Black and gold go green: Steinway & Sons' road to sustainability

Black and gold go green: Steinway & Sons' road to sustainability

A bank panic and ongoing labor strikes gripped New York City. This forced a small factory on Park Avenue and 53rd Street to move to a new building in Astoria, Queens. The new factory had no electricity and no corporate sustainability plan. However, it had the corporate vision to "build the finest pianos in the world." This was in 1873. By 2013 it is safe to say that this strategy has proved successful and sustainable for pianomakers Steinway & Sons.

Despite a shift in popular culture from phonographs to iPods and Count Basie to Alicia Keys, in the piano world, Steinway & Sons has remained the gold standard. The successes they enjoyed through the centuries are a fascinating study in music, history and culture, but it is also represents a journey of survival, innovation and resiliency — each a hallmark of sustainability.

Steinway & Sons' journey in sustainability, described as an ethic of continuous improvement, has secured its place as a leader and innovator in corporate responsibility. According to Anthony Gilroy, director of marketing and communications at Steinway, the company has completed a number of high-profile sustainability projects, including the world's largest parabolic solar installation.

Mounted atop its 100-year-old factory roof are 38 300-pound solar troughs that collect and focus sunlight to heat circulating fluid to 340 degrees Fahrenheit. The fluid is then pumped to a "high-performance 100-ton double-effect absorption chiller." The chilled water is used to provide cool air and dehumidification. This is important because precise humidity and temperature levels are necessary for the specialized piano manufacturing process.

The parabolic solar installation, completed in 2009, provided many valuable lessons in sustainability. Many corporate leaders have found it common to expect the unexpected for a project of this size. This is especially true for a company not specializing in energy.

Anticipating the unexpected, Steinway & Sons developed a partnership with engineering firm Energy & Resource Solutions. One of its first challenges was that the factory roof layout prevented critical mechanical components from being closely located. This raised costs and reduced the optimal output.

ERS helped Steinway overcome layout and design challenges by converting the system to be used for steam for process or space heating when cooling is not needed, and using troughs that had an automatic solar tracking system to increase performance efficiency. Gilroy noted that Steinway's versatile maintenance group was essential to filling gaps and pushing through "promised versus actual" contractor commitments.

With help from a $588,000 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority grant, the ROI for this project is expected within five years. For Steinway Facilities Manager Bill Rigos, the return came early and by surprise. In the summer of 2010 the boilers abruptly shut down at the factory and he immediately thought it was a mechanical failure, only to find that they had been shut down automatically because the load from the solar array was supplying all the demand.

This was welcome validation of the benefits of sustainability. It also enabled prioritization of additional projects that save energy or conserve material. Since 2009, Steinway has installed a closed-loop dust collection system, climate-controlled spray booths and a solar thermal chilled water system. This was all pre-work that enabled relamping, boiler controls, insulation at its factory and the reprocessing of scrap into usable parts.

In 2013 Steinway & Sons is in the process of replacing the office absorption chiller with one that is twice as efficient. The new absorption chiller will also tie into its existing solar thermal chiller. This will support the summer dehumidification production necessary for its hand-crafted wooden piano cases and parts. The projects described above demonstrate efficiency gains and equipment upgrades to the company's 19th century brick-and-mortar factory, but as Gilroy describes it, the real opportunities are presented by "culturally and mentally putting a sustainability spin on everything we think about." Steinway & Sons has integrated a "sustainability spin" across its company platform, from letting the workforce know about large-scale initiatives to encouraging them to contribute on an individual level. Sustainability has also become an integral part of its public factory tour.

Gilroy is quick to note that Steinway remains committed to manufacturing in the U.S. and abiding by fair labor practices. This compounds the price point, but the quality of its pianos allows for high-end retail. The rich tone and signature sound of Steinway's pianos drives its high-end retail. Central to this is the woodworking process that turns Alaska sitka spruce into a soundboard.

Steinway & Sons is focused on preserving this resource through responsible forestry and notes that its Sitka demand is, comparatively, very low. Underlying these victories is a common sticking point for any manufacturer serious about sustainability; as Gilroy says, "we always look to improve the process, but never at the cost of the piano."

Each of Steinway's sustainability initiatives has made financial sense, improved efficiency and increased corporate public image. Understandably so, this was done without reducing the quality of its product. Steinway & Sons' value chain relies on delivering on the expectation of quality products for its lengthy list of global customers, artists and supporters.

A quality product reveals lessons in sustainability that our disposable consumer society has missed. This point was highlighted in 2012 when Paul McCartney visited the Motown Museum in Detroit and sat behind an 1877 Steinway Grand. McCartney felt a connection to the deteriorating yet iconic instrument and contacted William Youse, director of technical services, to arrange for the restoration of the piano.

At the time, this may have been a musician reaching back though time to save an instrument that blessed him so kindly, but it also demonstrates a deep conceptual understanding of sustainability.

Steinway & Sons does not build pianos for one concert, or even a decade of concerts, but to last 80 years or more. A Steinway is a handcrafted instrument, individually unique, built to be best in class, tested by the centuries and designed to be passed from generation to generation.

A product that was built in 1877 and remains relevant in 2013 is a valuable lesson in sustainability. A product should be built to last, to be preserved, restored and passed through the generations. Steinway & Sons' formative goal to "build the finest pianos in the world" proved through consistent successes in a century of ever-changing products, tastes and styles to be at the very core of corporate sustainability.

Steinway Model D concert grand piano photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons.