Thomas White Global Investing
Green Reports

July 20, 2011

The Green Report

Tinkering with Towers: Smart skyscrapers could help us reduce emissions

Tinkering with Towers: Smart skyscrapers could help us reduce emissions

Energy-efficient skyscrapers could help bring down green house emissions to a great extent over the next few decades, with retrofitted old buildings helping as much as new technologically superior buildings in cutting down carbon dioxide.


The skyscrapers of the world come in different colors. But all of them undisputedly crave to go green. And their desire to achieve greenness is going to have a profoundly great effect on our great planet.

One might wonder what buildings could achieve by making small changes such as equipping themselves with energy-efficient bulbs and undergoing a retrofit with heat-insulating windows. The unequivocal answer to this question is – quite a bit.

Defining our urban landscape, skyscrapers are some of the largest energy-guzzlers. In the U.S., tall commercial and rental buildings, including condominiums, account for 65% of the electricity consumed and 30% of the green-house gases emitted. As a result, incremental savings in energy consumed by these concrete creatures could go a long way in helping prevent our planet from getting warmer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) opines that among the major sources of carbon emissions including transportation, power generation, agriculture and buildings, it is the buildings that have the greatest potential to trim their emissions at minimal costs. If carbon emissions were to be priced, say at around $20 a ton, buildings are expected to automatically reduce nearly five million tons of carbon dioxide. That is more than twice the amount that the automobile industry would save for the same price of carbon emissions. Another study suggests buildings could help reduce nearly 200 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next three decades.

With or without carbon-pricing, today’s construction and property development industry is taking the green path. Indeed, every newly constructed building across the world wants itself to be branded “green”, eyeing the huge value behind the “green” label.

Partly due to this reason, the industry has worked hard to define what constitutes a “green” building and the rules to get the label. In the U.S., many construction and development companies follow the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green rating system. According to this system, buildings are offered points based on their energy efficiency, water efficiency, and the quality of the indoor air. Buildings above certain points are labeled “Gold” and further up are given “Platinum” ratings. LEED certified Gold and Platinum buildings are considered to have 50% to 70% less environmental impact over conventional buildings.

Old skyscrapers offer immense potential in the fight against global
warming. Small but significant changes in the way they operate
and function could result in an 80% reduction in the amount
of green house gases they emit by 2050.

Although the initial price tag to construct a LEED-certified building could significantly outweigh the cost to build a conventional building, the extra outlay to build the LEED-certified building is recouped within a short time due to energy and resource savings. What’s more, a research paper published by the University of Reading reveals that on average LEED-certified buildings are likely to command rents that are 6% higher and sale prices at a 35% premium over comparable conventional buildings.

So it appears that new buildings constructed to specific standards will obviously payoff in the long-term. But how about squeezing some savings from old buildings that have stood straight defining our cities for several decades and some even for a century? After all, buildings that are more than a decade old and number nearly 4.5 million in the U.S. make up nearly 99% of the country’s building stock. To effectively reduce emissions, maximum energy savings have to come from these old-buildings. However, old commercial buildings often carry a stigma: they are an energy drain and little can be done to make them efficient.

Contrary to popular notion, experts say it is actually quite easy to make our aging towers more efficient. In fact, for many companies looking to cut costs by reducing waste, the best place to start could be the building itself. Unlike the fancy energy-efficient technologies that new buildings boast, existing building save pennies by spraying insulation material inside radiator holes and installing energy-efficient glass instead of completely removing windows. And such tinkering activities are much more efficient than adding a solar panel or a wind mill to the roof. A study by the U.S. Green Building Council points out that by retrofitting skyscrapers, property developers could save 90 cents per square foot every year. Another study by Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate and property management firm, says that the money invested in retrofitting buildings could pay for itself within two to three years. According to the U.S. Energy Star program, using the energy-efficient fluorescent bulb in the place of an incandescent one alone could bring down the cost of lighting in an old building substantially as a fluorescent bulb could last up to 10 times longer than incandescent ones. Under such a scenario, the higher costs associated with installing a fluorescent bulb is estimated to be recouped within six months.

Encouraged by such tangible profits, many local governments and city councils are chomping at the bit to turn their stodgy buildings into smart ones. A case in point is the New York City Council’s plan to reduce its carbon footprint through a set of four laws. The city’s PlaNYC program targets to achieve a 5% reduction in emissions simply by making old buildings energy-efficient. The PlaNYC, which is estimated to result in energy savings worth $15-billion, is an important part of the quest to cut total emissions by 30% in 2030. In a similar plan, the Australian city of Melbourne hopes to reduce energy consumption of its 1,200-odd office buildings by 38% in 2020.

Unlike many other industries, where going green literally means imposing another type of tax on the business, going green in the property industry promises to stimulate economic activity. For instance, New York’s PlaNYC is estimated to create nearly 19,000 jobs directly associated with the city’s retrofitting efforts. The drive to go voluntarily green among many property development firms is also unleashing the entrepreneurial energy of a whole new generation. The CEO of Surface Materials, Kevin Surace, is one among them.

Mr. Surace’s firm, which manufactures EcoRock, an environment-friendly drywall that was named as the product of the year by the Popular Science magazine, bought a number of bankrupt factories during the depth of the financial crisis and kept many jobs alive thanks to the retrofitting opportunity from the construction industry. Surace’s EcoRock, used in place of traditional-gypsum, is made up of 80% recycled materials and generates 60% less dust during its manufacture compared to gypsum. In 2009, Inc. magazine named Mr.Surace Entrepreneur of the Year.

So it seems that old buildings, often derided for their inefficient and energy-guzzling ways, could now stand tall once again, emerging as some of the most useful soldiers in the fight against the warming of our great planet. And that’s not too shabby.

Image Credit: Clemens v.Vogelsang on Flickr under a Creative Commons license



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