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campusIn a consumer-driven market like the U.S., change often rests in the hands of buyers and investors. The fastest way to spread a new social norm through society is by making a product that people want to pay for. The environmental arena has made a lot of progress in what can be a difficult arena: turning a social movement into a salable marketplace—but  the conversion comes with a catch. Organizations and companies that end up contributing to the “cause” want to make sure people know about it so it does not seem like money is just evaporating. For a number of entities this creates a tough choice of spending on things that are easiest to see or things that make the most difference.

A couple days ago I had the chance to sit down with a good friend who works as part of the financial department of a college in New England. For the sake of discretion, I will call him “Mr. Nes” (North Eastern School). Mr. Nes told me that his institution was on board with lowering their carbon footprint and increasing the efficiency of their campus. Apparently, they are one of a growing number of schools that are becoming more serious about being greener. This particular college was working with a consulting company to try and realize the best ways to address the issue of upgrading an existing campus.

Mr. Nes said that it was not long before the school began to run into tough choices when it came to what methods would be used in the campaign. It became clear that the efforts that would add the most benefit environmentally would not be showy additions that you could point out on a tour. At the same time, when it comes to endowment dollars, donors want to know that the money is being used wisely.

“The thing that makes the most sense is putting in a cogeneration plant” behind an existing building. “But no one would ever see it. On the other hand, we could throw up a bunch of solar panels on the admissions building, but the savings would be minimal,” Mr. Nes confessed.

The dilemma is not an uncommon one and will likely be around until the market matures beyond the point of needing to bolster recognition for making good choices. From anything to single family homes to college campuses, the measures that make the most difference are often not the ones that look best in an alumni newsletter. Systems like rain water capture tanks, grey-water filtration, power storage, and using geothermal or outside air for heating and cooling all are relatively absent from the public eye yet provide amazing savings in resource consumption. On the other hand, wind turbines, photovoltaics, low flow fixtures or waterless urinals are features that people can interact with.

Buildings like One Bryant Park end up with some combination of both, providing systems that produce a better bottom line and satisfy the need for publicity. Investors and pedestrians can see green materials, waterless urinals and naturally lit spaces with walls of high efficiency, fritted windows. Behind the scenes, the rain water capture tanks, ice storage containers and under-floor air systems are providing some of the backbone for their ecological savings.

In the short term, I see a couple of options or challenges for projects like these. One is for the architects and engineers who are tasked with making systems more visible to people in an attractive way. The other is to marketing departments and communication groups who have to find new ways of displaying and promoting important steps in sustainability so that those providing the funding dollars feel like they are getting the credit they are after.

 

I came across a great article on the energy blog Master Resource (of which I have become a regular reader) by Robert Peltier that focuses on some of the intricacies that may result from an eventual passage of H.R. 2454. Peltier notes on how remarks of opposition from the energy industry have been few and far between so far in the discussion of Waxman-Markey and that perhaps, for some, their end of the deal is not quite that bad. One could think the large energy providers will need to shoulder a great deal of burden towards reducing our carbon footprint, but the key of how newly distributed carbon allowances actually get doled out brings a great deal to bear on how how utilities will be affected. The give and take of Capitol Hill negotiating may have left some hands far from empty. Three of Peltier’s seven points include:

  • Given that existing plants will be given new allowances for free, new plants face a considerable barrier to entry in the marketplace having to purchase new allowances in order to gain a permit to build. Existing owners and operators could cement their place on the high ground for years to come.
  • Nuclear providers could end up with amazing benefit given that allowances are doled out in response to the percentage of national generation. Since nuclear provides nearly 20% of our nation’s power they could wind up with 20% of the carbon allowances that are unneeded and could be resold. As Peltier puts it, “For utilities with a lot of nuclear generation, these allowances are a gift.”
  • Original distributions of allowances to older coal plants could encourage them to remain open given that the allowances could be worth more than the plants themselves. As long as a utility provider can keep the plant open (and continue to be spewing carbon) long enough for allowances to be doled out, they will be handed a nice, tax-payer sponsored retirement plan.

I encourage the reading of the entire article.

