NYT – When Green Building Is Not Green Enough: A Response

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Mr. Zeller writes in his NY Times “Green” Blog post “When Green Building Is Not Green Enough” that “the nation’s building stock plays a bigger role in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions than many Americans might realize.” This is only true (a) because many Americans have chosen to ignore information that has been widely available for at least four decades and (b) powerful business and social interests have conducted a massive campaign of misinformation in order to maintain positions of economic and political power.

In 1972, the Club of Rome published the highly regarded Limits to Growth stating that by the first decade of the 21st century, the approaching limits to the availability of finite resources including energy would have profound effects on our lives, most of them being negative. In 1977, Richard Stein’s book Architecture and Energy documented that over 40 percent of all energy use in the US was closely affected by architectural decisions. In 1972, the American Institute of Architects, a very mainstream organization, began a detailed investigation into the relationship between building and architecture and in 1974 issued Energy and the Built Environment: A Gap in Current Strategies.

In 1981, the AIA issued Energy and Architecture, the first in a series of documents directed toward the design professions which eventually included four texts. In 1978 and 1993 respectively, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards published Energy Conservation in Existing Buildings and Energy Conscious Architecture both of which discuss the amount of energy consumed by the built environment. The list goes on; however, the upshot is that detailed, quantitative data regarding the extent to which decisions on building and regional planning affect or national energy use have been readily available for many years.

However, we continue to get conflicting messages. On the one hand, we are being told that thinking and acting “green” is essential to global survival and international economic competitiveness. This position is well supported by overwhelming hard information. Yet even when we consider sustainability, we rarely account for the larger scope of the impact.

When we choose to operate an electrical device, we may consider the utility bill that will have to be paid later in the month. We may, in times of stressed utility capacity, realize that this operation may contribute to a system overload resulting in brownouts or blackouts. It is unusual, however, to visualize the contribution that the decision to operate electrical device makes to the plume of smoke and carbon dioxide leaving the stack of a generator three hundred miles away or to the added demand for coal with its related environmental degradation. We don’t think about the part, however small, that our use of electricity plays in the thirty to forty coal mining deaths each year in the United States.

From Greening Modernism, Carl Stein, W.W. Norton, 2010

On the other hand, there are those who inveigh against standards for electric lamps, appliances, showers and toilets, whether or not these standards have any particular impact on our day-to-day experience. Their main thrust seems to be an appeal to the deep “nobody tells me what to do” strain of frontier independence. While this may be fine when we each have miles of empty space around us, it is not viable in the highly interconnected condition that we currently experience. The net effect of this attitude is, in the short term, to compromise our global position and, in the long term, at a minimum to degrade the quality of life for our children and grandchildren and quite possibly to threaten the survival of the planet as we know it.

Dramatic reductions in our energy use are possible through simple, cost-effective substitutions and very modest adjustments in everyday practices. While zero-net-energy and zero-carbon buildings are admirable goals and serve as important test beds for emerging technologies, there should be no confusion about the fact that smart design and careful application of off-the-shelf technologies offer the best near-term methods for reshaping our energy consumption patterns. Not only will these have an immediate impact, they will also inform the attitudes that underlie future design paradigms.

Affordable Housing & Sustainable Action

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The LA Times article – http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-urban-green-20100903,0,588562.story – addressing the intersection of affordable housing and sustainable action raises a number of significant challenges as well as highlighting several relatively successful solutions.  Unfortunately, two conclusions, stated or implied, interfere with the simplest, most effective short-term strategies for greening our society.

A primary misconception is the belief that to introduce sustainable measures in low-income communities is problematic because of first cost, and second, that the most effective environmental measures take the form of add-ons such as solar panels.  In fact, many environmentally responsible approaches have equal or lower first costs than their less sustainable counterparts, as well as reducing ongoing operating costs.  Frequently, the only component that must be added is either clearly presented information, or in the case of new buildings or building retrofit, smart design.

This should not be seen as lowering of expectations or of quality of life, but rather as maximizing the usefulness of all resources utilized.  Mt. Airy Woods housing is an example of this strategy.  Completed in 1995, the twelve unit (six one-bedroom, three two-bedroom and three three-bedroom) complex had an average construction cost of just over $50,000 per unit which was very competitive with similar projects of the era.  However, unlike many low-cost housing projects, Mt. Airy Woods incorporated high-performance windows, significantly higher levels of insulation than required by code, responsive heating controls and zoning, earth-buffering, and low-maintenance materials throughout.

