LEED-bashing: Is the Bank of America Building really a "toxic tower"?

One Bryant Park
© One Bryant Park/ Cook+Fox

Cook+Fox's Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park has been called "the world's greenest skyscraper." That is an overstatement. I was originally critical in Can an All-Glass Office Building Really Be Considered Green?, but after a closer look was impressed with its green features, from its co-gen plant to a giant icemaker. The design goes beyond energy conservation, which is only one of many features that the LEED certification system measures. Attention was paid to " health, well-being, and themes of biophilia." It's well-rounded; in my post that asked the question Is The Bank of America Tower "The World's Greenest Skyscraper"? (Video), I concluded that the LEED Platinum tower had a lot going for it.

toxic tower the New Republic/Screen capture

So I was surprised to see Sam Roudman's article in the New Republic titled Bank of America's Toxic Tower: New York's "greenest" skyscaper is actually its biggest energy hog.

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. The article goes on to round up the other usual suspects like bike racks, even though that is not such an easy shot (you need storage and showers and change rooms to get the point). He notes that LEED "takes into account a variety of factors, like building materials, air quality, water conservation, and—of course—energy performance." -and then proceeds to ignore everything but energy performance, as is the LEED-basher's wont.

spreadsheetSorted by energy use per square foot, office buildings and financial institutions, without regard to size of building./CC BY 2.0

Then one has to parse Roudman's statement "According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan." Size matters, but if you delete those two words, in fact it is 53rd on the list of office buildings and financial institutions on the energy per square foot basis. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, it is 13th; even if you filter for size as well, it is not first.

Roudman acknowledges that the source of the problem with this building is the use inside, the trading floors and all the computers.

The biggest drain on energy in the Bank of America Tower is its trading floors, those giant fields of workstations with five computer monitors to a desk.... The servers supporting all those desks also require enormous energy, as do the systems that heat, cool, and light the massive trading floors beyond normal business hours. These spaces take up nearly a third of the Bank of America Tower’s 2.2 million total square feet, yet the building’s developer and architect had no control over how much energy would be required to keep them operational.

Trading floor© Bank of America, Trading Floor

I have, in the past, been critical of the LEED program for certifying buildings that have laughingly inappropriate uses, like spaceports and parking garages. Perhaps a trading floor where bankers do the noble work of foreclosing on widows and orphans or flash-trading stocks should fall into that category. But in this case, I find it hard to criticize LEED or the landlord. This is what people do in New York City. 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.

Martin Pedersen of Metropolis piles on and calls the failure to account for the type of use "a colossal oversight, given the nature of the building (traders generally operate with a minimum of three video screens in front of them). But it also painfully underscores the shortcomings of the LEED process."

I will tell you what I think is a 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?

  • Taking a rough numbers like the New York Benchmarking Scores and trying to filter them in a way that produces the ugliest picture. One Bryant Park is not the biggest energy hog in the City, (it's 53rd on an energy-use per square foot basis) it is not even the biggest financial institution energy hog on a per square foot basis.

  • Bashing LEED for giving points for doing "easy things" like building near public transportation or restoring Bryant Park, let alone tossing the the bike rack lie. For a developer, building without parking is risky. Building near public transportation is expensive. None of it is "easy."

I find it hard to believe I am defending a giant glass tower occupied by a predatory bank. However whenever I see the words Al Gore and bike racks, I see an anti green building screed. When I see what is probably one of the healthiest buildings in the City labelled "toxic", I get angry.

Every urbanist and architect says that New York is so green because of the way people are packed in and the fact that they don't drive. They claim that energy use per capita is the metric that matters. Yet here they don't know that basic metric and call the building a toxic energy hog. That's not fair to the architects, the building or the LEED program.

Tags: LEED | New York City


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