Even staunch environmentalists like Joe Romm consider this a flawed bill and it is wrought with concessions and exceptions that help make its passage plausible, but in the end it may be worth it. Though large nuclear owners do not need any extra money, rewarding their low-carbon model is not exactly counter-productive (besides the fact that they produce some of the most hazardous material known to mankind.) If entry into the energy market for high carbon producers is more expensive, that seems fine as well. We should be discouraging carbon-intensive models for power. Giving allowances to coal plants on the verge of decommissioning is a more difficult one to swallow given that coal is already responsible for pollution in the country that has either been suffered or needs to be repaired. The notion of buying out the problem leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but how much can we expect from American legislators.

Peltier does a great job in giving an overview of the issue. Being an advocate for sustainability reform is one thing, but being an educated advocate raises the likelihood of making notable progress. Though some of the contributors and frequent readers of Master Resource may not share my position of the severity of a more sustainable economy, their knowledge of the energy markets is thorough and often provide much-needed points to ground the aspirations of new technologies and bold, but sometimes half-baked, claims.

Recycled Paper

In an international landscape, many claim that sustainable measures in the U.S. lose their steam if the industrial economies of China and India are not on board. Similarly, within the U.S., efforts of individual citizens need to be paired with corporations doing their part to change the course of business to greener ends. A recent study suggests that some large corporations are beginning to alter their daily operations to align themselves with greener options of stocking their paper products. According to the Green Grades report of twelve companies, conducted jointly by the Dogwood Alliance and Forest Ethics, corporate powerhouses like Fed-Ex and Office Depot are on the path to a more sustainable paper trail while others still have a long way to go.

The Green Grades study looked at six areas of sustainable paper usage including FSC certified products, avoiding paper from endangered forests and recycling policies. Fed-Ex stood at the head of the class, earning an “A-“ from the study for excelling in responsible sourcing of materials and using FSC certified products. They are not a bad company to be leading the pack as not only one of the largest shipping companies by the owners and operators of one of the largest copy-center chains as well. Followed by Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax, some of the bellwethers seem to be catching on.

On the other hand, not every company can join Bank of America  and its One Bryant Park as the epitome of environmental reform. Some companies have yet to even scratch the surface. I was surprised by some of the laggards. Amazon.com and Costco received failing grades, followed closely by the “D+” rankings of Target and Wal-Mart, all apparently suffering from sourcing their paper products from endangered forests and questionable suppliers.

There is a lot to be said for targeting paper products as a component of our waste stream. According to the EPA, in 2007 paper and paperboard comprise a third of our waste— 83 million tons. The negative effects of the paper industry are also relatively immediate and encompassing. Illegal logging in both Asia and South America lead the destruction of rain forests and risk removing entire ecosystems of life around the planet, not to mention the tremendous carbon sinks that old growth trees provide.

But the largest waste source is also one of the easiest to fix. Sustainable forestry is growing in popularity as organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council gain exposure and notoriety. As digital media continues to advance, numerous extraneous paper habits can be replaced with a bit of foresight and focus. For the material that has to still be printed, paper is also one of the easiest products to recycle.

I was not surprised at the deficiencies in recycling which comprised the lower marks of even the highest ranking companies. Years ago, a discussion I had with Tom Rhoads of the Onondaga Country Resource Recovery Agency in Syracuse, New York, he told me that when it came to recycling many residents were already on board, earning Syracuse one of the highest recycling rates in the state. But it was the businesses that were notoriously hard to convince. Here in Manhattan the field is much the same.

It is markedly easy for a slightly educated consumer to contribute to more sustainable paper purchasing. Whether it is essentials like paper plates, toilet paper and paper towels or supplies like printer paper, purchasing FSC certified or recycled content is a small added price to pay (perhaps an extra dollar) while the effects are far reaching. The more responsible materials we can purchase, the more that the rise in demand will shift jobs from older corners of the industry to their more responsible counterparts until a new standard is fully implemented and better practices are commonplace. Less consumption and waste all lead to fewer landfills, lower costs of removal, more efficient manufacturing and healthier ecosystems to reduce the carbon pressure on the environment.

Vote GraphicThey are hidden amongst the mail, often getting tossed aside for the Economist, Business Week or the new IKEA catalog. “Proxy Information Enclosed” often lays printed across the front as a faint reminder to the stock purchase that was made days to months ago. These often-ignored ballots of corporate policy could offer a new alternative to government intervention for spreading sustainability through the upper echelon of our corporate landscape.

For those like me, proxy statements often get a quick look at best. A glance almost always reveals that I have never heard of any of those running for board positions, nor know enough to vote for or against any of the resolutions. However, a new trend is forming that has investors of public companies using proxy resolutions to drive upper management towards sustainability planning. While this has been slowly happening over the course of the past few years, the change in the game is that it is starting to work.

A blog post by Marc Gunther points to a proxy vote for utility company IdaCorp, based in Boise, Idaho, where investors drew together a 51.2% majority in favor of the company adopting greenhouse gas emission targets—despite the resistance from the company’s management. The win could mark a new trend of American equity owners forcing sustainability up through individual companies.

Of the conservatives that I often pair words with, one of the greatest oppositions to the green lobby is not that they disagree with the need to address climate change, but that they dislike the method of using government intervention to “restrict choices” of citizens to only those considered to be more sustainable. Right-wingers would rather see a free market option that facilitates the opportunity to change lifestyle rather than mandating it. Gathering support for green-goal investing could create a new way to incite change within the framework of capitalism that our country has come to rely on so heavily.

Some could argue that individual investors would be muscled around by larger institutional investing groups, keeping them from achieving results—especially on larger companies that are responsible for more considerable portions of waste production, pollution and energy use. But IdaCorp’s example shows that individuals are joined by non-profits and new funds, adding strength to proxy movements.

Groups like Ceres help coordinate efforts to promote change within company policy. Ceres states its mission as “Integrating sustainability into capital markets for the health of the planet and its people” and operates as a network of environmental organizations, public interest groups and an investor network that collectively manage over $7 billion in assets. That is a number that can be a substantial presence in a larger range of companies. According to Ceres:

A record 68 climate-related shareholder resolutions were filed by investors this year, of which 31 were withdrawn after the companies agreed to positive climate-related commitments.

For conservatives, this should be a win-win. On one hand, it promotes Americans to reinvest their money back into our own businesses, helping to bolster an economy that is in dire need of it. It also acts on a case-by-case basis as the result of nothing more than investors exercising their rights as owners of a company—potentially downplaying the amount of effort needed from Capitol Hill. If the support for green efforts is as strong as polls like Zogby International’s recent inquiry is saying, then private investing dollars could help battle inefficiency and accountability from the private sector side.

Strength in the movement could not have happened at a better time. With many people believing that the worst of the recession is behind us, long term trends in the market are likely bullish, prompting more people to stay invested in companies that have a better chance of turning a profit. Conversely, if this kind of success had happened three years ago, the effort could have faced a devastating setback by numerous investors working to change companies only to see their assets cut in half.

As our technological boundaries continue to be conquered and redrawn, there are some on the bleeding edge of innovation that seem to blur the line between technology and magic. What Cambridge, Massachusetts based Joule Biotechnologies is claiming to have accomplished seems nothing short of magical: putting organisms, sunlight and carbon dioxide into a box and making a viable petroleum substitute appear. No drilling, no burning off waste. According to the company, that has been operating in stealth mode for nearly two years time, they are ushering in the new standard of fuel as essentially, liquid solar power.

“There is no question that viable, renewable fuels are vitally important, both for economic and environmental reasons. And while many novel approaches have been explored, none has been able to clear the roadblocks caused by high production costs, environmental burden and lack of real scale,” said Bill Sims, president and CEO.

If correct, their plan can take two of the most abundant things on the planet—photons and carbon dioxide—and circumvent the need to be drilling more wells searching for oil. Their “black box” is dubbed a Solar Converter, which reportedly uses proprietary organisms to induce photosynthesis, creating a hydrocarbon liquid the company calls SolarFuel. Simms points out that this separates them from a biofuel process, like ethanol, which uses a plant base for its feed stock.

SolarFuel

The prospect of sun fed fuel could impressively leap-frog the ethanol industry, replacing it as the renewable fuel of choice given that its carbon footprint could vastly outperform ethanol’s much debated, corn-based and energy intensive process. Eventually, such a model could propose to achieve the impossible: bring the use and production of our country’s fuel to a level of stasis with the net input of carbon equaling the net output of its use.

