Green Giant?

The rebuilt World Trade Center complex could be a model of sustainable building

| May 2003

Early one morning last month, over fresh-squeezed orange juice and silver platters of breakfast treats, a coterie of New York?s leading architects, developers, politicians, and environmentalists convened in a chandeliered room at the Embassy Suites hotel in lower Manhattan for a conference entitled ?Greening Our Downtown.? The keynote speaker was Gov. George Pataki (R), who was there to receive an award from the U.S. Green Building Council for his efforts to promote green buildings in his state and, in particular, in downtown New York City.

The USGBC, which hosted the event, presented Pataki with a sculpture of an oak tree with leaves of glittering green stone?a camera-friendly token of appreciation in an event marked by the predictable quantity of photo-ops and sound bites. But amid the posturing, a few ideas of surprising substance, even sweeping vision, emerged: First, that more than any other resource-intensive industry (including the one based in Detroit), the building industry is poised to make tremendous strides in energy efficiency and the adoption of clean technologies in the next five to 10 years. Second, that downtown New York?and in particular the World Trade Center site?can and should become a model of green building that accelerates a worldwide shift toward sustainable building and alternative energy.

Before getting into the details of how these visions could play out, I must confess not only that I am a card-carrying member of the USGBC, but also that I helped to organize the conference. So much for my journalistic impartiality, you say, but the truth is that I am something of an imposter in the green-building world: My interest has never really been in the buildings themselves, but in the energy technology they can showcase. Given my energy-centric attitude, it was somewhat troubling to discover at the conference that renewable energy is just a small twinkle in a vast constellation of green-building components.

Take the Green Building Council?s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, which is the industry standard in certifying green buildings. The LEED system assigns new buildings up to 69 total points: A basic LEED ?certified? rating requires at least 26 points, a ?silver? rating requires at least 33 points, ?gold? requires at least 39 points, and ?platinum? requires 52 points, or 75 percent of the maximum possible. Points are awarded in six different categories: site selection, water efficiency, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, energy and atmosphere, and innovation. Within these categories, points can be awarded for features ranging from the inclusion of a bicycle room and a non-smoking clause in the building to installing carbon dioxide monitors in conference rooms (poor ventilation leads to high CO2 levels) and, oh yes, solar panels on the roof.

Unfortunately for alternative-energy buffs, on-site renewable energy generation can fetch a developer a maximum of three points in the LEED system (one point for generating 5 percent of the building?s total energy demands, two points for 10 percent, and three points for 20 percent). Furthermore, the developer can only get one point for buying green power from the grid. The limited importance of clean energy measures in the LEED system could have a significant impact on the redevelopment of downtown Manhattan.

A case in point is the redevelopment of World Trade Center 7, which will be the first building at the site to be rebuilt (it has a different architect than the central Ground Zero complex) and is already in the final planning stages. Even though developer Larry Silverstein has registered the building for LEED certification, energy efficiency and renewable energy have been almost completely overlooked in the building design. ?World Trade Center 7 will barely meet efficiency codes,? says Ashok Gupta, the Natural Resources Defense Council?s leading energy economist, who has been consulting on the project. ?The problem is that developers can get LEED certification without addressing energy issues at all. They can accumulate enough points in the other categories to make the cut.?

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