SF's Transamerica Pyramid Achieves Green Building Milestone

Editor's Note: Updated with comments from the certification ceremony and interviews, plus more photos.

San Francisco's iconic Transamerica Pyramid, a unique silhouette on the city skyline for almost 40 years, celebrated a green building milestone today.

The 48-story building, already the possessor of a LEED-Gold green building rating, now is certified at the highest level possible by the U.S. Green Building Council -- LEED Platinum. Owner Transamerica Pyramid Properties and its building management team at Cushman & Wakefield marked that achievement in a ceremony this morning.

Dan Geiger, the executive director of the USGBC's Northern California Chapter, presented the LEED-Platinum plaque and called the property owner, the building operator, sustainability consulting firm BuildingWise, and the facilities staff "superheros" for making the Transamerica Pyramid an exemplary green building.

Earning LEED-Platinum certification as an existing building requires collaboration on all fronts and leadership by all involved, Geiger said. "It's a continuous process ... and no one person is responsible. It's everybody, from the owners to the janitors, the security guards, the managers and the consulting firm," he said, in awarding the plaque. "This is recognition of their leadership."

What It Took to Green the Pyramid

Completed in 1972, the Transamerica Pyramid is 853 feet high with 530,000 square feet of space. Its first LEED rating -- LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- came in 2009 after about a decade of renovations that were aimed at making the building more efficient.

The work included installing a cogeneration plant that now supplies 70 percent of the building's electricity and 100 percent of heating, including the energy needed for hot water. The cogen system saves the building owners about $700,000 a year in energy costs. The building owner and managers also embarked on aggressive water-saving and waste reduction programs to earn the first LEED rating.

Those efforts accelerated when the owner and operators decided to shoot for LEED-Platinum status. In the process, the Energy Star score for the building rose from 77 in 2009 to its latest score of 98, which means the building is among the top two percent of high-performing energy saving structures in the country.

The energy and water efficiency measures have produced $2.5 million in savings on electricity, gas and water costs over the past four years. And the cost for waste collection plummeted by 73 percent in the past three years as a result of a recycling and composting program that diverts 70 percent of material otherwise destined for landfill.

To top it off, the building's shape and its white precast quartz aggregate exterior provide the same benefits as a cool roof by reducing the need to cool the building and by diminishing the heat island effect caused by a concentration of dark-colored surfaces (think: traditional roofs, roads and parking lots) in urban areas.

Taking a Lead in Energy Reporting

In addition to the platinum-level green building certification, the property owner and managers of the Transamerica Pyramid have achieved another important, but less touted, milestone: They are among the first to comply with San Francisco's new ordinance requiring energy performance reporting by commercial buildings.

Earlier this year, San Francisco joined the ranks of the small but growing number of U.S. cities that have adopted measures requiring energy benchmarking, auditing and reporting. It is part of a larger nationwide effort, which includes the USGBC, the Institute for Market Transformation and the Clinton Climate Initiative, to improve the energy efficiency of commercial buildings.

Buildings account for about 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions in the U.S. And as Capital-E noted in its recent report, "building energy efficiency is the single largest, low-cost opportunity for CO2 reductions."

In San Francisco, buildings are responsible for 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and lowering building energy consumption is key to achieving the city's ambitious goal of reducing GHG emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990 levels by the end of 2012, said Melanie Nutter, the director of the city's Department of the Environment.