London, New York Practices Offer Different Milieus, Methods

Event: New Practices London and New York: Milieus and Methods
Location: Häfele Americas Showroom, 08.22.07
Speakers: Tom Emerson & Stephanie Macdonald — Directors, 6a Architects; Vincent Lacovara — Founder, Agents of Change (AOC); Andrew Groarke — Carmody Groarke; David Howarth, RIBA, & Daniel Rosbottom — Co-directors, drdharchitects
Introduction: Elias Redstone — Curator, The Architecture Foundation, London
Moderators: AIANY New Practices Committee co-chairs Matthew Bremer, AIA — Principal, Architecture in Formation; and Marc Clemenceau Bailly — Founding Partner, Gage/Clemenceau Architects
Organizers: AIANY; The Architecture Foundation, London
Sponsors: Exhibition Underwriters: Häfele Americas; SKYY 90; Associated Fabrication; Patrons: 3form; ABC Imaging; Sponsors: Severud Associates; Thornton Tomasetti; OS Fabrication & Design; The Conran Shop; Supporters: Arup; Bartco Lighting; Fountainhead Construction; FXFOWLE Architects; MG & Company; Microsol Resources; Structural Enterprises; Friends: Barefoot Wines; Cosentini Associates; DEGW; Delta Faucet Company; Perkins Eastman; Media Partner: The Architect’s Newspaper

New Practices London

Center for Architecture

The Architecture Foundation, London’s equivalent to the Center for Architecture, has joined forces with its American counterpart to bring the principals of four up-and-coming British firms to Manhattan for an exhibition and two symposia. The opening event at the Häfele Showroom focused more on day-to-day practice topics than on particular works and styles. (The accompanying exhibition, New Practices London, at the Center goes a bit further in that direction.) With the presentation component limited to two slides each(!), the panelists only had time to hint at their practices’ defining principles.

If the four selected British firms are representative of their local scene, they give a collective impression that under-publicized UK practices are thriving, even while most international attention is concentrated on the usual suspects, the Zahas, Fosters, and Alsops. Younger practitioners are inclined toward understatement — they recoil from grand proclamations and aggressive manifestos — and independence. Daniel Rosbottom of the housing-specialist firm drdharchitects, for example, proclaimed a reluctance to join the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on political grounds, charging RIBA with promoting “too corporate a view of practice,” and lamented the local emphasis on “wow factor” designs. He favors more circumspect “things that sit back” and asserted “the things you’re stubborn about give you character.”

Prominent awards and commissions do find their way toward these firms: 6a Architects is shortlisted for the 2012 Olympic Athletes’ Village and designed The Architecture Foundation’s first installation at its new gallery in 2005. Carmody Groarke may be already familiar to New Yorkers as winner of the 2005 Coney Island Parachute Pavilion competition. Agents of Change (AOC), whose founding trio includes a linguist or “cultural interpreter” (spokesman Vincent Lacovara is one of the two architects), won the London International Festival of Theatre’s competition for The Lift New Parliament, a transportable meeting and performance space that will be the centerpiece of the 2008 Lift Festival. (The two other firms represented in the New Practices London exhibition, Ullmayer Sylvester and Witherford Watson Mann Architects, were unable to send representatives in person.)

The practice environment for newer London firms has changed in response to the current construction boom. Rosbottom reported that when he left school, the graduate unemployment rate was around 60%, and many colleagues “escaped practice”; there is now so much work that many of drdh’s clients are fellow architects, farming out the details of major projects. Experience in a larger, more established practice led Andrew Groarke to a wake-up call when he and partner Kevin Carmody went independent: drumming up new work calls for real-world rainmaking skills that go untapped in a larger firm where senior personnel handle client contact. Many of the panelists’ concerns appear universal: the value of careful partner selection, the challenges of working with mentors, the capacity for refreshing one’s thinking by teaching on the side. Competitions appear to occupy a larger proportion of the Londoners’ attention, and that of Europeans generally, than the theoretical positions favored by American architects. If England and America are, in George Bernard Shaw’s famous description, “two countries divided by a common language,” there’s plenty to be gained in translation.

David and Goliath: Two Projects Test Green Limits

Event: Green Building Case Studies
Location: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 08.15.07
Speakers: Tony Daniels, AIA, LEED AP — Director of Sustainable Design, Studio A/WASA; Sarah Beatty — Co-founder, Green Depot; Rolf Grimsted — Owner & Manager, R&E Brooklyn; Serge Appel, AIA, LEED AP — Associate Partner, Cook+Fox Architects
Moderator: Joe Franza — GreenHomeNYC
Organizers: GreenHomeNYC

One Bryant Park

One Bryant Park will “outgreen” its neighbors when complete.

