Green is in the Details

Location: The New York Academy of Sciences Headquarters, 7 WTC, 03.15.07
Speaker: Helmut Jahn — President and CEO, Director of Design, Murphy/Jahn; Carol Willis — director, Skyscraper Museum (introduction)
Organizers: The Skyscraper Museum; The New York Academy of Sciences

Andreas Keller, courtesy Skyscraper Museum

The Deutsche Post Tower in Bonn, Germany is routinely green.

Andreas Keller, courtesy Skyscraper Museum

As one might expect from a product of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Miesian curriculum, Helmut Jahn, FAIA, offers “an attention to performance on all levels” as the key to sustainable design. He finds that “…the right answer to all problems is dealing with light, dealing with natural air, and dealing with water;” optimizing function in these areas, he believes, is the most effective way to make buildings energy-efficient and comfortable. Get the basics right, Jahn insists, and retain Mies’s farsighted attention to the properties of today’s materials, and advanced green technologies (heat recovery, greywater processing, etc.) will be largely unnecessary.

Sustainability per se, as the term is commonly understood, doesn’t appear to be a critical priority for Jahn. After walking the audience through a series of towers his firm designed, he confessed, “Maybe I don’t even care how green they are.” He regards LEED and comparable environmental accounting systems as more valuable for marketing purposes than for efficient operation; he noted that in a typical 40-point LEED Gold building, the Veer Towers in Las Vegas, 19 are directly attributable to design, and only five of the 19 involve reductions in energy use. “Building green does not necessarily mean that it’s going to be good architecture,” he says; sustainability appears as a welcome byproduct of his emphasis on functionality.

Most of the projects presented are in Europe, where energy costs are historically high, codes are rigorous, and clients need little persuasion about the virtues of efficiency. In Berlin’s Sony Center, a short 7-meter leafspan maximizes natural ventilation, and features regarded as innovative in the U.S. (raised floors, low-E fritted glass, load-bearing mullions) are routine. The twin-elliptical-shell Deutsche Post Tower in Bonn, has minimal energy requirements, needing no cooling towers or supply/return ducts; its thermal management relies on Rhine water, interior sky gardens, the heat-storing properties of concrete, the aerodynamic properties of its own envelope, and simple fans. Jahn’s ideas are also expanding to Asia and the Mideast; one tower for Pearl River New City in Guangzhou, China, will sport a vertically shingled facade that acts as an exterior sunshade and allows natural ventilation, and new forms are planned for Doha and Abu Dhabi (watch for a particularly daring structure in the latter, tentatively nicknamed the Twister). The dominant aesthetic in Murphy/Jahn’s work tends toward dematerialization, as biomorphic and modernist: buildings with skins that breathe and skeletons that put every molecule of their materials to work.

Earthly Reasons to Build Skyward

Event: The Sustainable Works of Foster + Partners: A Mixed Greens Lecture
Location: New York Academy of Sciences, 7 WTC, 02.22.07
Speaker: Brandon Haw – senior partner, Foster + Partners; Carol Willis – director, Skyscraper Museum (introduction)
Organizers: Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences

Courtesy Foster + Partners

Will 200 Greenwich Street bring America to the forefront of green design?

Courtesy Foster + Partners

Foster + Partners’ designs emphasize a dialectic between the environment and technology, emphasized the firm’s senior partner, Brandon Haw. Recalling his own 1960s upbringing in an “art family” that treasured the off-the-grid principles of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, Haw was naturally drawn to the early work of Sir Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, and Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky’s dome could have been used for the Willis Faber building,” he commented. Some features of that forward-looking Foster-designed 1975 building have become staples of sustainable design and corporate communitarianism: a green roof, open-plan workspaces, escalator-based vertical transportation, and raised floors. Then-and-now photos show how little modification this building needed as its occupants adapted to computerization and other changes over three decades.

As widely as Foster’s designs have varied, they have implemented recurrent principles: functional cladding, external positioning of cores, and attention to the details of airflow, heat exchange, and light. A point-by-point system of ecological analysis from site to materials guides all Foster projects, skyscraper-scale and otherwise. It’s become common to preface discussions of green design strategies with Al Gore-style data graphics on global temperature, carbon dioxide, demographics, and resource use. Haw’s presentation of this material was bracing without being alarmist; he recognizes the urgency of curbing greenhouse emissions has reached cultural and economic realms, and he applauds businesses that recognize common interests linking carbon footprints, quality-of-life improvements for workers, and financial performance. Foster + Partners is dedicated to building tall as much for the anti-sprawl effects of high urban density as for the customary financial motives.