Joule Biotech says they can create 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre at roughly $50 a barrel with current subsidies, certainly a competitive price point out of the box. Furthermore, the fuel is purportedly going to be compatible with existing engines for diesel and gasoline, wiping out the potential snag of retooling an industry. With a pilot plant scheduled to come online in 2010, their next milestone could be a ramp up for commercial scale production in 2012 with additional investing. Despite not knowing how cleanly the fuel burns in comparison to ethanol or conventional gasoline, the prospects of carbon improvement on the national scale are far-reaching.

So where is the downside? I had trouble finding one myself. Though I have to admit that the claims bring to mind another magical fix that spawned years ago called Thermal Conversion Process (TCP) technology developed by a company called Renewable Energy Solutions.

Their process claimed to make synthetic petroleum from super-heating agricultural and industrial waste such as tires, plastics and paper. The idea seemed attractive when they claimed their only by-products were fuel gas (butane, methane, propane mix), synthetic oil and water. The prospects seemed to offer a solution to not only our foreign oil dilemma, but a significant portion of our waste issue as well with (similarly) a virtually unlimited feedstock. Unfortunately, it seems no new plants other than the pilot plant in Carthage Missouri have been constructed and for some reason, they have not catalyzed a new standard in fuel production. Hopefully, we will be hearing much more from Joule Biotech in the near future.

On Tuesday I trekked over to the Javits Center on the West Side to spend the day at the Green Buildings NY expo. Overall it was an interesting collection of professionals and products that focused on managing and fitting buildings for sustainability. I had the chance to talk to a number of people and sit in on some conference sessions. Here are some of the highlights that the expo had to offer:

Efficiency through Water Reuse

AllianceEnvironmental_LogoI find it fascinating how seasoned professionals of any industry can create a presentation to highlight all of its environmental short comings. Edward Clerico of Alliance Environmental LLC painted a bleak picture of our water infrastructure. In his efforts to promote on-site filtration and reuse, he began in saying that our system of water supply and disposal uses 8 quads (that’s quadrillion BTUs) of energy every year. At the same time he pointed to how far on-site filtration systems have become and how greywater could become increasingly common. Uses such as site irrigation, cooling tower make-up and laundry washing can help buildings like the Solaire and One Bryant Park cut their water usage and discharge in half.

Green Demolitions

Based out of New England, Green Demolitions offers free demolition and removal of kitchens and bathrooms so that they can be completely reclaimed and resold for use in new projects. The prospective client can enjoy a sizable tax deduction instead of a hefty contractor bill for the removal. Speaking with John Green, manager of their Bethel, NY store, I learned the company donates all of its projects to Recovery Unlimited—a non profit dedicated to helping with substance abuse. Consumers can regularly spend 50%-80% less for a new kitchens, bathrooms or appliances. Their cause has lead them to not only provide a charitable source of income, but divert tons of material from landfills as they promote reuse.

Greenpatch Pavement

Greenpatch is one of the players exploring the new realm of cold asphalt pavement. Hearing “green” and “asphalt” next to each other was surprising to me, but the product specializing in filling potholes and repairing roads has numerous sustainable benefits. Not only does the asphalt require no heat to be applied (which saves a generous amount of energy) but it can also be manufactured at lower temperatures (which saves even more.) Its mix contains 40% recycled asphalt and no petroleum solvents. Unlike other cold-patch products, Greenpatch contains zero Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that normally can leech into the ground or off-gas into the air. Even their packaging is recyclable. Overall, it was an impressive product.

JM Insulation

int_head_logoJohns Manville is a producer of many building products, one of them being fiberglass insulation. Again, normally the term causes environmentalists or green building proponents to roll their eyes and turn back towards soy-based, blow-in alternatives. But these guys are making an attempt to give fiberglass a better name. Their insulation uses 25% recycled glass with 20% being post-consumer glass (more than any other manufacturer.) They actually claim that fiberglass insulation is the largest secondary market for recycled glass. Their new line has removed all formaldehyde, a common ingredient in bonding agents, from their insulation to help with indoor air quality.