© dBox for Cook+Fox Architects

The two-unit house at 93 Nevins/453 Pacific, Brooklyn, and the Bank of America tower at One Bryant Park, Manhattan, have little in common to the naked eye, but at opposite ends of the budget spectrum they both evince their developers’ and architects’ commitment to resource responsibility. When completed, One Bryant Park will be a midtown landmark, and the Nevins/Pacific building may be an eye-catcher only to its neighbors (and readers of Natural Home magazine, which has designated it a Show House), but both offer valuable messages to the evolving sustainable building movement.

A forum in GreenHomeNYC’s monthly series explored the challenges of sustainable urban construction under way at two radically different sites: a small residential adaptive-reuse project and a skyline-defining corporate tower.

The 1920s-vintage Nevins/Pacific building has spent most of its life as a commercial structure (successively a pharmacy, a laundromat, and a deli/grocery with second-floor residences). Decades of structural neglect and a 1980 fire did their worst, and neighbors came to view the building as a “very dangerous and toxic” blight on the community. But developers Rolf Grimsted and Emily Fisher of R&E Brooklyn saw it as reclaimable. “This is our engineer,” said Grimsted, introducing one photo of a gentleman surrounded with rubble, “telling us how crazy we’d been to buy this building.” The project is proving successful anyway, in large part because the partners assembled a like-minded team, including green materials marketing specialist Sarah Beatty, experienced green architect Tony Daniels, AIA, LEED AP, of StudioA/WASA (the trio’s chief technical presenter), contractor Robert Politzer of Green Street Construction, the Boerum Hill Association, and other local consultants. It takes a village — at least in a residential neighborhood — to give new life to a much abused building.

Daniels’ work began with the idea of preserving the brick façade. He designed a new structure that rises up within it, carved out a courtyard that optimizes natural lighting, and incorporated contemporary technologies, including rooftop solar collectors to heat water for radiant flooring. The more Con Edison power a photovoltaic system can replace, or a gas-fired absorption chiller system conserves, the lighter the burden on peak-time summer power consumption and the less fossil fuel is burned. Little of this is news among the green construction afficionados, but demonstrating both the feasibility and the aesthetic appeal of such a house to the community is beneficial, and the Nevins/Pacific house has a high public profile even before it’s complete. It’s the city’s first American Lung Association Health House (for exemplary air quality) and the first accredited under the LEED for Homes program. Whoever ultimately lives there will enjoy low utility bills, though they’ll need to brace themselves for tour group visits.

Cook+Fox Architects’ ice-shard-shaped Bank of America tower is already a well-established paragon of sustainability at the XXXL level. The goal of “outgreening” its neighbor has helped drive an all-systems-go approach to lightening its footprint: One Bryant Park’s power cogeneration, low-emission glass, ice-tank chilling system, recycled blast-furnace-slag concrete, underfloor air, individual thermal controls, waterless urinals, and other conservation strategies are projected to earn it LEED Platinum status. The data-intensive presentation of these features by Serge Appel, AIA, LEED AP, updates the portrait that his firm’s principals presented at the Skyscraper Museum’s Green Teams series last year (see “Biophilia Claims Bryant Park,” by Bill Millard, eOCULUS, 03.21.06 for an earlier view). If height competition is passé (or best left to organizations overseas), could green performance be a better outlet for American architects’ competitive impulses?

Designers Rethink Cityscape — One Scaffold at a Time

Event: SKETCH120
Location: American Can Factory, Gowanus, Brooklyn, 07.28.07
Speakers/Jury Members: James Biber, FAIA — Partner, Pentagram; Andrew Blum — Contributing Editor, Metropolis, Wired; Lauren Crahan — Partner, Freecell; Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of City Planning
Hosts: XO Projects, Inc.
Organizer: Design in 5, Architectural League of New York

SKETCH120

Emerging architects sketch at the inaugural Design in 5 event, SKETCH120.

Jonathan Lee

Most every New Yorker walks daily under scaffolds. The unsightly byproduct of a citywide building boom, they are also bottleneck-inducing, shirt-snagging nuisances for pedestrians on crowded streets. And in their current quasi-standardized form, at least in the U.S., they can be seen as irredeemably ugly. As required by law, they have one essential purpose: protecting pedestrians from falling debris during construction or repairs. But for all their squalor, scaffolds are also a liminal condition between private property and public space, and they could potentially serve many other purposes besides trapping projectiles. What if the codes changed and the humble scaffold assumed new forms?

