NEW YORK -- Most Manhattan office buildings are designed for paper pushers, but there is a new factory running at the end of a long dim corridor on the fifth floor of the Empire State Building. Here machines are whirring, a furnace is roaring, and dozens of blue-collar workers are bustling about.

They are setting up to dismantle the building's 6,514 double-hung window frames, to reuse the glass and make them anew. It is part of one of the nation's most ambitious and symbolic energy-efficiency programs: a $20 million effort to cut the skyscraper's overall energy use by 38 percent.

Along the way, its planners hope to reduce the 79-year-old building's carbon footprint and shrink its $11 million annual utility bill. But the most ambitious part of their scheme calls for the suite of upgrades to pay for itself in just three years.

The "factory" is the outgrowth of a conversation in 2007 between Anthony Malkin, president of the New York real estate firm Malkin Holdings LLC, and Jamie Russell, who was then the director of the William J. Clinton Foundation's climate initiative. Malkin's company owns a collection of buildings across the bustling business sector of midtown Manhattan. Russell was looking for one for the foundation's new energy efficiency building retrofit program. The idea was to showcase economically feasible ways to reduce the energy use of existing buildings around the world.

Malkin suggested an older building already undergoing a $1.25 billion renovation. But Russell was thinking much bigger. He wanted a building that had been in Malkin's portfolio for less than a year, all 102 stories of it. "We knew that a building like the Empire State Building has global impact," said Arah Schuur, director of the Clinton Foundation's building retrofit program.

Before working out a plan with Malkin in early 2008, the foundation had already started several other retrofit partnerships around the world. What it needed was the publicity that was sure to come from the iconic New York landmark because the foundation had picked one of the more intractable problems in the struggle to save energy.

The energy consumed by residential and commercial buildings in the United States represents nearly 40 percent of the country's energy use and overall carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In New York City, where there are about a million buildings, the issue is particularly acute.

'Improving the largest users first'
According to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's environmental program, PlaNYC 2030, more than 75 percent of the city's total energy consumption goes into heating and electrifying its buildings. However, New York is a city not only of buildings, but also of large buildings.

Only 2 percent of the buildings in the city -- about 22,000 -- are larger than 50,000 square feet, yet this more spacious variety consumes 45 percent of the city's total energy. Giving a sense of urgency, the plan says the focus must be on "improving the largest users first."

Testifying in front of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee last month to discuss the so-called clean energy economy, Malkin said the Empire State Building consumed as much energy as 40,000 single-family homes each day. The building's peak electricity use tops out at about 9.5 megawatts.

PlaNYC also estimates that the vast majority of the buildings that currently make up New York City will still be standing in 25 years -- roughly 85 percent of them. New "green" construction cannot meaningfully address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions without addressing existing building stock.

Almost as soon as the Clinton Foundation launched its building retrofit program, Bloomberg announced his support for its goals. Part of the foundation's mission is to show hard-nosed building owners that energy efficiency is a shrewd business decision. However, part of the problem is that large buildings have multiple renters -- who often don't know their energy costs -- and landlords who normally take care of the problem by raising the rent.

"We are not motivated by 'doing the right thing,'" Malkin explained to the Joint Economic Committee. The motivation, he said, comes from "making money."

Energy efficiency and profit are not always in the same basket, at least not within a time span many businesses are willing to consider. A successful retrofit project has to have significant reductions and be able to pay back the capital costs within a reasonable time frame, notably, less than five years.

The Clinton Foundation brought in the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based energy research group, to help design the strategy for upgrading the Empire State Building. Jones Lang LaSalle manages the project, and Johnson Controls Inc. was awarded a competitive contract to oversee the project installations as well as ensure that the energy savings materialize.

Aiming high by combining low-tech methods
The team now had a major question in front of it: What could it afford to retrofit?

Throwing every "green" idea at a single building to see what sticks can quickly cripple a project financially. Accounting for the age of the building and a host of local environmental factors will determine how much insulation is needed, whether solar panels are a worthwhile investment and what kind of air-conditioning system is best.

After months of analysis, considering 66 energy-efficiency measures and combining them into different "packages" to determine which would work best in tandem, the team ultimately decided to enact a package with eight measures.

The window upgrades will both increase the building's heat retention in the winter and, through the use of a suspended film between each pane of glass, reflect heat in the summer without reducing the amount of visible light. This portion of the upgrade, however, only represents about 13 percent of the project's reduction.

Other improvements to the building include radiator insulation to prevent heat from escaping the building and an upgrade of the chiller system that runs the air conditioning. Five of the eight projects will be completed by the end of the year, representing more than 60 percent of the planned savings. However, none of the upgrades sounds particularly remarkable on its own. In fact, the "most high-tech things" in the building, Malkin said, were the wireless thermostats that improve temperature management.

"But look," he said after the JEC hearing, "it's all innovation." Malkin recalled something his grandfather once told him in the 1970s: "Hardly anything gets invented. But people combine stuff together which had never been combined, and it's in a new way, and it creates a different result."

Strategies abound; implementation is rare
Richard Leigh, director of research and advocacy for the Urban Green Council, the New York chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, said he admires the ongoing renovations at the Empire State Building. The retrofit planning strategy has been known to the academics for many years, he said. What has been missing is practical implementation.

"To change the city's energy consumption," Leigh said, "we have to go after the existing structures."

"So I think it's wonderful what they're doing with the Empire State Building," he said.

Schuur, of the Clinton Foundation's building retrofits program, said the project's value comes from the difficulty of dealing with a famous older building. "It's got all the things that people say are so hard to do."

"While I agree that New York is a very unique city," said Schuur, "a lot of the cities -- the large cities -- that we work with have similar characteristics, in that they are largely developed, and so they have an existing building stock that makes up the vast majority of buildings that will be there in 30 or 50 years."

The project has largely had its desired effect. Schuur said building owners on the opposite side of the planet have approached the foundation, interested in retrofitting their own properties. And many of them mention the Empire State Building by name.

Schuur said that she was eager to see how New York City's building efficiency laws, passed in December, will affect the "building retrofit world" (Greenwire, Dec. 10, 2009).

In New York, she said, "you've got the savviest bunch of real estate professionals in the world. It's a good place for this kind of experiment."

Schuur added, referring to the theme from the movie "New York, New York": "You know the song -- If you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500