August 7, 2013
The Bank of America Tower: Still Not as Green As Its Owners Claim
Grand claims of being green stall the long-overdue conversation about the complexities of saving energy and cutting emissions
In a recent blogpost, Lloyd Alter, managing editor at Treehugger, took issue with my piece criticizing the Bank of America Tower’s environmental efficacy in the New Republic article. It made him “angry.” I’m sorry that it did, but only because he got angry for the wrong reasons.
My central point is not too complex: the building’s owners made grandiose claims about the building being good for the environment, claims like “most sustainable” and “most environmentally responsible.” Based on an analysis of the tower’s energy consumption and emissions, the built environment’s greatest environmental impacts, I found that in comparison to other gigantic bank and office buildings, the building performed among the worst in the city. To borrow a technical term from Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, this is bullshit.
Let’s start with the first thing that bothered Alter: “One always knows that if an article starts off with Al Gore, then there is going to be green-bashing, he is the standard lightning rod and happens to be a tenant in the building.”
Al Gore is not just a tenant in the building, he is not an ancillary character trampled in my bloodlust to destroy something pure, green, and beautiful. Gore spoke at the opening of the tower, which is to say he officially lent his credibility to the building’s environmental claims. Gore’s investment company, which focuses on “sustainable investing,” is a tenant of the building in part because of its supposed environmental benefit. When one of the most famous environmentalists in the world vouches for the benefits of a building that is not good for the environment in the areas (energy, emissions) that matter most, well I would say that’s an important thing to note.
Next, Alter takes issue with my analysis of the building. In my analysis I compare buildings of similar size and function to buildings of similar size and function, rather than just compare all the buildings of a similar type, regardless of size. I did this not to cherry pick data, but because, according to a variety of building scientists I’ve spoken to in my investigating and reporting: this is the most accurate comparison you can make. When you compare buildings, you want to compare like with like, including metrics like size, function, and location. The more similarities the better the comparison. The energy consumption of a building per square foot might be higher, even significantly higher on a building of 70,000 square feet than one that is 2.2 million square feet (like the BofA Tower), but guess which building has more impact?
Also, Alter’s analysis and evidence of my “cherry picking” do a better job of proving my point than his. Alter took all financial and office buildings and sorted them descending based on their site energy usage, regardless of size, and found the BofA Tower was 53rd. The Bank of America Tower is one of two buildings in this list one million square feet, the only over two million. The first seven or eight in the list have energy numbers so high as to be less than credible (check out the 2012 energy benchmark report for background) , and of those remaining only six are over half a million square feet.
This means that in a list of the worst 5 percent of energy hogging office and bank buildings in New York City (Alter’s 53 buildings are the worst in a group of over 1,000), the Bank of America Tower is by far the largest. If Alter wants to argue that the building shouldn’t be judged because it is only in the worst 5 percent of over a thousand buildings rather than the absolute worst, I would say great; because that’s a very bad argument. Alter takes the superlative “worst” from my article’s headline and some tweets and then ignores my actual analysis, which even according to his analysis, is still right.
Alter’s next move is defensive: “I find it hard to criticize LEED or the landlord. They can’t tell their prime tenant that they can’t work round the clock on fancy computers. Imagine how silly it would be if the developer told the tenant that they had to put every trader in a big private office to keep the energy use per square foot down.”
That would be silly. The economics of New York City real estate might indeed dictate that developers must let the tenants do what they want. Interesting stuff, and important to understanding the legitimate impediments market forces pose to addressing global climate change. So how is it that I nonetheless find both LEED and the landlord so easy to criticize? It’s simple: they made misleading claims. If you are a building owner and you want to use a major amount of energy and produce incredible amounts of greenhouse gasses, you have every right to do so. But what you can’t do is also say you are doing a great thing for the environment. The absurdity of these two contending points is so bald, that the gleam off their pate seems to have blinded Alter.
Perhaps with a psychic inkling as to the faultiness of his number crunching, Alter points out what he considers to be my “colossal oversight.” “Looking at energy use per square foot, or energy density, without looking at population density. How much energy is being used per person? Perhaps the Bank of America packs them in tighter than they do at Goldman Sachs? What accounts for the energy use differential?”
These are all good questions. I would love it if this data that would be made publically available! But it’s not, and I would defy Alter to find me any such data available for the buildings of a major American city. What we have is the benchmark data, which has been described to me by experts as a game changer and a fundamentally new source of data to compare buildings. In this defense Alter is refusing a date with the prom queen because he heard that somewhere supermodels exist.
Alter’s post accuses me of “green-bashing.” But I don’t attack the Bank of America Tower because I think green building is laughable, but because I think it’s very, very important. Climate change demands society change the built environment, and probably the entire building economy. LEED has done wonders to attract attention to the importance of green building, but we’re too deep in the game to accept claims, and not demand results.
Sam Roudman is a journalist who wrote the article for the New Republic about the Bank of America Tower we posted on last week. He says, “The response has generally been good, except for TreeHugger, which has attempted (I think lamely) to write a takedown.”
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