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.

Next page: Putting the sustainability spin to work