A+U, Currents on Sustainability in the USA, 2010


“Currents on Sustainability in the USA: New York City”
10:05; #476

Adam Yarinsky

Like New York City itself, sustainable design is a work in progress, an evolving practice. While the general framework for sustainability in architecture began by addressing the performance of individual buildings, this focus has widened to encompass the larger scale of infrastructure and public space. The shift reflects a growing awareness of the dire implications of human activity on the planet, and the potential benefits of densely populated urban areas to address these conditions. Cities like New York are the solution, not the problem. Buildings are increasingly understood to be elements of a greater system, mediating between inhabitants and their context. Meanwhile, the public realm is progressively becoming a laboratory for innovative approaches to environmental challenges, with several city agencies as protagonists in shaping policy, protocols and projects. This article surveys recent and current projects in New York City, with an emphasis on Manhattan, that together constitute an evolution in what it means to be green.

Historical Context
At first glance, New York City’s industrial and commercial history affords few precedents for sustainability. However, in the last half century the city has renewed and transformed a growing proportion of its building stock, particularly structures dating from the late nineteen to the mid-twentieth century. New York City is comprised of a massive amount of embodied energy associated with hundreds of these older structures. Although it was not a design criterion until recently, the adaptive re-use, or recycling of these buildings exemplifies sustainability because it greatly decreases the resources required to build from scratch. Often constructed from durable, inherently fire resistant materials such as reinforced concrete and masonry, and possessing open structural frames, many existing commercial and residential buildings are readily modified to new meet requirements. Retrofit with new windows, insulation and environmental systems, the performance of these buildings can be greatly improved. The Empire State Building, for example, is undergoing a significant envelope and systems upgrade which will cut operational costs for the building owner and tenants, save energy, and therefore reduce greenhouse gases.

A few well known projects from the twentieth century foreshadow aspects of sustainable design, too. Rockefeller Center, whose core area was realized in the 1930’s, is an example of a dense, layered, programmatically diverse urban planning strategy. With its connection to transportation infrastructure and its balance between built and open space, Rockefeller Center functions as an active, efficient civic place. It is a precedent for today’s transit-based, mixed-use urban hubs, which are increasingly understood as a means of planning more sustainable cities by concentrating development, programs and services. The Ford Foundation headquarters, designed by Roche-Dinkeloo and completed in 1968, is a precursor to today’s high performance atrium buildings. With a generous landscaped interior filled with daylight, the building is a beneficial work environment and a haven in midtown Manhattan.

But it’s at the urban scale that New York City has made its most important contribution. Central Park is in many ways an excellent precedent for what has come to be known as sustainable design. Its conception, design and performance all show great foresight in terms of urban planning, water management, transportation, and landscape architecture. A collaboration between Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in the mid-nineteenth century, Central Park has continued to frame the city’s evolution well into the twenty-first.

Recent Buildings
New York City today is home to an expanding number of sustainably designed structures with a range of programs, from office and residential towers, to academic buildings and public architecture. Many of these meet the criteria of the United States Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, which set forth energy efficiency, water usage, indoor air quality, materials requirements and other criteria that help determine the bona fides of a green project. The architectural ambitions and expression of many buildings have derived in part from developing strategies and techniques necessary to meet the LEED standards. The best examples completely integrate sustainable design into the conceptual underpinnings and the larger qualitative experience of the building.

A handful of notable, energy-efficient and LEED-rated office towers have joined New York City’s skyline in the past five years. A recently completed example of this typology, Cook + Fox Architects’ Bank of America Tower, is innovative in its relationships to the city’s infrastructure. The project comprises some 2.1 million square feet of space and reaches 1,200 feet at its spire. Sustainable features include a significant rainwater collection system and a power cogeneration capacity that aids in heating and cooling. Gathering, storing and using rainwater within the building has two benefits.

