The Empire State Building goes green.

The Empire State Building, the iconic skyscraper featured in movies from King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle, is going green.

The mammoth project to turn New York’s tallest building into a model of energy efficiency is being managed by Dana Robbins Schneider (Col ’99). When the venture is finished in 2013, the 1,453-foot, 102-story tower will rank among the top 10 percent of U.S. office buildings in energy efficiency, she says.

Its fame and oversized carbon footprint made the Depression-era skyscraper the logical choice to show how old buildings can go green. “Our goal is for other people to replicate what we’re doing with the Empire State Building,” says Schneider, a vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, the real estate services firm orchestrating the project. “Seventy-five percent of U.S. buildings are 20 years old or older.”

Schneider heads her firm’s energy and sustainability services in the Northeast, juggling multiple projects at once. Though she has worked on buildings for Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, Barclays Capital and the BBC, the Empire State project is the largest to date. It originated with the Clinton Climate Initiative, a venture of former President Bill Clinton. The Climate Initiative needed a landmark building to show that an energy makeover could be done at an affordable price. Building owner Anthony Malkin signed onto the project, as did energy experts Johnson Controls and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Schneider overlooking New York City on the Empire State Building

The trick was to maximize each dollar spent. Schneider’s team evaluated 60 energy-saving ideas and ultimately picked just eight. But these eight will cut the building’s energy use by up to 38 percent, she says.

Malkin was already faced with a $93 million outlay to replace aging energy equipment at the end of its life cycle. Similar replacement equipment wasn’t going to cut the building’s hefty energy bill. But by spending just $13 million more on the eight energy-saving measures, Malkin’s energy tab would drop by $4.4 million a year. The added expenses are expected to pay for themselves in 3.1 years.

Each measure chips away at energy waste. For instance, maximizing natural light slices energy use by 6 percent. Adding a third layer of glazing to all 6,514 windows cuts energy consumption another 5 percent. “There is no silver bullet,” Schneider says. “It’s a combination of factors.”

Dana Robbins Schneider (Col ’99)

The project involves tight logistics. Windows are removed at night and taken to a fifth-floor work area. The next morning they are disassembled, cleaned and fitted with a clear film that creates a third layer between the existing panes. A mixture of krypton and argon gases is pumped into the windows to replace air, creating a barrier that helps keep winter heat in and summer heat out. The windows are reinstalled and the process begins anew. “We do about 75 windows a day,” she says. The project could have used new triple-pane windows. “But we wanted to use the windows that were there and not be wasteful. We are reusing 97 percent of the existing window components.”

The project will be half done at year’s end, but it’s already proving that, in terms of energy use, America’s older buildings don’t have to have a monkey on their backs. “The whole point of this project was to develop a model for cost-effective retrofits,” Schneider says. “If we can do it on the Empire State Building, we can do it anywhere.”