Design in 5, a new group comprising architects, designers, and artists within five years of school graduation, took on the challenge of re-imagining scaffolding in its launch event, a juried charrette. Entrants spent two hours brainstorming the relation between permanent and transient structures, followed by critiques and discussion. Some of the sketches upgraded scaffold pipes with landscaping elements, stands for small businesses, or simple flyers giving historical information and construction timelines about the building within. Others provided access to second-story space for temporary homeless shelters (giving the occupant a retractable ladder for privacy and safety), recreational areas networked among multiple buildings, or out-of-the-way bike storage. One two-level system included fast and slow lanes, with ramps to the upper level for speedier walkers while vendors and other obstacles remain at ground level.

A dilemma raised by Andrew Blum, juror and contributing editor for Metropolis and Wired, involved the role of advertising. Should new designs incorporate ads to generate income or resist the growing encroachment of commerce into every imaginable space? Some felt scaffolds blur the boundary between the private and public realms: building owners are responsible for renting and maintaining them, but they extend private property building into the public right-of-way. More useful purposes for scaffolds — aesthetic upgrades, greening, marginal improvements in urban problems like homelessness, and transportation — thus depend on the financial incentives in the private sector.

The tension between ideal programs and feasible zoning and code changes prompted juror Alexandros Washburn, AIA, chief urban designer at the NYC Department of City Planning, to remind the crowd that regulatory and economic pressures lead owners and developers to maximize their returns on every square millimeter of space within the allowable FAR. Advertising creates incentives to leave temporary structures up indefinitely. That’s what happened in Washburn’s own building, which bore a scaffold for two years because “it was cheaper for the landlord to rent the scaffold than actually fix the façade problem.” Only deliberate policy changes, he believes, can reverse interests that now intrude into public space and give something back by shouldering the costs of more civic-minded scaffolding programs.

One group took an evolutionary angle, calling today’s standardized scaffold the result of centuries of Darwinian processes; in many respects it’s “not broken,” but it might eventually give way to an entirely different system. The model is a 900-year-old mosque in Mali made of mud, requiring recurrent repair in the rainy season and thus incorporating wooden structural elements that serve as scaffolding when needed. Permanent “self-integrated” scaffolds, these designers contended, represent a deeper level of sustainability. The idea of harmonizing permanent and recurrent structures led to James Biber, FAIA, juror and partner at Pentagram, to refer to Venetian practices — buildings under repair are reproduced in decorative prints outside their scaffolds, giving observers at least an image of the concealed structure. Thus viewing upkeep as an organic aspect of a building, not an awkward extraneous element, might improve the cityscape.

Why Dubai?

Events: Burj Dubai Lecture Series: “Extreme Building: The Challenges of Constructing Burj Dubai” and “Why Dubai?”
Location: New York Academy of Sciences, 06.13.07 (“Extreme Building”), 07.18.07 (“Why Dubai?”)
Speakers: “Extreme Building”: Ahmad Abdelrazaq — Executive Director, highrise building and structural engineering divisions, Samsung Corporation. “Why Dubai?”: Robert Booth — Executive Director, Emaar North America; John Braley — Business Development Manager, Turner International; George Efstathiou, AIA, RIBA — Managing Partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago; Jordan Gruzen, FAIA — Partner, Gruzen Samton; John Mills — Project Director, Hyder Consulting Middle East
Moderator: Robert Ivy, FAIA — Editor-In-Chief, Architectural Record
Organizers: Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Model photo by Steinkamp-Ballogg Photography, courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

No city in history has grown as quickly as Dubai; it’s the world’s third-ranked development city, after Shanghai and Moscow, observed John Braley, business development manager at Turner International. But the others have long histories as urban centers, while Dubai has morphed from backwater to metropolis almost overnight. Presentations often show paired before-and-after photos documenting the phenomenal growth of towers along Sheikh Zayed Road since 1990. With an economy more reliant on tourism, finance, and real-estate speculation than on oil, and with $45 billion in current construction for a population of 1.4 million in a space the size of Rhode Island, Dubai has become a laboratory for hyper-accelerated development.

In his June solo talk, engineer Ahmad Abdelrazaq conveyed his expertise and enthusiasm for the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Burj Dubai’s unique challenges: stabilizing its long and light frame, maximizing both daylight exposure and privacy in the tower’s residential section, pumping the high-performance concrete to unprecedented heights despite searing local temperatures (pouring at night helps), and monitoring stresses and deformations throughout the tower (the building’s information systems include a proliferation of strain gauges and a GPS base station/rover arrangement). At such a scale, even as routine an operation as positioning the cranes requires precision and caution.

The July panelists offered many solid reasons for Dubai’s record-setting growth. It has favorable geographic position as a trading port, waterside resort, and financial hub. Wealth was transferred there out of the U.S. by nervous regional investors after 9/11. The South Asian labor force is available at low wages. Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum encourages fast, unregulated development. And, perhaps foremost, Dubai’s political stability and relative cultural openness is what Jordan Gruzen, FAIA, partner at Gruzen Samton, calls “the safe haven in a very disturbed area of the world.”

After presentations by representatives of five firms involved with the Burj and other local projects, moderator Robert Ivy, FAIA, did his best to guide panelists’ attention toward controversies such as migrant-worker abuse (a topic on which a scathing Human Rights Watch report — citing hazards, deaths, and wages unpaid for months of labor in the 120-degree heat — recently got Sheikh Mohammed’s attention). With nary a contrarian to be heard, some of the responses to the event’s critical title question were more witty and succinct than penetrating: in Braley’s words, “Why not Dubai?” or as project director at Hyder Consulting Middle East John Mills said simply, “because we can.”

Dubai has amassed the resources and expertise to accomplish amazing things, the Burj among them. Gruzen cited one waterfront plan where $3.4 billion worth of land was sold in three days. Beyond the Burj, Dubai’s developers are out-Vegasing Vegas, building not just theme parks but “theme cities” like the Falcon City of Wonders, a bird-shaped recreational/residential district featuring life-sized replicas of the seven wonders of the world. The Palm Jumeira is slated to get the Trump hotel, this one tulipoid. The indoor Ski Dubai resort is a magnet for oxymorons, being something of a contradiction-in-terms itself; Mills relayed contrasting descriptions as both “infamous” and “fantastic.”

Many of the residences going up (and rapidly selling out) are unoccupied and may stay that way; they’re merely investment properties, second homes, or emergency residences for Middle Easterners contemplating future refugee status in the event of revolution or national collapse. Questions arise about the long-range soundness of an economy grounded in condo-flipping, or the forms of ecological blowback that ensue when growth outstrips infrastructure.

Dubai’s transportation is heavily auto-dependent, the muggy climate makes extensive air conditioning mandatory, and rendering Gulf water potable requires massive desalinization (returning ever more saline water to the source); building roads in a desert climate is always easier in the short term than managing natural resources. A metro rail line is planned, but car traffic is already nightmarish, and “the only use of solar energy,” Mills drolly reported, “is for a parking meter.” There’s a lot to admire about Dubai’s building boom; there’s also plenty that one can find unnerving.

We’ll Hopefully Never Know How Well This Place Works

Event: Designing for Emergencies: New York City’s New Office of Emergency Management (OEM)
Location: Science, Industry and Business Library, 06.28.07
Speakers: Henry Jackson — Deputy Commissioner for Technology, OEM; Joseph Aliotta, AIA — Principal, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects; Steve Emspak — Partner, Shen Milsom & Wilke
Organizers: Shen Milsom & Wilke

OEM Headquarters

An abandoned structure from the 1950s has been upgraded with security measures needed for major disaster relief.

Courtesy Shen Milsom & Wilke

Less than six years after the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM) lost its headquarters in the collapse of the original 7 World Trade Center on 9/11, and one day after this June’s partial electrical blackout, New Yorkers attending this panel on the agency’s new building, designed by Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, understood how vital such a center is when any form of chaos intrudes. “This is in such a prominent location! A terrorist could just bomb it,” suggested one citizen. “Shouldn’t it be in a more secure location?” Amid edgy laughter, panelists expressed confidence in OEM’s security systems; they’d already cited a range of reasons why the converted American Red Cross building on Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza is an appropriate site. With Walt Whitman Park and various limestone-clad federal, state, and city courthouses nearby, OEM now occupies a district defined by sober, imposing civic structures. But the question exposed this building’s unsettling implications: however much confidence its advanced technologies and award-winning, LEED-certified design may inspire, it remains vulnerable.

Henry Jackson, deputy commissioner for technology at the OEM, first sketched OEM’s history and mission, from its roots in the 1940s Civil Defense program and its establishment as a mayoral disaster-planning office in 1996, to its post-9/11 peregrinations through various temporary headquarters — including a bus, a West Side pier, and a police-academy library. The agency has been resilient and improvisatory, returning to operation 72 hours after losing its original home and beginning the search for a new permanent site within a week. Site-selection criteria included securability, avoidance of flood zones, easy accessibility via multimodal transportation, and the capability of supporting diverse backup systems for power cogeneration and telecommunications.

