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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

NYC Building Green

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Buildings consume a third of all the energy used in the U.S. And debris from construction and demolition is clogging landfills. With the squeeze on energy and disposal these days, architects and developers are paying more attention to the environmental impact of what they design and build. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on two high-profile projects in New York City.

(Horns honk)

GRABER: Times Square. Cars and trucks honk their way past pedestrians speaking in a cacophony of languages and accents. Immense billboards stretch across building facades. Even the subway sign is lit up like a marquee. "Environmental" is quite possibly the last adjective to come to mind. And yet, Times Square is home to a prominent new example of green building, the first environmentally-sustainable skyscraper in the world.

FOX: I would define a green building as one that doesn't add any harmful effect to the environment and doesn't take anything from the environment. That puts it in a pretty impossible situation. But that's the goal that we're trying to get to.

GRABER: Robert Fox is one of the architects who designed Four Times Square, also known as the Conde Nast Building, which opened more than a year ago. It reaches up into New York's skyline with huge glass windows. Glaring signs flash over ground-level storefronts. In the lobby, Fox points up to the rippled panels of recycled aluminum overhead that wave out from the windowed entrance.

FOX: So this aluminum leaf allows the light to reflect down, and it comes out of these wave-like surfaces. And it comes down, and it lights the lobby. So we're using a fraction of the energy of what you'd see in a typical lobby.

GRABER: This is just one of the features the architectural and engineering team used to make this building as environmentally sensitive as money and the available technologies would allow. They used recycled steel and cut the amount of concrete and steel needed by designing more efficiently. About five percent of the energy used in the building is generated by fuel cells and by photovoltaics, which convert sunlight into energy. The cooling system uses no CFCs, known to destroy the ozone layer, or HCFCs, which contribute to global warming. The team even considered how to light the stairwells.

(Footfalls on stairs)

FOX: Normally, in office buildings, the lights are on all the time. In this building, they are on only when you're in the stairwell. The amount of energy that saves is staggering, because these stairs are 50 stories high and there's two of them.

GRABER: Fox exits on the forty-first floor, which belongs to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom. The law firm shares the building with the Conde Nast publishing conglomerate. Neither has said publicly that environmental considerations influenced their renting. They simply needed the space. But according to Nancy Lieberman, one of the law firm's senior partners, they now love their offices. Even the window panes, which are coated to reduce glare and heat from the sun, make a difference.

LIEBERMAN: I can't begin to tell you how exciting it is every day to walk in and have a spectacular view of New York City, that I could sit here at my desk and look out and not, you know, have the heat or the sun or the whatever bother me. And it's a very nice environment to work in. Therefore, I think I'm more productive.

GRABER: Tenants save on energy costs from such high-performance technologies. The Durst Corporation, which built and manages the building, saved money from practices like cutting down on steel and concrete. Features like fuel cells added to the costs, bringing this building in at about five percent higher than similar buildings. Over the long term, some money will be made back from energy savings. The building consumes about 30 percent less energy than a conventional building. But money wasn't the primary motivator for the Dursts. Architect Robert Fox says the Dursts were committed to the idea of proving it was possible to build a green skyscraper in the heart of New York City. But Fox also says that the cost difference today would be negligible.

FOX: If you asked me what we would do the next time, we believe now that we would be able to make that difference go away. We were pioneers.

(Children's voices)

GRABER: Further downtown, Tim Carey stands in front of a crowded playground. He's Executive Director of the Battery Park City Authority. This March, he'll break ground on the world's first environmentally sustainable high-rise apartment building, one of three the Authority plans to build.

CAREY: The biggest cutting edge that everybody is looking at is our gray water system. You know, to be able to utilize the water from showers and dishwashers and washing machines and treat them in the building, and then use that water for air conditioning and for irrigation, and for flushing of toilets. I mean, you know, that has been done before but no one's ever done it in this type of a building before.

GRABER: They'll use recycled materials, non-toxic paint and carpeting, and incorporate technologies like fuel cells and photovoltaics. Landscaped roof gardens will cut down on heat gain and loss. Carey believes this building will have a huge impact.

CAREY: We hope to establish sustainable markets for high-rise residential buildings. We want to do nothing less than change the way high-rise residential buildings are built, not just in New York City, not just in New York State, not just in America, but the world. It's a very simple goal.

GRABER: There are challenges in achieving Carey's goal. Until there's more of a demand for green buildings, they're not always profitable. To give developers an incentive, New York State has created the country's first tax break for developers whose buildings meet certain environmental standards. Both Battery City Park's future apartment buildings and Four Times Square are high-income rentals. The government of the City of New York is implementing environmental features in a number of public buildings, including libraries, museums, and daycare centers. New York City, though, is not alone in its growing interest in green building. Christine Ervin is the CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council.

ERVIN: About ten years ago, or about when the U.S. Green Building Council came together in 1993, there were no standards on green buildings, no definition of green buildings, no central place where green building enthusiasts and experts could come together. And you could point to, oh, maybe a dozen green buildings across the country. Today, we can point to hundreds of green buildings around the country.

GRABER: That's a small percentage of all construction in the U.S., but it's growing. Last year, the U.S. Green Building Council introduced a new voluntary rating system. It's called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. The system offers platinum, gold, or silver awards, or a certificate for buildings, based on points from five categories: site allocation and development, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and energy and materials use. Consultant Bill Browning with the Rocky Mountain Institute says LEED provides a crucial tool for measuring a building's environmental features.

BROWNING: Finally, there's a way of having a measurement of how green a property is. Previously, it was sort of a superlative. It was very green or forest green or dark green or some shade of green. But that was qualitative. With the LEED rating system, there is now a quantifiable system of measuring the environmental performance of a property.


GRABER: Four Times Square was built before LEED certification existed. But the high-profile building has already attracted interest from around the country and around the world. And because of its success, architect Robert Fox is working on another Times Square skyscraper that will incorporate similar environmental features.


GRABER: New York City may or may not be the center of the universe, contrary to what New Yorkers tend to believe. But standing here in Times Square at night, the whole area a-glitter, you can't help but feel that there may be something to that old refrain: If you can build it here, you'll build it anywhere. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.

(Drumming up and under)



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