The use of higher quality materials and systems without compromising the budget was made possible by providing the maximum useful living space in the smallest possible package.  While the particulars of the Mt. Airy Woods project will not apply to every, or even most projects, understanding their impact is instructive.  The site is steeply sloping, having an average pitch of 1:3.  In general, this would have been considered a serious drawback to development; however, it allowed the design of multi-unit buildings with on-grade, direct access to every unit.  This, in turn, meant that there was no construction for public corridors or stairs.  This not only reduced the amount of building which in itself is a significant environmental benefit, but it also reduced the amount of building area that needs to be heated and maintained.  Further, it improved accessibility and security as well as giving each unit the sense of “entry” and arrival.

This is a limited explanation of a very specific example but is intended to suggest that the careful application of resources, both those that are purchased and those that pre-exist within the boundaries of a project, can address concerns for sustainability while enhancing quality of life issues, and do so within completely conventional budgets.

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Commemorating The First Women’s Rights Convention

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On July 19th and 20th 1848, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held, resulting in the drafting of the Declaration of Sentiments which became the foundation for the struggle for full equality for women, including the right to vote which was not granted until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920. The 1848 Convention was held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY.

In the decades following the Convention, little attention was paid to the meeting place which went through a number changes. In the mid-1980’s, by which time the building was being used for snowplow storage, apartments and a laundromat, the National Park Service recognized its significance and purchased the Chapel as a National Historic Site. NPS, along with the National Endowment for the Arts organized a competition for a design that would commemorate the Convention utilizing the surviving fragments of the Chapel and some vacant, adjoining land.

WRNHP_Interior(Image courtesy of National Park Service)

Beginning in 1985, NPS, along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) organized a competition for a design that would commemorate the Convention utilizing the surviving fragments of the Chapel and some vacant, adjoining land. In 1987, the competition was won by Ann Marshall and Ray Kinoshita, then students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. They joined forces with The Stein Partnership (now Elemental Architecture) to complete the project. An adjacent building, originally designed as a car dealership but later used as a Municipal Building for Seneca Falls, was added to the scope to provide a Visitors Center and administrative facilities for the park. Two floors of interpretive material were designed by Chermayeff and Geismar.

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The completed Chapel Block which presented the Chapel fragments in a way that spoke compellingly to the neglect long accorded to women’s rights, was dedicated in 1993 on the 145th anniversary of the first Women’s Rights Convention.  In 1995, it received a Federal Design Award from the NEA. To read more about the award-winning design here.

In 2009, in order to provide year-round climate mitigation, the NPS opted to fully enclose the Chapel space by reconstructing the exterior walls based on projections of what the original might have looked like.

WRNHP_Recreation(Image courtesy of National Park Service)

Although more versatile, the current configuration lacks the elegant poignancy of the original design and, further, compromises the authenticity of the visitor’s experience.

Two Elemental Projects in latest AIA Guide to NYC

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Elemental is pleased to announce that two projects have been selected for the latest edition of the AIA Guide to New York City. The Guide, the most comprehensive single-volume guide to the City’s architecture spanning all five boroughs, identifies significant works ranging from historic treasures to its most recent projects. Both Shepard Hall and The South Jamaica Branch Library are highlighted with South Jamaica described as a “modest but wonderful addition…”

We’re honored to be included.

St. Vincent’s (A Lesson Learned the Hard Way)