As Joseph Aliotta, AIA, principal at Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, recounted, after the Red Cross offered this abandoned 1950s-era three-story structure, the gut-rehab job and adaptation for OEM’s functions constituted a technical tour de force. Contractors stripped away everything but the concrete, moved the central mechanical core to an addition on the south perimeter to create spaces large enough for urgent gatherings, and elevated the roof to accommodate the extensive wiring and large-screen sightlines needed in the third-floor Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Here, police, fire, utility, and other officials will assemble to share information under emergency conditions. The unspoken goal is to keep interagency communication from ever again being as uncoordinated as they were on 9/11.

The EOC’s audiovisual and multimodal communication gear is as advanced as any cinematically imagined operations center. Systems expert Steve Emspak, partner at Shen Milsom & Wilke, recounted how the EOC and the 24-hour watch-command center were organized to maximize connectivity and flexibility. With extensive audio systems and data networking (29 miles of assorted cables in the building’s 60,000 square feet, plus wireless access), along with a “scoreboard” in the EOC comprising 160-inch main video screens and multiple auxiliary screens, Emspak says, “any piece of information can appear anywhere” during a large meeting. Acoustics are tuned for clear conversations amid the hubbub of a crowded disaster-response scenario. Media facilities allow for rooftop broadcasting through 54 antennas and reasonably comfortable ergonomics for reporters enduring marathon sessions likely if the center sees active duty.

Emergencies on a 9/11 scale are rare, but less cataclysmic events, Jackson pointed out, can bring the EOC to active status some four to six times a year. Severe weather, Con Edison foul-ups, and water main breaks account for most such circumstances. In between events, the bulk of OEM’s work involves planning for disasters (both specific and conjectural), public education about emergency readiness and evacuation procedures, and periodic training to keep city personnel from confronting steep learning curves should they encounter this building’s systems during “an actual emergency.” Emspak takes understandable pride in the state-of-the-art facility, while voicing what’s on the minds of everyone pondering its purpose, and what may not have changed much since the Cold War: “I hope to hell it’s always empty.”

Burj Battles Wind High Above Dubai

Event: “Supertallest: Designing Structure.” World’s Tallest Building: Burj Dubai Lecture Series
Location: New York Academy of Sciences, 05.23.2007
Speakers: William F. Baker, PE, CE, SE, FASCE — partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago, and chief structural engineer, Burj Dubai
Introduction: Carol Willis — Director, Skyscraper Museum
Organizers: Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

©Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

The tallest skyscrapers of the 21st century are likely to face obstacles beyond what we can now imagine. Principally residential, concrete-framed, and Middle Eastern or Asian — as opposed to commercial, steel-framed, and North American like their 20th-century predecessors — Carol Willis observed one challenge that’s certain to remain in effect is wind. The higher a tower extends, the stronger the wind, and the more unpredictable. How do you strengthen a structure against wind forces in a place where no one has ever ventured up to measure them?

The portfolio of engineer William Baker, PE, CE, SE, FASCE, already includes one building temporarily considered the world’s tallest, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Burj Dubai recently passed Petronas, reaching the 128th floor, and in September it will pass Taipei 101 assuming world leadership in height, at least among freestanding land-based structures (offshore oil rigs excluded). Going where no architect or engineer has gone before, Baker recognizes, means confronting unprecedented torsion stresses, wind vortices, stack effects, and other demands. Aeroelastic studies with models and wind tunnels allowed for extrapolation to actual conditions and ultimately to “tuning” of the building, like a musical instrument. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s design for the Burj uses spiraling sequenced setbacks, turbulence-enhancing textured cladding, an orientation that reduces the site’s most problematic airflow, and numerous other strategies to “confuse the wind,” manage the periodic rhythms of oscillating vortices, and maintain stability amid the forces encountered above 2,000 feet.

The Burj does not compete with bulky buildings like the Sears Tower in area, measuring roughly 3 million square feet (the Sears has 4.4 million), since its largely residential program calls for a smaller leafspan than a predominantly commercial building requires. (The extremely wealthy tenants who will occupy the Burj’s boutique office spaces also tend to have relatively small staffs.) Express and local elevators are stacked to minimize the proportion of floor space devoted to shafts. The Y-shaped triangular floorplates create greater torsional stability than a square or rectangular design would allow; a buttressed hexagonal core with webs of interior concrete walls throughout the three wings functions as a concrete axle. “Every piece of vertical concrete,” Baker explained, “is part of this giant beam” enlisting gravity for stability. “Gravity is amazingly reliable. If you’re resisting a load with rebar, that’s pretty reliable, but resisting with gravity is about as good as you’re gonna get.”

