New NYC High-Rise Is World's Most Eco-Responsible

Eleanor Stables
for National Geographic News
April 22, 2003
In high-energy New York City, the Solaire is a building permanently on
power-save mode. When final construction ends later this fall, the 27-
story building, located just a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower
Manhattan's Battery Park City, will stand as the world's most
environmentally responsible residential high-rise.

The Solaire will use 35 percent less energy than a conventional structure of similar size and purpose. At least 40 percent of its components were manufactured within 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the job site, which adds the benefit of reduced transportation pollution. Even building materials incorporate recycled content.

The 293-apartment complex will generate about five percent of its own electricity through photovoltaic solar panels. Developers say natural gas used for its air-conditioning and heating system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help avoid summertime electricity price spikes.

"I don't think any other high-rise building exists that has implemented as many [sustainable] measures as we have. We're really hitting all of them," said project manager Martin Dettling.

The waterfront building will clean and regenerate water onsite, enabling it to use one-third less potable water than a conventional high-rise. Apartments will use separate water lines to flush toilets with treated wastewater piped up from a basement treatment plant. Rainwater collected in 10,000-gallon (45,000-liter) cistern will irrigate a new park and the building's rooftop garden. The garden will help reduce the building's heat loss.

Construction on the Solaire resumed last July following a 10-month delay during the cleanup of Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Dust and smoke from the twin towers' collapse were a lingering health issue. In the Solaire, each apartment's air will be purified and humidified.

"It's sure to create a precedent for others," said Christine Ervin, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that promotes and rates "green," or environmentally sustainable, buildings. The Solaire will be the first residential high-rise certified by the USGBC.

The project is just one of many green buildings rising across the United States. They range from a North Carolina elementary school to a Ford Motor Company regional headquarters in California.

A Building Revolution

In March 2000, USGBC rolled out voluntary national standards known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for rating green building compliance. Since then, 44 sites have been certified and over 600 registered showing their intent to apply for LEED certification.

Rob Watson, co-chair of the LEED steering committee and senior scientist at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said LEED and the green building ethos is reaching a "critical mass" this year and is on the public's radar screen.

USGBC estimates that developers representing three percent of new commercial construction register their properties for LEED certification. "That's a remarkable penetration rate for three years for a brand new, voluntary system," said Ervin.

This year USGBC will begin to rate commercial interiors and existing buildings, not just new construction. Of the four levels of certification—certified, silver, gold, and platinum—only two buildings have achieved platinum to date in the U.S.: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland, and the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Construction and design factors that help buildings qualify for a high "green" rating include use of renewable and non-polluting materials; recycling, cleaning and maintenance practices; access to public transport or bicycle parking; and use of previously degraded land.

Commercial and residential buildings account for 67 percent of the total electricity consumption and 37 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., according to the U. S. Department of Energy, which supported development of LEED green building standards.

Several U.S. federal agencies are following LEED guidelines. The General Services Administration requires that all building projects in the 2003 construction budget meet LEED Certified level standards. The U.S. Navy has a certified project, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Air Force have registered projects, and the U.S. Department of State and the Army plan to follow LEED guidelines for future projects.

Green building has also caught on in localities throughout the U.S. City governments in Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington are among those that require LEED certification for public projects larger than 5,000 square feet (465 square meters). San José, California, requires LEED certification of all municipal projects over 10,000 square feet (930 square meters). The states of New York, Oregon, and Maryland provide tax breaks for green buildings.

Green Building Costs

Green buildings save money over the long-term as they use fewer resources in their operation and improve real estate value.

"The general rule of thumb is that you can build a LEED-certified or silver rating building for the same or less first costs," said Ervin, who added that this is particularly true when LEED certification is approached early in planning. Ervin notes, however, that the higher a building is rated above the silver rating, the greater its development and construction cost.

In a possible sign that the green building movement is becoming more mainstream, both the Gap and Starbucks are helping USGBC develop green building standards for retail stores.

Additionally, USGBC representatives said they plan to offer residential buildings ratings next year. "I think people are beginning to appreciate that we spend 90 percent of our lives in buildings," said Ervin.

A new 75,000-seat Jets Stadium football sports arena is yet another green building that will further energize New York City if it is built as planned in west Manhattan. It will use solar cells and wind turbines to produce power to the stadium complex—and will provide extra power to the surrounding city.

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