Retro-Commissioning

Allan Skodowski gave an enlightening talk on the importance of retro-commissioning. Any building seeking LEED certification is familiar with commissioning, a process that tests the designed systems of a building to make sure they function as intended and with peak efficiency. But Skodowski, who helps commission buildings for Transwestern, says that existing buildings should also be commissioned to ensure their systems are not falling into lethargy and negligence. As technologies improve and systems wear down, most buildings can run at around 78% of average energy costs through commissioning—a number that can drop to 60% with dedicated, consistent study.

With the growing media focus on energy and carbon it is easy to lose sight of all the things that contribute to our energy usage and our carbon footprints. The strict focus on small parts of our economy’s environmental challenges only emulates how prone we are to isolating concepts and events rather than continually viewing our actions as an interconnected whole. Waste production is another prime place for progress that is not so far away from carbon caps and the renewable energy debate. The collection, sorting, compacting, dumping and even recycling of waste all uses energy so to strip down its girth is a boon to our greater goals. When it comes to waste, plastics stand out as a prime target for reorganization and an answer that quickly comes to mind is biopolymers—naturally based plastic compounds. Continue Reading…

I repeatedly suggest that one of the largest barriers to a more sustainable economy is ignorance. Most people are simply not aware of the problems, let alone the solutions, and as such the pitch for a different lifestyle (call is environmentally sound, ecologically efficient or simply “green”) can be a tough sell. So if the problem is a lack of education who is responsible for fixing it? We are quick to point fingers at tech companies, developers, car manufacturers—the producers of “stuff” that we consume to keep our economy afloat. But at the end of the day we cannot pile all of the onus on entities and organizations to force information onto us, we too have a responsibility to seek it out for ourselves. Continue Reading…

With a growing population raising the need for food, water and energy efficiency of spatial utilization is paramount. Our cities should be denser and farmland managed with greater care. But what if we could take some of the harshest land on the planet and use it to supplement these needs at a low cost? Three firms have proposed a method to use the Sahara Desert as the next prime ground for creating fresh food, fresh water and clean energy. Despite the fact that the project has been around for over a year, it exemplifies the kind of coordination and synergy that Intercon promotes and the direction our society should be moving towards.

via exploration-architecture.com

The center of the project begins in collaboration. I find it no coincidence that innovative thinking is the result of numerous minds from different, but interconnected, fields working together. Shaping the vision are the firms Exploration Architecture, Seawater Greenhouse Limited and Max Fordham & Partners—architects, water specialists and environmental engineers respectively. Like all areas of study, each of these three offer a vintage of expertise that bears opportunities for interconnection with others.

This triumvirate based their innovative offensive in the face of a slow-moving but devastating dilemma: the growing of the world’s deserts. With all of the issues that the planet has on its plate right now (war, recession, healthcare, global warming) the issue of desertification is not on the radar screen of many, but its existence is very real. The miles of flat, arid landscapes with their unyielding temperatures and unforgiving sandy soils expand their borders every year, swallowing more fertile land and stripping it of its moisture. Up until now we have accepted this occurrence as a problem beyond our ability to address.

But then again, maybe we can. Using an interconnected combination of Concentrated Solar Power fields and Seawater Greenhouses the system can theoretically function indefinitely with nearly no influx of new energy or resources.

Sahara Forest Diagram

How it Works:

To begin, seawater is drawn into each greenhouse complex and dripped over evaporators to be turned into vapor, creating a warm, humid environment poised for growing plants. More water suspended in the air reduces the amount of fresh water needed for direct irrigation. When the air is cycled through the greenhouse to bring more carbon dioxide to the plants, the humid air is released back into the atmosphere and adds moisture to the local environment. The design team proposes that with enough acreage, it may contribute enough added moisture to induce local rainfall.

The evaporators find their necessary power from Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) arrays stretched out across the landscape. Using mirrors to focus sunlight and heat liquid for steam production, CSP is viewed by many as the most viable source of renewable energy in the near term. It can be twice as efficient as photovoltaic panels in energy production as it uses the sun’s energy to create power. The system also produces a great deal of waste heat.

