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.