The exact height of the Burj remains a carefully guarded secret; all published figures Baker has seen are wrong. He pointed out that measuring building height is far from an exact science, citing debate within the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat over four types of measurement (a new standard may emerge from the International Height Meeting in Chicago, under way at this writing). Regardless of whether spires, antennas, occupied floors, or other factors determine official height, the Burj will stand well beyond its projected competitors for years, at least 2,300 feet — nearly halfway to matching Frank Lloyd Wright’s hypothetical, once-fanciful Mile-High Tower.

The unusually close focus afforded by a three-lecture series on a single building promises to reveal many fascinating aspects of the Burj. If the controversies it has already generated in the socioeconomic realm inspire analyses anywhere near as sophisticated as Baker’s technical presentation, look for some spectacular debates as the discussion moves from how it’s being built to why, and for whom.

Energy Neutrality Proves to be Sponge-Worthy

Event: Mixed Greens lecture:”Zero-Energy Tower, Guangzhou”
Location: New York Academy of Sciences, 05.08.07
Speakers: Roger Frechette, PE, LEED-AP — Director of MEP Engineering, & Russell Gilchrist, RIBA, — Director of Technical Architecture, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Carol Willis — Director, Skyscraper Museum (introduction)
Organizer: Skyscraper Museum

Pearl River Tower

The Pearl River Tower aims for energy neutrality by taking cue from sponges.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

The two complementary professions of engineering and architecture gain immeasurably from hearing each other’s languages and concerns. Anatomizing a single building (the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, scheduled for completion in mid-2009) allows a view into the interlinked processes behind high-performance design. The Skyscraper Museum’s Mixed Greens series concluded with a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill engineer/architect tag-team presentation.

Roger Frechette, PE, LEED AP, began by walking through some of the facts that make sustainable design a priority, particularly the shares of total energy and electricity that buildings consume nationally (40% of the former and 71% of the latter). Overall, because buildings generate as much carbon as transportation and industry combined, Frechette says, “form for the sake of form is no longer good enough.” Borrowing biomimicry principles from Janine Benyus’s work and applying them to new designs, Frechette described four levels of energy processing developed by SOM’s engineers: reduction in consumption; reclamation of lost energy for reuse; passive absorption of natural energy flows such as wind, sun, and water; and generation of power. Sponges, which conduct moisture efficiently, provide habitats for thousands of other species, and channel light through fiber-optic-like microfilaments in their external spicula, offer natural models of structures that can help a building meet the environmental challenges of hot, muggy, heavily-polluted Guangzhou.

To reduce dependency on external power, the Pearl River Tower uses many tricks in the book: 32 different conservation systems, including underfloor air, German-style chilled ceilings, double walls to create ventilation cavities, and non-symmetrically arrayed photovoltaics — a feature that the engineers preferred but the architects had to warm up to (“To achieve optimum performance,” Frechette commented, “you don’t often end up with a symmetric answer”). The building’s orientation defies aerodynamic orthodoxy, turning its wide side to the prevailing southern wind and channeling air into turbines. Since turbine power is a cube function of air velocity, the high winds that typically surround a skyscraper become an energy asset instead of a problem. Placing the turbines on mechanical floors also frees up rentable square footage, as does a compressed floor-to-floor height, allowing five extra stories without sacrificing floor-to-ceiling space.

The Pearl River Tower is a proof-of-concept project for a true energy-neutral building. It’s easily the world’s most efficient tall building, cutting power consumption by 58% over the baseline case and reducing carbon dioxide generation from 20 billion pounds to less than 9 billion. But it only suggests the potential for a building to attain that fourth step and return more power to the city grid than it consumes. In a different site with a less harsh climate (and perhaps more cooperative local utilities), Frechette conjectured, results would be even better. Because the tower is classified as commercial rather than industrial, regulators disallowed a set of highly efficient microturbines that could generate power from either natural gas or methane, along with heat for water — cleanly, more reliably, and more efficiently than Guangzhou’s grid. (The design preserved space for the microturbines anyway, in case the officials change their minds.)