By themselves, these two systems are impressive technologies with a great deal of potential, but linked and integrated together, their possibilities rise exponentially. The excess heat of the CSP facilities can be captured through cogeneration and used for the desalination of more saltwater. The project team estimates that onsite power can desalinate 40 million cubic meters of water for terawatt-hour of harvested solar power—that is over 10.5 billion gallons. Strips of greenhouses can be arranged to shield the CSP mirror arrays and reduce dust and sand collection that lowers their efficiency. Three new export streams can emerge from each project location, all of which are in extreme demand around the globe: clean power, fresh water, fresh food.

Cyclical Progress:

As with any good system built on ecological underpinnings, its function begets its own continued success. Theoretically, as the installations grow in size and number more sand is replaced with greenhouses or planted fields. Moisture content in the air will continue to rise while the ground temperature of more acres will continue to fall. The expansion of deserts could be reversed to eventually re-vegetate some of the world’s harshest climates turning them into net producers of vital resources.

While the project is an impressive map for a regenerative, progressive model, I think that the possibilities go even further.

  • Plant waste from greenhouses is rich in nutrients and can be composted to produce a base for naturally fertilizing future crops or spread over surrounding area to instigate new native plant growth.
  • Another possibility is taking a page from the city of  Kalundborg’s playbook and using the wealth of heated salt water for fish farming. This could produce yet another food crop and another organic waste stream that can be used to create organic fertilizers.
  • So much desalination will also produce a great deal of salt, which draws us back to CSP. One of the reasons CSP seems so promising is the opportunity for power storage with heated salt solutions being one of the frontrunners. Eventually, excess power could be sold day and night to surrounding townships.

So what’s the catch? Well how much it costs to build solar greenhouses, CSP arrays and the labor to manage them all has to factor in somehow and chart a realistic time frame for expansion. There is also the fact that the Sahara is the world’s largest desert (3.3 million square miles) and constitutes nearly a quarter of Africa. Such statistics begs the question of how many facilities would have to be created before the stated goal of local climate alteration was actually achieved. The number could be staggering.

While I give the project a great deal of respect, we always have to remember that all of our operations and endeavors are subordinate to a much larger system. Even if the project does succeed, I have to ask what affect would a green Sahara have on the rest of the world’s ecosystems? Would rainfall in the Sahara prompt drier spells somewhere else? Could wind patterns or coastal currents change as a result of cooler regional temperatures? As interested as I am about the finer details that all seem to point towards success, I would also be curious about an analysis of the possibilities for global weather repercussions. Even the best of intentions do not occur in a vacuum.

Photo Credit: www.exploration-architecture.com

one-bryant-parkMany people still seem to be interested in the new Bank of America Headquarters at One Bryant Park. Not surprising really—the greenest skyscraper in the world is something to marvel at. As a result, I decided to do a definitive case study on the building so more people could know exactly how green the skyscraper is. Having had the pleasure of working at Cook+Fox and specifically with Rick Cook and Bob Fox, I can speak to their holistic approach to sustainability and scrutiny that they apply to every design challenge. For those that know Rick and Bob, a finished product like One Bryant Park is no surprise.

The new Bank of America headquarters sits on the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, overlooking the trees of Bryant Park leading up to the New York Public Library. Owned by the Durst Organization and designed by Cook+Fox Architects, at 54 stories the glass curtain wall skin of the tower rises to 944 and a half feet above the street with a spire that tops out at 1200 feet, making it the second tallest building in the city beneath the Empire State Building. In its 2.1 million square feet, the building seeks to become the greenest skyscraper in the city, and possibly the globe, being the first building of its height to earn a LEED Platinum rating from the United States Green Building Council and the second in the state of New York (after Cook+Fox’s own office.)

It is impossible to find a sustainable solution to a design problem that is not catered specifically to its immediate environment. Cook+Fox started with the site itself as a storehouse of opportunity. There are few concepts more inherently sustainable than density. Placed in the heart of midtown, the decision to build higher with more square feet anchors the project in efficiency from the start. Its location places the building on the same block as two subway stations, now linked beneath the tower, with access to 17 subway lines. Grand Central Station sits only two blocks away to yield an amazing access to the rest of the city and beyond. Utilizing one of the best mass transit systems in the country is essential to supporting more transit growth in our nation and steering the populace away from car usage.