First, it reduces demand for fresh water, a valuable resource. Second, and of greater significance, controlling the outflow of storm water from the building decreases the burden on the city’s combined storm-sewer system. This helps reduce water pollution, as relatively low rainfall exceeds the capacity of the city’s sewage treatment facilities, causing both sanitary and storm sewage to be diverted into the Hudson River estuary. The building’s cogeneration plant, responsible for two-thirds of the building’s electrical power, burns natural gas, which is much cleaner than the coal-fueled plants in the region. Thermal excess from the plant heats the building in winter while off-peak electricity in summer is used to create ice that cools the building during the day.
A concentration of LEED-rated residential buildings is in Battery Park City, a 92-acre mixed-use development on the west side of Lower Manhattan under the jurisdiction of a state authority that mandates sustainable design for all projects. Riverhouse, an apartment building designed by Polshek Partnership, is perhaps the only residential building in America with a double curtain wall. This strategy provides a high level of energy efficiency by taking advantage of a specially ventilated air cavity in the glazing system to reduce heating and cooling loads. In effect, the architecture becomes an active element that functions in concert with the building’s mechanical systems. Consequently, energy use decreases while still allowing generous daylight and views. This high-performance envelope is part of an elegantly composed massing that meets the Battery Park City Authority’s requirements for brick as a predominant exterior material.

The best academic buildings are conceived as integral parts of dynamic campus contexts. In many respects, buildings such as The Diana Center at Barnard College by Weiss Manfredi Architects afford a trove of possibilities for our new urban buildings. With its complex program mix and rich sectional development, The Diana Center balances functional separations with powerful visual connections. The exterior curtain wall was developed in collaboration with Robert Heintges, an envelope specialist who was also involved in the Riverhouse project. The color and treatment of the glass unites aesthetic intent with performance demands, relating the building to surrounding brick campus architecture while also achieving goals for insulation and daylight.

Since the passage of Local Law 86 in 2005, New York City has required many public buildings to meet LEED standards. Through the Design Excellence Program of New York City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC), each year since has seen more completed buildings created by solid design talents from a diverse range of firms. The projects range from BKSK Architects’ new Visitor and Information Center for the Queens Botanical Garden to FXFowle Architects’ renovation of the Bronx Zoo Lion House. Rafael Vinoly Architects’ bright yellow, pillow-like Brooklyn Children’s Museum includes geothermal heating and cooling and photovoltaic systems. This decreases the energy that the building demands from the supply grid, resulting in long-term cost savings and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Although geothermal systems have a high initial cost due to the constraints of constructing them in New York City, for certain building types these can be an effective strategy.

As important as the specific building projects it initiates, New York City has also developed and disseminated detailed information to promote sustainable design standards and techniques, all of which are available for download for free from the city’s website. The DDC has continued to expand upon its High Performance Building Guidelines and High Performance Infrastructure Guidelines. For example, the DDC’s Sustainable Urban Site Design Manual, authored by Gruzen Sampton Architects with Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, was recently released. Publications from the Department of Transportation (DOT) such as World Class Streets, Sustainable Streets Index, and NYC Street Design Manual affirm progressive trends as government policy. As these policies are borne out in future projects both public and private their impact on the overall quality of the built environment will increase.

Public Space
Perhaps the most compelling recent achievements in sustainability in New York City have been at the urban scale, with respect to public space. Through a combination of new city policies and progressive urban projects that have had tangible results, there is a growing sense of possibilities. The experience of this evolving landscape has also contributed new ideas and expectations for what it means to live and work in New York City.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has emerged as a leader in this evolution of public space. Initiatives such as a Summer Streets and Green Light for Midtown reconceived streets as places for the enjoyment and benefit of pedestrians. Working from a study and strategy prepared by the Danish urban quality consultant Jan Gehl, the DOT has implemented temporary street closings in such high profile locations as midtown Manhattan. In the summer of 2009, this brought the unprecedented spectacle of people lounging in Times Square and Herald Square. As of this writing, the city has decided to make permanent the pedestrian zone along Broadway and to redesign these spaces accordingly. Freed from vehicle traffic, it is possible to imagine the streets being transformed with extensive planting to further diminish the outflows to the combined storm sewer system and reduce the urban heat island effect. It is an exciting precedent not only for New York but for all American cities.
The first phase of The High Line, a new public park designed by landscape architect Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro with horticulturist Piet Oudolf, opened to broad acclaim in 2009. Occupying a former elevated freight rail line along Manhattan’s west side, the project was initiated through a grassroots effort and built under a public-private partnership.

With considerable skill, the design integrates with and transforms both the existing heavy steel infrastructure and the unusual site conditions that it traverses. Filled with an abundance of mostly native plants that evoke its prior abandoned condition, the project establishes a surprising new type of green space. Perhaps equally important, it raises expectations of what is possible to achieve in New York’s public realm. Coupled with the Department of City Planning’s rezoning of this area, the High Line has catalyzed the renewal of what was formerly an unpopulated edge condition.

