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In this era of ultra modern smart buildings we can often forget about the iconic and pioneering buildings of the past but some of these old timers are showing up the new kids on the block. Approaching its 90th birthday, the Empire State Building in New York is one such example. Retrofitted with advanced technologies, it now stands a role model to many so-called modern smart buildings.

Completed in 1931, the 102 story building in New York midtown area is an icon of the city’s ambition and long-running prosperity. However, like many buildings of its generation, it had fallen behind younger buildings in terms of energy efficiency and system intelligence. Changes in design thinking and construction ability, along with a whole host of smart technologies, mean that today’s buildings are almost unrecognisable on the inside and out.

In 2009, Empire State Realty Trust and Clinton Climate Initiative Cities program created a partnership with the objective of bringing the legendary building up to modern environmental standards. The Empire State Building project brought in Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), Johnson Controls (JCI) and Rocky Mountain Institute to collaborate on the retrofit project. The $550 million upgrade hoped to make the building an example of retrofitting for sustainability.

An ambitious target of 38% reduction in energy consumption was tabled, which would return $4.4 million in energy saving per year and shine a positive light on the building’s green credentials. Despite the challenge of overcoming outdated systems and antiquated design, the project has consistently beaten its own target each year over the nine years since the project began – proving age does not need to be a barrier when going green and getting smart.

Today, the Empire State Building’s smart spaces use a combination of connected solutions that enable electricity consumption management. It has also initiated a number of “green” programs for water conservation and recycling, even showing off concepts like waterless urinals and refurbished windows.

At the center of the retrofit, Johnson Controls introduced an efficient building management system. Based on wireless sensor technology, Metasys enables smart automated control over property systems – cooling, electricity, room temperature, indoor air quality, etc. The system is connected to various sensors strategically located around the property. Tracking CO2, light and temperature levels, as well as motion and load occupancy, the building collects data, self-monitors system condition and provides efficient coordination while minimizing energy waste.

The building managers now have the levels of visibility and control found in most modern smart buildings. This functionality is also passed on to the tenants, which in turn is luring companies that would otherwise have been considering only modern smart buildings.

The benefits for one tenant, Skanska USA, were highlighted in a case study published on the building’s website. “Today, the company’s ESB office, which takes the entire 32nd floor, benefits from a 57% reduction in its electricity spending compared to its previous residence. For the record, besides environmental benefits, Skanska receives generous a financial return for committing to the project. This reduction translates to a total savings of approximately $680,000 for energy costs over the life of Skanska’s 15-year lease,” reads the study.

After an investigation by the US Green Building Council, Skanska’s office in the Empire State Building was certified LEED Platinum, while the building as a whole achieved LEED Gold. “By earning LEED Gold, the Empire State Building has sent a powerful message that green buildings don’t have to be new – even the most iconic, historic buildings, as grand in scale as in reputation, can be among the most high-performing, energy-efficient, green buildings,” said Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chair of USGBC.

The benefits don’t stop at environmental responsibility and consequent cost saving either. These types of improvements bring about a variety of benefits for occupant health and wellbeing, which in turn supports productivity, as highlighted by our landmark report ‘The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT Era.’

According to a new Harvard University study on green-certified intelligent buildings, on average, for every dollar saved on energy costs by smart buildings, another 77 cents is saved in health and climate benefits. In other words, in addition to $7.5 billion in savings, studied buildings effortlessly make $6 billion. Based on those figures, the Empire State Building should produce $3.4 million worth of health and climate value atop of the expected $4.4 million energy efficiency return.

Just as it was in the 1930s, the Empire State Building stands as a beacon for modern innovation and design. Energy efficient, intelligent and still improving, the Empire State Building is role model for all older structures who see smart technology as “a young building’s game.” This is not a pensioner that was taken shopping by their grandchildren, this is a pensioner that replaced all its organs with younger versions and can now run rings around many of the kids. The iconic building has now become the best advertisement for retrofitting in the building space.