From Historic to Cutting Edge: Revitalizing Iconic Buildings

The world’s iconic buildings achieve celebrated status because their architecture stands the test of time. But what lies beneath those enduring facades?

Design and engineering evolve quickly, and many urban buildings—nearly half the office space in New York City was built before 1945—predate concepts like sustainability, climate change, and even recycling, resulting in waste and inefficiency.

Enter the retrofit. Aging buildings are updated with new windows, lighting, plumbing fixtures, and heating and cooling systems, ultimately saving owners and operators money while they conserve energy.

Buildings consume 73 percent of the electricity in the U.S., and indirectly create 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions—more than industry or transportation. To win the battle against climate change, cities will need to run on more efficient buildings.

These historic icons blazed a trail for other buildings to follow.


The Empire State Building grabbed New York’s attention when it unveiled dazzling new LED lights in 2012. Not only did the color options increase from nine to a kaleidoscope of millions, it used a quarter of the electricity of its original floodlights. While the evening light show turned heads, a more subtle transformation was under way—an overhaul that would prove even old skyscrapers can get a new lease on life. The owners of the building needed to address a persistent complaint from its 30,000 office tenant workers: In summer the interior of the Depression-era structure could get too hot for the air-conditioning system to adequately cool. The conventional solution called for more powerful chillers (basically, giant air-conditioning units), a cost of over $17 million. Instead, management decided to invest in improvements that would reduce energy use—and hopefully boost the bottom line in the process.

After a team of experts analyzed the building, over 60 ideas were whittled down with computer modeling to eight—the most worthwhile and practical were chosen. Upgrades ranged from heating and cooling components to lights that automatically dim during the day to simple barriers that prevent heat from radiators escaping through the walls.

The building’s 6,500 double-pane windows proved to be particularly wasteful. But instead of replacing them, they were removed, refurbished on-site, and reinstalled—after-hours, to avoid disruption. A gas-filled film, which acts as an insulating third pane, was added, and now the “superwindows” reduce summer heat gain and winter loss by more than half.

The $13 million energy-efficiency retrofit was completed in 2013, and the upgrades cut energy consumption by almost 40 percent, saving over $4 million annually. It is expected to eliminate 105,000 metric tons of CO2emissions over 15 years.

“We hoped people would recognize the compelling financial case behind whole-building retrofits,” says Cara Carmichael of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that partnered on the project. “This model has served as a huge catalyst in the industry.”


The trademark of Boston’s Fenway Park is the Green Monster wall that towers over left field. On Opening Day in 2015, Fenway—major league baseball’s oldest stadium—introduced fans to an unexpected feature that’s a different kind of green: a 5,000-square-foot rooftop farm.

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