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Empire State Building Shows the World How to Go Green

By Leslie Adatto

I write about rooftops in NYC and have been welcomed at hundreds of rooftops across the five boroughs—everything from 19th century living roofs to futuristic hydroponic-aquaponic glassed-in rooftop farms run by computer-controlled technology.

Several hundred rooftop visits and a published book into this niche passion of mine, I have come across the unreachable green roof. It is in a building that has 63 working elevators and a perfectly functional door that opens directly onto its expansive plantings and inviting patio furniture. It’s not at all hard to get up there; however, it is seemingly impossible to get permission to view the 21st floor green-roofed terraces at the Empire State Building.

Since moving to Manhattan in 2010, I have followed the exciting news regarding the $20 million eco-makeover of this 1931 Art Deco masterpiece. Empire State Realty Trust retrofitted 6,415 windows by shooting argon gas in between the double-panes and changed light bulbs throughout the building to energy-sipping LEDs. They insulated behind every radiator, updated the building’s chiller and installed 9,000+ square feet of green roofs spread between the 21st, 25th and 30th floor “set backs.”

Although initially expensive to install, over time green roofs save money. They reduce cooling and heating costs by thoroughly insulating the building and they last many times longer than a traditional roof, saving on replacement costs.

Yet perhaps a green roof’s largest impact is in something that helps the city as a whole to function better. New York City’s storm water infrastructure cannot process all the rain that falls on the man-made environment that spans much of the five boroughs. When a forest is rained on, the ground absorbs most of the precipitation, and what’s left flows down to the nearest body of water. In NYC, when a building, street or sidewalk is rained on, almost all the run-off flows into the sewage system where it gets processed and then is released into the rivers. If it’s a very light rain, this system works. But when it rains steadily or heavily, the overburdened sewage system releases pollution that is often laced with unprocessed human waste into our waterways, and in some cases, into our basements.

Green roofs function to replace the rain absorption that our cities destroyed. The 9,000+ square feet of water-collecting greenery on the Empire State Building slows the flow into the sewer system by a relative trickle but when hundreds, or possibly thousands, of buildings (and NYC boasts 900,000 buildings) green their roofs, this will make a huge impact on the health of our waterways.

One more reason to love the ESB’s living roofs is that they increase human happiness. Unlike many green roofs that are tucked away on top of buildings doing their good works far from watchful eyes, the planted setbacks at the ESB are visible though the windows of the offices on the 21st, 25th and 30th floors. Visible greenery has recently been proven to create a happier, healthier and ultimately a more productive work environment, and these lucky employees receive this psychological boost daily.

Empire State Realty Trust and the ESB’s tenants are saving so much money on their energy bills that the upgrades will pay for themselves in just a few years. After that, the 38% annual cost savings will not only make the building cheaper to run but it will continue to be much easier on the environment far into the future, cutting carbon emissions by 105,000 metric tons over the next 15 years.

The Empire State Building, a universally beloved symbol, now acts as a world-wide energy retrofit inspiration and model. Her green roofs save energy and money, aid the city’s infrastructure, model the best ways to retrofit an aging high rise and make the workers happier and more productive.

If I could only see them….


Leslie Adatto is the author of “Roof Explorer’s Guide: 101 NYC Rooftops,” which is sold in stores all over New York City, including the gift shop on the 86th Floor Observation Deck of the Empire State Building.

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