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Developing the Empire Building Playbook

Reos Partners
October, 2022

Michael Reed of NYSERDA discusses the aspirations for The Empire Building Playbook with Reos Partners.

In New York City, which has the densest population of tall buildings in the United States, two-thirds of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the energy used to fuel buildings. That’s why, in 2019, New York State introduced ambitious policies to reduce GHG emissions as outlined in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. In addition, New York passed Local Law 97, which states that buildings larger than 25,000 square feet have until 2024 to meet the city-imposed emissions caps or potentially face fines.

Faced with questions from the marketplace about how to comply, and inspired by the decarbonization progress made by the Empire State Building, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) launched its $50 million Empire Building Challenge. Through the Challenge, NYSERDA is partnering with some of the largest real estate portfolio owners in the state and has competitively selected a subset of high-rise building owners to test innovative new green retrofit solutions. The goal is to “harness the commitments of preeminent real estate developers and unleash the collective creativity of the world’s leading R&D teams, architects, engineers, and manufacturers.” 

Motivated by the success of the Empire Building Challenge, NYSERDA and a team at Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT), as well as Hines, Vornado, and the Durst Organization produced the Empire Building Playbook, a virtual resource to share the innovative developments and replicable processes borne of the challenge. Reos Partners supported the work, leading a series of workshops that convened key stakeholders — real estate developers, building owners, environmental specialists, and more — to share their learnings and ideas.

The collaboration to bring a variety of experts together to figure this out has been the additive resource Reos Partners provides,” says Jon Walton of Reos Partners. “We're able to step back and help them understand each other's individual perspectives.”

Michael Reed leads Advanced Efficiency Solutions at NYSERDA and was involved with the Playbook since its initiation. His team works with building owners, building managers, engineers, and solution providers to develop and demonstrate repeatable pathways that buildings can take to minimize their environmental footprint while also delivering comfortable, safe, healthy places for New Yorkers to live, work, and play. In this interview, Michael shares his aspirations for the Empire Building Playbook, speaks to the importance of replication and scalability, and stresses the need to unite to face the urgency of climate change.

What was your overall perspective on this project? What was your aspiration for this work beyond the Empire State Building?

This project gave us the opportunity to work with the private sector to develop a repeatable pathway for how buildings can affordably achieve ambitious sustainability targets. Putting together best-in-class teams to conduct rigorous technical and economic analysis and then make those results public to show the way for the broader market — that’s exactly the kind of work we want to do at NYSERDA. We want other buildings to follow in these footsteps and to create both a community of practice and a set of living resources that reduce the cost and complexity while increasing confidence in planning for carbon reduction.

How did the idea to create a Playbook come to fruition? What did you hope to achieve with this type of resource?

In New York State, well over 85 percent of our buildings use fossil fuels on site to provide things like hot water and heat. In the wake of the Climate Act’s very ambitious decarbonization policy goals, the marketplace asked us, ‘What am I supposed to do? Can you tell me how I'm supposed to be transitioning my building?’ Our idea was to work with a handful of developers to pioneer solutions to create a pathway that other buildings can follow. Our role as a public entity was to convene the work, support the work, and then publish and promulgate the information to educate the market. 

The environmental challenges our world faces require urgent actions to collaborate and provide solutions. The ability to replicate and scale these solutions is key to making quick, effective progress. How does this project lend itself to replication and scalability?

First, the process is not different from one building to the next. Even if your building doesn't have the same equipment, inventory, or occupancy type as the Empire State Building, for example, the process the Empire State Building used is exactly the same process you could use for your hospital, school, or multifamily building. Within the Playbook, there are lessons learned, tools, and resources that a team could copy. We've made public the actual findings and specific things that the Empire State Building and others are doing. Those are widely repeatable technologies and approaches.

It also demonstrates the “mental model” (to borrow a term from Joe McCarron at Reos Partners) the industry should be using. One of the big breakthroughs of the Empire State Building and the Playbook is that this is a long-term phased approach to reducing carbon emissions. It is aligned with the capital planning cycle of the building. They are showing how very ambitious climate goals can be met over time with the right kind of planning in place. It's not going to happen in a day, but by continually taking action, you are gradually transitioning this massive building into a sustainable building. 

The framework for the Empire Building Playbook ​​takes a whole-system design approach. Can you explain what that means?

Rather than looking at opportunities, problems, and solutions in isolation, we are looking at all of the components that make up the building and developing a solution that solves the system challenges. Business as usual, in the building space in New York, is that you focus on equipment that has failed — you replace equipment at the time of failure, and you do that in an isolated way whether it’s on one tenant floor or in one part of the building operations. 

The Empire Building Playbook turns that on its head and asks building owners to start from the end goal of wanting a building to be carbon neutral so that it stops contributing to climate change. Working backward from that goal, we're going to look at all of the various elements of the building, analyze them, and then propose solutions for those individual challenges. But we're not going to pursue each of those solutions on their own. We're going to bring them all together and think through how they interact with one another. By doing that, we’re actually simplifying what we're solving for and thinking about that solution from the perspective of ‘this building is going to get to carbon neutrality, so how do we work backward?’

How did Reos’ methodology impact the design and facilitation of the Playbook?

The Playbook pulled together all of these stakeholders to form one team and put a huge emphasis on collaboration, communication, and dialogue, which is what Reos led so well. This is not just a technical or economic challenge. It's a coordination challenge. You need to figure out how to build relationships and a team.

Reos achieved a couple of critical things: First, they helped build the team and ensure that, as the project unfolded, the team was investing in one another, sharing information, etc. So often you can start a project with good intentions related to keeping people informed and taking time to make sure everybody's on the same page, but then as the project is executed, that gets put to the side in the name of efficiency and achieving a goal. 

The workshops were tremendously generative in terms of creating ideas, identifying options, pulling different areas of expertise together, and de-siloing this space. It's something we appreciate so much that we are now deploying this practice in some of our other programs. 

Also, because these workshops gave more structure to the team, it made the production of the Playbook clearer. It helped contribute to the creation of the Playbook throughout the process of the work, which took over a year.

How do you see the Playbook influencing future work in the building sustainability space? 

We're still at the beginning of this journey. We're very proud of the Playbook, but we want to frame this as a call to action. We're only just getting started and there are so many opportunities in this space. We invite and encourage people to engage with the Playbook and to give us feedback.

When it comes to buildings and climate action, every building has to develop a roadmap to how they get to carbon neutrality. Each of us has a role to play, whether it's asking questions of the property manager or landlord, or taking action ourselves for our buildings to help drive toward this goal. Often when it comes to buildings, people think that the power and the decision-making live with some other entity, but it doesn't and it can’t because of the scale and urgency of this problem.


Michael Reed leads Advanced Efficiency Solutions at NYSERDA. He oversees a talented, dynamic team focused on building decarbonization. In addition to the Empire Building Challenge, Michael’s portfolio of programs includes Real Time Energy Management, Innovative Market Strategies, and the Commercial Tenant Program. His work at NYSERDA supports efficiency and electrification across all building sectors, with a focus on large buildings in downstate New York where he works in collaboration with key market stakeholders including building owners, technology vendors, engineering firms, and policymakers to accelerate deployment of building decarbonization solutions.

*Cover image by Thomas Habr on Unsplash

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