Efficiency’s Mark: City Glitters a Little Less
The bright lights of the big city are getting a little bit duller — with just a hint of green.
Motion sensors ensure that unoccupied offices, storerooms and canteens go dark after workers and cleaning crews leave at night. Dimmers soften overhead lights that once could burn only bright or not at all. Timers guarantee that buildings fade to black while the city sleeps.
Gone are the days when cheap electricity, primitive lighting technology and landlords’ desire to showcase their skyscrapers kept floor after floor of the city’s highest towers glowing into the night. Now, rising energy costs, conservationism, stricter building codes and sophisticated lighting systems have conspired to slowly, often imperceptibly, transform Manhattan’s venerable nightscape into one with a gentler glow.
Instead of tower after tower shining at all hours — the World Trade Center stayed aglow long after its occupants went home — the skyline is becoming a patchwork of sparsely sparkling buildings decorated with ornamentally lighted tops.
“The tall tower with the illuminated floors on all night long is probably a thing of the past,” said Randy Sabedra, the owner of RS Lighting Design, who is helping to create a new map of the city’s most prominently lighted buildings. “You’re not relying on the glowing floors to have the building presence. It is relying on the crown of light.”
Since electricity set it ablaze more than a century ago, the skyline has dimmed a number of times. During World War II and the energy crisis of the 1970s, New Yorkers considered it patriotic to turn out lights. But such frugality disappeared once times were flush again (though the current troubles could leave more office space vacant, and thus dark).
The building boom of the last decade, the ever-expanding electronic billboards of Times Square and unshielded traffic lights have solidified New York’s status as one of the country’s most light-polluted cities, according to the International Dark-Sky Association, which has pushed for city and state legislation to turn the lights down. New York scores a 9 on the 9-point Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, the association’s favored measure, along with other major cities like Houston and Las Vegas; a typical suburban sky ranks a 5, while Tucson, which has stringent outdoor lighting codes, is also a 5.
“The light bulb has not really gone on in their head yet,” Susan Harder, who runs the association’s New York section, said of city officials. “We’ll always have an iconic skyline, but we don’t need this big glow over the city.” To that end, the State Assembly passed legislation in June requiring that new outdoor lighting have shields that reduce glare and waste; the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, said it would most likely be taken up by the State Senate if the Democrats manage to win a majority on Tuesday (Republicans currently hold a one-seat advantage).
City Councilman Alan J. Gerson has introduced a variety of similar measures — to require full streetlight shields and motion detectors in all commercial and government buildings, and to mandate more efficiently lighted billboards. The first of the proposals could be taken up as early as this month. “The sky won’t be totally dark,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “But it’s 2008, so we have to take into account energy concerns.”
In many ways, the business community is ahead of the politicians. Several of the city’s newest skyscrapers incorporate cutting-edge technologies that appeal to environmentalists — and those eager to keep energy costs down. Landlords have found that meeting stiffer energy efficiency standards in their new and refurbished buildings is a selling point with tenants, especially those that pay their own electricity bills.
“This time, the difference is that we’re more conscious of what we’re doing and the lighting industry is more advanced,” said Meg Smith, a manager in New York for Lightolier, a manufacturer that specializes in lighting fixtures and controls.
Incentives to Change
As demand for electricity in New York rises and global competition drives energy prices higher, the cost of the technology that makes better use of daylight and reduces electricity use at night — motion sensors, software-driven timers and the like — is falling. In some cases, it takes just two years to recoup the investment in this equipment, down from five years not long ago, according to Mark Roush, director of New York marketing for Acuity Brands Lighting, the nation’s largest maker of lighting fixtures.
That includes the growing number of rebates from state agencies and utilities, which are trying to reduce consumption to relieve stress on the electric grid and put off building expensive power plants and substations. Con Edison, for instance, has asked the state for permission to offer businesses a variety of rebates for installing efficient lighting as part of its efforts to cut demand in New York City and Westchester County by 500 megawatts by 2015.
At the new 91,000-square-foot downtown offices of Incisive Media, which owns about 30 publications, including The American Lawyer magazine, the two floors are divided into four zones for overhead lighting so not all of the space has to be lighted or dark at a given time. Individual offices are equipped with motion sensors; on a recent evening, lights automatically shut off as workers left for the day. The cleaning crew was gone by 8 p.m., but because a handful of editors worked later, a timer tucked in a small closet turned off the remaining lights at 11 — and would turn them back on at 6 a.m.
“We have to balance the administrative time versus the energy savings,” said Allison Hoffman, an Incisive Media executive who oversaw the construction of the space, at 120 Broadway. “We’ll be constantly adjusting.”
To qualify for tax credits and rebates from the State Energy Research and Development Authority, Incisive’s architects, TPG, designed a system that emits less than 0.78 of a watt a square foot (1.1 watts a square foot are allowed under the building code for refurbished offices). They used fluorescent bulbs that are five-eighths of an inch in diameter, about 40 percent smaller than the previous generation of bulbs, and use 28 watts of electricity, compared with 42 to 48 watts for the old lights. Less-frequented areas like hallways have small halogen lights spaced far apart. At the National Audubon Society’s offices on Houston and Varick Streets, lights-out is set for 7 p.m. Ten minutes before, a warning flash alerts employees who need to work late that they should go to a light switch to reset the timers.
Clay Nessler, vice president of global energy and sustainability at Johnson Controls, helped develop a more complex system for the Citigroup tower in Long Island City, Queens, that helps keep cleaning crews on schedule. “It’s going to increase productivity and lead to more efficiency,” he said.
At the Renzo Piano-designed new headquarters of The New York Times, on Eighth Avenue, the rows of single 28-watt fluorescent bulbs that line the ceilings are connected to a computer network that lets maintenance workers quickly scan which ones need replacing or repair, rather than trolling the floors.
Like Incisive Media, The Associated Press divided its Manhattan headquarters, which covers two acres of floor space, into zones, allowing groups of workers to tailor the lights to their liking and preventing large banks from burning when just a handful of people are around. Such zones require a bigger initial investment because more circuits, outlets and other equipment need to be installed, but the system, Lightolier’s iGEN, helped cut energy use by 28 percent in the first year, Ms. Smith said.
Footing the Bill
Because of the expense, advanced lighting systems are being installed primarily in new buildings or offices being retrofitted for new tenants. So changes to the city’s nightscape will come gradually over many years. But more and more, building owners are writing leases that require tenants to pay for their own electricity, leading many tenants to install more efficient lights. A lot of the new energy-efficient fixtures were designed to fit into the ceiling spaces that now hold older fixtures, making the upgrades easier and cheaper.
“Lights will diminish,” said Guy Geier, senior partner at FXFowle, an architecture and interior design firm in Manhattan, “because over 10 or 20 years, those leases are going to roll over and the incentive is going to be there to start installing newer lights.”
This is not the first time innovations in technology and construction have been visible in the nightscape. In the early 20th century, many buildings lacked air-conditioners, so most workers sat near the windows; that meant the yellowish light from the incandescent bulbs hanging above their desks flooded through open windows into the street.
As central air-conditioning and fluorescent lights spread after World War II, architects could build skyscrapers enclosed in glass, which gave off a cooler light; at the same time, more interior space was now viable, though lights there were less visible from the outside. But as tall towers multiplied, the volume of light in Manhattan increased: Many buildings had only a few light switches on each floor, so if even one person was in the office, large swaths were aglow.
James Sanders, who used to work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, recalled arriving at work one Sunday in 1985, finding only two switches on the entire 84th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers, and discovering that a janitor had to be called to flip one.
“They had to switch a half-acre of lights on just for me,” he said. To his bosses, who were the landlords, leaving lights on all evening “was in part a symbol of power,” he said. These days, such landlords can light perimeter offices while keeping the center of a building dark. Others are installing more efficient LED lights outside buildings in place of older floodlights. Still others are focusing on the tops of their towers, joining the Empire State Building, whose color-coded homages are a New York icon.
Con Edison itself has adopted several of these techniques at its 26-story headquarters near Union Square, installing 344 LED fixtures on the clock tower in September. The fixtures, which are meant to last 15 years, use 63 percent less energy than conventional lights, and can be programmed to produce millions of colors without the need for filters (like those used at the Empire State) or other equipment.
Such ornamental statements will most likely become more prominent as the interiors of buildings continue to dim over time. “New York City’s skyline will always be a magical thing,” said Mr. Sabedra, the lighting designer at work on the nightscape map. “It’s something wonderful and beautiful about the city when it transforms at night, its building glow, its glowing canyons. It’s a wonderful sight.”