Russell Gilchrist, RIBA, breaking down the various performance benchmarks economically, pointed out that the tower’s multiple economies allow recovery of the up-front sustainable-technology premium in 4.8 years, becoming a net revenue generator for at least 20 years beyond that point. With a financial incentive like that, the challenge to achieve a zero-energy skyscraper is squarely on the table.

Beauty Pushes de Botton

Event: The Architecture of Happiness: How Our Surroundings Affect Our Emotional Well-being
Location: Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 05.01.07
Speaker: Alain de Botton — author, The Architecture of Happiness (Pantheon, 2006)
Organizers: World Monuments Fund; Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Architecture of Happiness

Courtesy alaindebotton.com

Author, philosopher, and television personality Alain de Botton has turned to architectural commentary after popular discourses on love, Proust, status anxiety, among others; his wit and erudition are unmistakable. He brings a degree of common sense to many of the buildings he discusses. If his project to reintroduce beauty unapologetically into architectural discourse were not as laudable as I believe it is, it would not be so painful to note how often his observations recall clichés. He informed us, for example, that good buildings demonstrate a sense of place and respect the natural features that they are replacing. This is not a news flash.

The goal that de Botton strives to help his listeners realize is admirable: connecting one’s attraction to visual beauty (something everyone senses but few articulate) with the more explainable aspects of one’s life. Much of his theory expands on a quotation from Stendhal (“Beauty is the promise of happiness”), and he recognizes a broad variety of definitions of happiness to provide a range of beauties, tailored to the elements people find missing from their lives. His appreciation of a placid minimalist kitchen by John Pawson, for example, expresses his own need for calm; the alarming Deconstructivist planes of a French government building, he says, imply that the bureaucrats within live in mortal terror of becoming any more boring than they already are. These observations ring true but rarely explore fresh territory.

De Botton takes seriously a question that he admits risks naïveté: just how important architecture is at all. He does not automatically assume an answer that will flatter architects. Offering a polarity between “Catholic” and “Protestant” views of architecture — the belief that ordered environs can bring people closer to the deity and a good life vs. the belief that divinity renders physical settings irrelevant — he says, “From an entirely secular point of view, I’m a ‘Catholic,'” and proceeds to anatomize ways that buildings can elevate, debase, defend, or confuse the psyche. Given the limited choice, who wouldn’t line up behind de Botton for communion wafers? The problem is that using this particular binary schism as an organizing metaphor omits most of the range and nuance of architectural debates (not to mention questions of functionality, ecology, and scale).

He also indulges a tendency to use negative examples that are absurd, scoring easy points off a mogul’s effort to mimic Amsterdam near Nagasaki, and a dreary mirror-glass box from one of New Jersey’s most soul-sapping corporate parks. Decoding the more challenging messages of today’s architectural provocateurs would have tested de Botton’s subjectivism in vital ways: what would he make of the atonalities, asymmetries, improvisations, and provocations of love-it-or-hate-it works by, say, Robert Venturi, FAIA, Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, or Frank Gehry, FAIA? He offers many observations that are worth engaging, if he’s willing to push himself past the elementary.

Combating the Cultural Energy Hog

Event: “Green Design: We’re All in This Together” (Sally Henderson Memorial Lecture)
Location: Arthur King Satz Hall, New York School of Interior Design, 04.18.07
Speaker: Hugh Hardy, FAIA — H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture
Organizer: New York School of Interior Design

Theater for a New Audience

The Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn incorporates solar power and wind heating based on its siting.

Studioamd courtesy H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture

Building with ecological values in mind begins with local knowledge, a detailed sense of specific places, and their climates, flora, and other features. In Hugh Hardy, FAIA, and colleagues’ experience with arts infrastructure, resorts, courthouses, and even parking lots, the local applications of these principles prove their resilience. Hardy included data about buildings accounting for 48% of national energy use (cf. 27% for transportation and 25% for industry); the urgency of reducing this burden is hard to dispute. He proceeded to describe an array of projects where sensitivity to site and program afforded a range of sustainable strategies.

Sometimes a useful discovery begins with knowing when to say no: when to foreclose an expected option and replace it with something humble, unorthodox, or both. The Glimmerglass Opera’s Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown, NY, with its rustic references and dramatic sliding panels, is a case in point. Mechanical ventilation would have been too expensive, as Hardy says, to serve a rarely-needed function: “moving large volumes of air v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y to avoid acoustical problems… to control temperatures for just a few days out of the 365.” With no winter opera season, conventional heating and cooling weren’t worth the expense; instead, financial necessity gave Glimmerglass audiences a literal breath of fresh air. The theater inspired later projects employing passive green strategies, such as the renovated Bear Mountain Inn’s highly cost-effective geothermal system.