Another important transformation of this magnitude is on the horizon, too. Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park will reclaim and adaptively re-use what was once the commercial waterfront below the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Situated on 85 acres of prime land, the park includes a number of innovative strategies, including storm water management, recycled materials such as stone, earth and wood, sound attenuation berms, tidal pools, and wetlands. Although a complex, multiyear project whose initial phases are just beginning to open, Brooklyn Bridge Park promises New Yorkers an accessible waterfront that has not existed in more than a century.

While twentieth century America buried infrastructure, a trend is emerging in New York City towards foregrounding it as a visible aspect of urban life. Rogers Marvel Architects’ MTA Flood Mitigation Street Furniture and Urban Plan expresses this new role for infrastructure. Addressing three miles of Hillside Avenue in Queens, the project installed 800 elevated subway grates appear that also serve as public benches. The project consists of prototypical street furniture that forms a raised collar around existing sidewalk subway grates, preventing heavy rain water in the street from entering the subway system. Part sculpture, part bench, these small interventions relate the scale of individual experience to that of regional environmental conditions. This project embodies the consciousness that will be required of twenty-first century citizens.

The Future
Looking ahead, what will sustainability mean for New York City? Architects, engineers, planners, and policymakers are now framing larger scale responses to the global environmental challenges associated with pollution and climate change. Fortunately, the City has a record of planning for the long-term future growth of the metropolis. Whether it was the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 that established the street grid of Manhattan or the engineering marvel of the supply network that delivers drinking water from the Croton Watershed or Olmstead and Vaux’s Central Park, New Yorkers have contemplated their city’s future. The City’s PlaNYC, a thirty year plan to make a greener, greater New York, is a recent policy document that has established both a larger vision and specific benchmarks, many of which are defined by the context of climate change. In February 2009, as part of the PlaNYC Initiative to Protect Vital Infrastructure, the city released its Climate Risk Report, perhaps the most detailed study of its kind ever created. PlaNYC reflects the recognition that public and private development, quality of life and environmental impact are intertwined aspects of a healthy city.

Like every major coastal city throughout the world, New York will be affected by the rising sea level and increased frequency of stronger storms associated with climate change. On the Water: Palisade Bay, the 2007-2009 AIA College of Fellows Latrobe Prize research project, puts forth a vision of the upper Harbor of NY and NJ as a new regional place. Led by Guy Nordenson Associates, Catherine Seavitt Studio and my firm, Architecture Research Office, the study proposes an archipelago of islands, shoals and reefs to reduce the impact of storm-induced wave energy. By integrating the estuarine ecology with infrastructure, Palisade Bay creates a soft, thickened coastline made of tidal marshes, finger piers and slips for recreation and development.

This study is the basis for The Museum of Modern Art’s Rising Currents, an exhibit on display from March through October of this year which consists of five visionary projects for the Upper Harbor of New York and New Jersey. Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio’s New Urban Ground transforms Lower Manhattan by weaving the city into its watershed, creating an infrastructural ecology. Water Proving Ground, created by Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis Architects, transforms the New Jersey Flats into a programmatically rich terrain defined by subtle changes in water level. Mathew Baird’s Working Waterline curates and adapts the industrial waterfront of the Kill Van Kull and Bayonne as a productive park. nArchitects’ New Aqueous City knits together city and water as a new zone of inhabitation between Staten Island and Sunset Park. For Brooklyn’s Gowanus canal area, SCAPE Landscape Architecture proposes Oyster-Tecture, a reef constructed from oysters that protects upland areas from wave force and improves water quality. The presence of this kind of work at The Museum of Modern Art speaks to New York’s readiness to imagine projects that will reinvent the city’s relationship to nature.

The overall trajectory for sustainable design in New York City is toward a visionary pragmatism. The search is on for projects that are holistic in their scope, performance, and cultural aspirations. These projects transcend the individual building site to engage infrastructure and public space. As sustainable design has grown more expansive, the most compelling, innovative projects have come to fruition from collaborative efforts across many disciplines and fields. This teamwork is necessary to address the multiple, interrelated technical issues relevant to each project. Ultimately, these new directions in sustainability will confirm that the practice of architecture, like the global environmental conditions we confront, exists in a complex web of shifting relationships. The challenge now for architects, engineers, landscape architects and specialists will be how to engage these relationships to achieve significant results.