The Future of Green Skyscrapers

Even in the U.S.A., bigger is not always better.  The U.S.A. should demonstrate its global leadership in the construction and development fields by letting other nations waste money chasing the trophy of the “world’s tallest building,” and instead focusing on constructing better and greener office buildings that serve as models for the world and that bring real economic benefits for developers and owners.

The U.S.A. is the nation that invented the modern skyscraper and is still home to some of the world’s most iconic buildings.  New York City’s world-renowned Woolworth Building, Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, and World Trade Center combined to hold the title of world’s tallest building from 1913 until 1974 before losing that title to Chicago’s Sears Tower, which held that title from 1974 until at least 1998.  These buildings helped form America’s identity and were symbols of American power during the 20th century.

While these status symbols remain (other than the World Trade Center), the age of America hosting the world’s tallest building has passed.  Since the late 1990’s, various countries in Asia have been home to the world’s tallest building, and it is unlikely that America will seek to take this title back in the foreseeable future (New York’s One World Trade Center is scheduled to be the fourth tallest building in the world when it is completed in 2013).

This is a good thing for the U.S., particularly because it is generally a poor economic investment to build very tall skyscrapers, and doing so often signals a pending popping of a property bubble.  In fact, the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, was originally to be named the Burj Dubai, after the city in which it is located, but the name had to be changed to honor the leader of Dubai’s neighbor and rival, Abu Dhabi, after Dubai obtained a $10 billion lifeline from Abu Dhabi in 2010.  Very tall office buildings also lead to practical problems such as overcoming inadequate sewer connections (Burj Khalifa) and fighting major fires 60 stories up from the ground (as recently happened in a skyscraper under construction in Moscow that will be the tallest building in Europe).

American companies and developers should forgo chasing the trophy of the tallest buildings, and instead focus on taking the global lead in building the most durable, technologically-advanced, and environmentally conscious buildings in the world and retrofitting its existing iconic buildings to these ends as well.  Examples of successful green office buildings include the recent retrofitting of the eighty year old Empire State Building to become the tallest LEED-certified building in the U.S., and numerous new LEED certified office buildings recently constructed by one of the largest banks in the U.S., Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.

PNC has demonstrated its commitment to leading the green building movement in the U.S.  In fact, it has been reported that PNC has more newly constructed LEED certified buildings than any company on Earth.  In 2010, PNC opened the LEED certified Three PNC Plaza, a 23-story structure comprising 780,000 gross square feet in Pittsburgh.  More recently, PNC opened its new regional headquarters in Washington, D.C., which obtained LEED Platinum certification, the highest rating offered by the USGBC.

Finally, in 2015, PNC plans to open the “world’s largest green skyrise”—The Tower at PNC Plaza—which is designed to have 33 stories and 800,000 gross square feet and to obtain a LEED Platinum rating.  In addition to using green building features such as a solar chimney, optimally oriented building facades to maximize natural sunlight and limit the need for artificial lights, operable windows, and reusing water,  plans call for the new building to tap into an underground river running below downtown Pittsburgh to provide much of the building’s heating during the winter and cooling during the summer.

The energy savings and free publicity received by PNC because of its new green skyscrapers should send an important message to others considering incorporating green building methods when building or retrofitting office buildings.  The success of PNC’s ventures also stands in contrast with the recent difficulties encountered by the world’s latest batch of “tallest buildings” and could provide a model for other owners and developers to follow.