience more heat waves, floods, storms and energy blackouts.

How should we respond? One way is to get smarter about using energy wisely in our homes, apartments and workplaces. Technology can help too. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has reiterated his administration's goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions from city-owned buildings by 30 percent by 2017 (compared with 2007 levels), and by 30 percent from all buildings by 2030.

Technology can help. It can integrate everything in a building from temperature control, electricity and ventilation to water, waste management, telecommunications and physical security. That makes it easier to manage and monitor how resources are consumed. Programmable thermostats are being used alongside video cameras and other devices that make it easier to monitor these functions. In some cases, we're using analytic intelligence to make the best use of the all the data we are collecting.

When it comes to energy efficiency in New York City, 7 World Trade Center [hy comes to mind. Opened in 2006, the 52-story tower is New York City's first green building and has won kudos from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Green Building Council, among others. The building has computer-controlled systems to heat and cool the tower, high-efficiency plumbing systems, a filtration system to improve indoor air quality, a water conservation system to harvest rainwater for cooling and for irrigation.

The building reduces energy costs through smart devices such as carbon dioxide sensors, daylight dimming controls, variable speed fans and steam-to-electricity turbine generators. Electricity costs are about 35 percent lower than in a conventional building and water consumption is about 30 percent lower.

While that building is a glimpse of the future, many of our buildings are stuck in the past. So we need to retrofit existing buildings with energy-efficient systems that are interconnected and intelligent.

Consider the Perry Avenue Building, one of the country's first green industrial facilities, located at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The building combines wind turbines, rooftop solar panels and reflective roofing to reduce surface temperatures. Rainwater is recycled in the toilets and there are even special accommodations for low-emission vehicles. The building's functions are all integrated, managed and monitored with technology.

For New York City, Seven World Trade Center and the Perry Avenue Building are just a start. For our country, we need more environmentally sustainable buildings to lower our energy costs and CO2 emissions. We need to move quickly to make our buildings -- public and private, existing and future -- as efficient and high performance as they can be. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will sustain the well-being of our cities and our competitiveness as a nation. What do you think?