The debate on the Bank of America Tower continues, Round 4

bank of america tower
© Bank of America Tower/ Cook +Fox

The blogosphere loves Sam Roudman's article in the New Republic on the Bank of America building, Bank of America's Toxic Tower: New York's "greenest" skyscaper is actually its biggest energy hog. There is a certain amount of schadenfreude in the air, to see what was called "The World's Greenest Skyscraper" taken down a notch.

I thought he was a bit harsh, and said so in my post LEED-bashing: Is the Bank of America Building really a "toxic tower"? I thought it was unfair to blame LEED and the architect for the fact that the tenant has packed the floors with computer-toting traders.

Now in Metropolis, Roudman responds to my post with The Debate on the Bank of America Tower Continues. His last paragraph concludes with a sentence that I highlight because I agree with every word:

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.

He's absolutely right, we need to demand results. The problem is that the building's energy consumption per square foot doesn't tell you very much, and is only one metric of many. It does not account for the energy density of the use, as Robert Watson, one of the founders of LEED has noted regarding Roudman's comparison to the Empire State building.

First, to compare the BoA building to the Empire State building is stupid. Sort of like comparing Michael Phelps' food consumption with an 'average' person of similar size. Like Phelps and an average person, activities of ESB and the BoA building are totally different. Trading floors, which are more like data centers, are much more energy intensive than the more typical kind of office activity going on in ESB and take up almost 1/3 of the BOA building and, no, they are not going to be located in Timbuktu.

The LEED Core and Shell certification

Finally, and critically, the Bank of America was certified under the LEED program for "Core and Shell". The USGBC describes this:

We recognize the unique nature of the speculative development market, where project teams don’t control all aspects of the entire building’s design and construction. Depending on how a project is structured, a developer's influence can vary significantly from project to project. LEED for Core & Shell acknowledges this and can be adapted to a variety of project types.

LEED for Core & Shell can be used for projects where the developer controls the design and construction of the entire core and shell base building (e.g., mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems) but has no control over the design and construction of the tenant fit-out. Projects could include a commercial or medical office building, retail center, warehouse, or lab facility.

You could just end the discussion right there; the LEED certification has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on inside. Perhaps LEED can be accused of setting up a program that oversells the wrapper while ignoring the contents; it is probably confusing to the public since it covers such a small proportion of the building. The Developer, Douglas Durst, also defends the building in the Commercial Observer and alludes to this.

“While there are problems with LEED that are being corrected in the next version, [this] is not one of them,” Mr. Durst wrote. “The base building and tenant operations are two distinct issues.”

“Plus, saving 10 million gallons of water each year is not an ‘easy’ task,” he added. “The Empire State [Building] uses less energy because it has substantial vacancies.”

“Finally, it is the concentration of energy intensive use that allows 1 Bryant Park to be so efficient,” Mr. Durst stated. “The building manufactures 80 percent of the energy it consumes in a co-generation plant in a process that is twice as efficient as utility generated electricity.”

The New York City monitoring program is useful and no doubt the result is disheartening for the architect and the developer, but to a large extent it is beyond their control.

What they can control are those other aspects to LEED certification, including water, energy sources, air quality, and yes, the damn bike racks. You can't condemn such a project on the basis of one datapoint. It's a lot more complicated.

This post has been edited for brevity.

The debate on the Bank of America Tower continues, Round 4
Sam Roudman says "we’re too deep in the game to accept claims, and not demand results." He's right.

Related Content on