Despite New York’s accomplishments, there are aspects of its aging infrastructure that remain fragile. One of the most prominent examples is its sewage and stormwater system. Like many old, American cities, New York was built in an age known for unbridled expansion and industrial strength—not environmental stewardship. As a result it has a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system which means that rainfall brings stormwater flowing into the sewage pipes. Even a small amount of rain can cause the sewers to reach capacity and stress the treatment facilities of the city. To relieve the congestion a mixture of rain and raw sewage overflows directly into the Hudson river. Any effort that minimizes the release of sewage or stormwater from a site lowers the risk of environmental damage by CSOs.

One Bryant Park collects every drop of rainwater that falls on its site, nearly 48 inches per year. A series of collection tanks distributed throughout the floors can store over 329,000 gallons of water that is used for irrigating plants and flushing the building’s toilets. But it does not end there. Greywater treatment on the site takes water from the building and treats it for use in the cooling towers that returns water back to the atmosphere in the form of vapor—essentially completing a cycle back to nature. Cook+Fox helped to cut the building’s water usage by half employing low-flow lavatory sinks and waterless urinals.

The building also stands as a prime example of how our cities can move towards a decentralized energy grid. Right now, our national grid is a bit clunky and kind of like a leaky pipe. For many power plants, pointedly the throng of aging coal plants in the US, as much as 66% of the energy produced can be lost right out of the stack in the form of heat. An additional 7-10% is lost in transmission so collectively three quarters of the energy we produce can be lost before it even gets used. The tower proves to be perhaps the best example to date of tapping into onsite generation. A 4.6-megawatt, natural gas-fired cogeneration plant provides two thirds of the buildings electrical demand and is expected to reach 77% efficiency (zero transmission.)

The usage of the energy is also maximized to provide the least amount of stress on the surrounding grid. At night, while demand in the building is low, the power will be used to make ice in 44 storage tanks in the basement of the building. During the day, this ice is allowed to melt and used to cool the air of the building, drastically lowering its energy consumption during peak hours.

OBP 1When it comes to air quality, the building pushes the envelope again to deliver fresh air to the entire building that is filtered of 95% of particulates. Even more commendable is that the air that leaves the building will thus be notably cleaner than the air that goes in, rendering the structure as a public air filter for midtown. When the air does reach building occupants, it comes through an underfloor air system—a pressurized air plenum beneath removable floor tiles, that brings tempered air closer to occupied space rather than originating from the ceiling.

Sustainability is a cyclical concept knowing that there is no finality to the life of any process or product. Rather it is merely the prelude to another use or stage of existence. In order to minimize the impact of new construction it is vital to use materials that decrease the net lifecycle costs of the project including the material that comes in and the waste that goes out. One Bryant Park managed to surpass its goal of recycling 75% of its construction waste to end at 83%. Additionally, with materials such as concrete with blast furnace slag and 60% recycled steel, the building contains 35% recycled content.

One way to tackle energy savings is by incorporating efficient fixtures for workplace illumination. One Bryant Park chose to tap into more daylight for workspaces, evident by its clear exterior. By using baked frit to reflect light outside of the main vision plane, each floor has floor to ceiling glass that allows light to penetrate deeper into spaces and minimizing the need interior lighting and providing views of the city.

In two industries (New York development and corporate banking) where cost is always paramount it may seem counterintuitive that this team placed so much time and equity in making sure that their building embraced green qualities. Moreover, the fact that a financial institution was convinced that sustainable systems would prove profitable investments is a boon to the movement as a whole. So how did that work exactly? Yes, saving water and energy also saves money but the payback on such systems takes time and is likely not large enough to be considered a revenue stream. What turned heads was looking at how work conditions affected the productivity of employees. While the figures for environmental productivity are constantly debated, consider only 1% of a common working day: 5 minutes. The firm estimated that increasing the 1% increase in productivity of the workers in One Bryant Park would yield $10 million every year (a number clearly visible on the balance sheet.)

In many ways One Bryant Park stands as what will hopefully become a new standard in high rise, urban development. Like any successful ecology, all parts of the building process must be in concert in order to create a product of such caliber. From client, to tenant, to designers and builders, all components of creation and use were necessary to reach such an outcome.

[UPDATE:  An article on New Republic took a stab at trying to diminish the progress of One Bryant Park while also taking a jab at LEED. My response to that article can be found here]