The triangular Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt (1997), arguably the first green skyscraper, treats German unions’ requirement that all workers be within 7.5 meters of a window as a productive constraint. Considering its central atrium space, “gardens in the sky,” and ample natural ventilation (used 85% of the year, improving on the original target of 65%), its internal offices are in higher demand than those facing outward. A mixed-use “vertical city” currently on the boards, the Moscow City Towers, will resemble “Commerzbank blown apart, turned inside out,” incorporating negative-pressure ventilation and energy systems that employ river water. For Aldar Central Market, a tower/souk complex in Abu Dhabi, the firm studied indigenous architecture to combine traditional heat-management strategies (sloping roofs, wind-catching chimneys) with modern photovoltaics and thermal tubes.

Similar structural and solar-energy-capturing strategies in the ill-fated 980 Madison tower ran into local opposition, but Haw promises the firm will return to the Upper East Side with a new design. Europeans have outpaced their U.S. counterparts in building green; Germany’s tight regulatory environment, in particular, makes eco-technology a priority in projects like the Reichstag, New German Parliament restoration, and the Free University in Berlin (the biomorphic “Berlin Brain”). The American architectural community’s focus on stylistic debates strikes Haw as frivolous, but he notes and hails rapid change on this side of the pond. Some years ago he remarked to colleagues, “We can’t tell the Americans what to do, but when they get it, they’ll get it big-time.” The Hearst Headquarters and similar buildings have proven Haw prophetic in that regard. Since Fuller and other Americans established green-design in the first place, it’s refreshing that we’re beginning to catch up.

Panel Sizes Up Bloomberg’s PlaNYC

Event: Mayor’s Plan for NYC 2030 New York New Visions: An Evolving Conversation
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.05.07
Speakers: Rohit Aggarwala, PhD – director, Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability; Donald H. Elliot, Esq. – Hollyer, Brady, Barrett & Hines; Frank Fish, FAICP – BFJ Planning; Mark Ginsberg, FAIA – Curtis + Ginsberg; Jerilyn Perine – executive director, Citizens Housing and Planning Council of NY; Joseph Tortorella, PE – vice president, Robert Silman Associates; Thomas K. Wright – executive vice president, Regional Plan Association
Moderator: Ernest Hutton, AICP, Assoc. AIA – Hutton Associates & New York New Visions
Organizers: New York New Visions; AIA New York Chapter Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

Courtesy plaNYC 2030

Courtesy plaNYC 2030

The easy take on the mayor’s potentially prescient PlaNYC 2030 process is that it’s an exercise in collective doomsaying, a deep dark pool of worst-case scenarios. Despite some early press coverage boiling down the message to “the city’s going to become a rat-hole again, just as it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” city sustainability director Rohit Aggarwala actually takes a chipper tone. With demographic projections calling for a population of 9.1 million by 2030, the associated problems and risks aren’t hard to identify, whether it’s the chronic affordable-housing crunch, the shortage of trained engineers predicted by Joseph Tortorella, or the surprising fact (raised by Aggarwala in a global-warming context) that NYC ranks second only to Miami in hurricane risk exposure. Major infrastructure here is many decades old; flood lines are likely to rise; the transportation system is already congested enough to cost the city $11.5 billion annually in lost productivity. In this context, preventing trouble by projecting possible versions of it looks prudent, not alarmist.

Having an optimistic outlook while assessing the challenges is constructive initially, but the key term is “initial.“ At this stage, PlaNYC is defining broad targets and gathering data through task-force sessions, not prescribing solutions. Questions of means and accountability will inevitably enliven the debate. Executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), Thomas Wright, called on New York New Visions (NYNV) members to serve as “civic cannon fodder,” drawing community leaders’ attention to these priorities. The real fireworks will come when costs and sacrifices have to be specified. The GreeNYC component, for example (the others being OpeNYC and MaintaiNYC), includes an ambitious four-point plan: cutting global-warming emissions by 30%, attaining the nation’s best urban air quality, cleaning up all contaminated land, and opening 90% of the city’s waterways for recreation.

Other stated goals of the overall program include improving park and playground access throughout all boroughs, adding transit capacity, and developing backup systems for the water network. Education, employment, and crime are conspicuously underemphasized in the official brochures distributed, but panelists emphasized the interconnection of those variables with the physical changes under discussion. Jerilyn Perine, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council of NY, urging a renewed effort to secure support for public housing, offered a useful summation of the human bottom line: “If our neighborhoods stop being little factories to manufacture hope of entering the middle class, we’re in real trouble, because the million people who are coming are not all coming with MBAs.”

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, Icon, Content, and other publications.