The new LEED Gold-rated headquarters of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas recycles pulverized material from existing buildings and employs a tilt-up construction technique. Concrete walls are poured on-site and then lifted 90 degrees into place (standard for local warehouses), making the site itself a factory of sorts and minimizing costly transportation of finished panels. Plantings on the concrete walls and roof provide shade and thermal control as well as visual variety. In the parking lot permeable paving contributes to water management and returns rainwater to the soil. “Any institution devoted to the natural world,” asserted Hardy, “should be a leader in sustainable design.”

Cultural facilities pose particular challenges. Hardy recognizes that any theater is “an inherent energy hog” because it requires acoustic isolation, artificial light, and other obstacles to sustainability. The new headquarters for the Theater for a New Audience in the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District will use the new site’s western orientation of a four-story curtain wall for solar power and winter heating. A new master plan for the Santa Fe Opera adapts a former dude ranch’s open-air pavilions as rehearsal spaces, with rammed-earth walls and subterranean passages maximizing airflow through the complex.

“It would be naïve to think we’re now all suddenly going to pledge allegiance to an eco-friendly existence,” concedes Hardy. Each site-specific choice, however, can help break down a national belief that he finds dangerously counterproductive: the assumption that every building must present an internal environment of identical, constant temperature and humidity. He envisions, instead, a future where people realistically allow for “nature’s variety and fecundity.”

A Systems Approach to the Green Skyscraper

Event: Designing the Green Skyscraper: A Mixed Greens Lecture
Location: The New York Academy of Sciences, 7WTC, 04.05.07
Speaker: Kenneth Yeang — principal, Llewelyn Davies Yeang, professor, Sheffield University, & author, Ecodesign (Hoboken: Academy Press, 2006)
Moderator: Carol Willis — founder, director, curator, The Skyscraper Museum
Organizers: The Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences

The EDITT Tower.

The EDITT (Ecological Design In The Tropics) Tower is a fuzzy combination of organic and inorganic material.

Llewelyn Davies Yeang

A stack of kitchen plates is the basic model for today’s tall building: a series of modular concrete floors in succession, conducive to “instant compartmentalization” and the dreariness of the white-collar office, according to Malaysian principal, professor, and author Ken Yeang. The area in a typical medium-sized building (a 12-story tower on a 20,000-square-foot site) would be equivalent to six acres distributed horizontally. He conceives of skyscrapers as “no longer building design, but urban design.” They pose an opportunity to create a fluid, mixed-use community that meshes with the biological world instead of a solitary structure standing apart from it. “Everything in nature is a combination of the biotic and the abiotic,” he observes. “Look at what we build as human beings… everything [in a typical building] is inorganic except you and me and the bugs!”

Concentrating a multi-acre community on a small footprint, Yeang says, calls for architects “to make the design as humane as possible.” Aesthetically as well as functionally, his work favors fuzziness and irregularities over the “pristine edge” of most corporate towers. His buildings invite in the foliage and sunlight. One of his favorites, the bougainvillea-covered Menara Boustead building in Kuala Lumpur, he terms “the hairiest building in Southeast Asia.” With spiraling and intertwining spaces blending built structures with vegetation, his eco-cells, sky parks, multi-story voids, and sunny-side placement of service cores are all designed to optimize passive energy conservation — an important approach in the tropical climates where he usually works.

Many of Yeang’s designs remain unrealized; he acknowledges the cost premiums involved, giving figures on the high side of recent estimates for LEED-rated buildings, and recommends that anyone building a vertical garden be prepared, like any gardener, to invest resources in tending it. (For greening NYC buildings, he recommends hardy non-flowering species and operable external skins to protect plantings from high wind.) He views the current LEED system as valuable for public awareness of green design, but seriously incomplete as a means of analyzing the full set of interdependencies that constitute a bio-integrative system.

Yeang’s practical design decisions derive from a set of interlocking analyses, using mathematical partition matrices to organize the inputs and outputs of biological and built systems. His commitment to green design runs well beyond a generalized intention to conserve resources; he interprets the principle of biomimicry in organized and consistent ways, comparing buildings within a wider ecologic system to prosthetic limbs attached to a living organism. Even the most sophisticated artificial arms or hearts still require external energy sources, and the ideal prosthesis would run on bodily energy alone. Similarly, what he calls the “truly green building,” one taking all its operational energy inputs passively from nature, does not yet exist, but Yeang’s ideas are bringing that organic/inorganic balancing act closer to realization.