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The precipitous collapse of St. Vincent’s came as a shock to many, if not most Village residents. It shouldn’t have. Despite the dense obfuscation by the hospital’s administration, there were adequate signs for all to see. While there is little to be gained from finger-pointing, understanding what went wrong offers valuable lessons for addressing future issues facing the Village, other historic districts and communities throughout the City. Land is a finite resource and land within historic districts is a particularly scarce finite resource. Institutions, such as hospitals and schools, which deliver services on a face-to-face basis need space from which to deliver these services. In general, serving more people requires more space and one of the claims made by St. Vincent’s throughout the hearing process was that the new building was needed to meet expanding demand for its services. The capacity to add space and to provide for temporary accommodation during renovation, especially in an historic district, is one of the most valuable assets available to an institution. One need only look at the ongoing problems faced by both Columbia and NYU in finding opportunities to meet their expanding space needs, or, for that matter, the Department of Education’s difficulty in finding locations for new elementary and intermediate schools. With this in mind, a red flag should fly when an institution that claims to be growing seeks to sell three-quarters of its land, ostensibly to insure long-term survival. In the case of St. Vincent’s, even had the new building been economically feasible which certainly appears not to have been the case, the sale of the East Campus would have left the hospital so tightly crammed into an architectural straitjacket with so little swing space that accommodating changing technologies would have been very difficult at best, and likely impossible. Looking only at the physical constraints, the Rudin/St. Vincent’s plan was not a viable plan for healthcare in the Village or, for that matter, for the west side of Manhattan. This, in itself, should have raised skepticism if not outright disbelief. The financial conditions, even as they were generally known from the time of St. Vincent’s emergence from bankruptcy in 2007 until the impending collapse became publicly known in late 2009, should have given added warning. In 2007, St. Vincent’s was carrying a $700 million debt. The sale of the East Campus would have covered less than half of that amount. With more than $400 million in debt carried forward, obtaining financing for a new facility that was estimated to cost nearly $1 billion seems unlikely to say the least. Even if this had happened, it seems doubtful that the hospital could have remained viable while supporting a debt burden of nearly $1½ billion. And however dark the pre-collapse outlook may have appeared to those on the outside, it was far less dire than the actual conditions, conditions that must have been known to the hospital’s leadership. Based on reporting in The New York Times and Crain’s New York Business, we now know that the debt has grown to something over $1 billion, an increase of more than $300 million in three years or average losses of more than $8 million per month. St. Vincent’s argued or at least strongly implied that the new building was the key to its financial viability; however, if the project had gone forward and was completed in four years, a highly ambitious schedule, the intervening 48 months during which the hospital would have had to continue in its present facilities would have added yet another $450 million in debt. In other words, given the current debt, the added operating debt incurred during construction and the cost of construction itself, and allowing for the income from the sale of the East Campus, based on what we now know, St. Vincent’s would have moved into its new facility owing more than $2 billion. Even with subsidized construction financing, this hardly seems like a realistic plan. In early 2010, the public is just beginning to understand the full extent of St. Vincent’s problems. Given the revelations that are occurring almost daily, the emergence of additional concerns would not be unexpected. On the other hand, again based on newspaper reporting including coverage of the recent bankruptcy filing, the people responsible for management and long-term planning for the hospital must have known for several years that this day was coming. Despite this, the situation had reached a point in January that it was only the last minute infusion of millions of dollars from the State and the creditors that prevented the immediate closure of the hospital. The threat was that without a massive bailout, St. Vincent’s doors would be locked within days or weeks at the most. As it turns out, the results are only marginally better with the shutdown spanning a few months rather than days. What does all of this say to our community, to historic districts in general and to our society as a whole? First and foremost, we must insist that the critical decisions that affect us all be based on hard facts and, when analyzing these facts, that we avoid diversions. Looking back on the presentations at the Landmarks Preservation Commission as well as at Community Board hearings and other public events, the discussions of adding or removing a floor or two, changing the shape of the curved wall of the tower, the color of the wall cladding or revising the window layout seems ludicrous. A 2015 St. Vincent’s Medical Center $2 billion in debt is not and never was a realistic option. Further, compressing most of the 2008 hospital program onto a piece of land about one fourth of the current site seems so highly questionable that the question has to be raised as to whether it was ever a serious proposal. Finally, although the $300 million sale price of the East Campus is a substantial sum, it represents only 15-20 percent of the money that St. Vincent’s would have needed to construct its new facility and to clear up its debts. This seems a staggeringly small amount for the abandonment of its prime physical resource. To recap, from the outset of the discussions regarding St. Vincent’s attempts to sell the East Campus and relocate onto the O’Toole site, we have known, or should have known, that the undertaking would still have left the hospital very deeply in debt and with a physical plant that would have been profoundly problematic if not completely unworkable. That the project got as far as it did is testament to the fact that the developers were able to keep discussions focused on details rather than on the big picture. We must not allow this to happen again. For decades, the stated mission of St. Vincent’s – to provide health services to the City as a whole – has informed public planning and zoning decisions affecting the site. This has included a number of very significant concessions that would not have been given to other applicants. As such, any plans for the future use of the East Campus must consider how this critical resource may continue to support community or public purposes, for healthcare or other vital services. Until this is done, I believe that it is imperative that any decision regarding the future of East Campus be reserved. As I said at the outset, land, or in this case real estate, is a finite resource. It is also essentially a non-renewable resource. Once it’s gone, it cannot be reclaimed within a meaningful timeframe. We must not let this tremendous resource be lost to trivial usage. Carl Stein, FAIA Principal Elemental Architecture LLC (Reprinted from the Greenwich Village Block Associations News Spring 2010)
To view the entire edition click here.

Elemental Announces Michelle Black, AIA as Associate

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New York (06.21.2010) – Elemental Architecture, a firm recognized for its pioneering work in sustainable architecture, design and advocacy, has announced the promotion of Catherine Michelle Black, AIA, LEED AP to Associate. Having joined elemental in 2006, Michelle oversees project teams to define, develop and coordinate issues of programming, design, construction and engineering. Currently, Ms. Black is managing the construction phase of the precedent setting historic reconstruction of Shepard Hall at the City College of New York – the largest project of its kind in the world, as well as the design of a new addition for the Cornell Cooperative Extension Headquarters in Ithaca, New York.

In addition to her architectural experience and skills, Michelle brings to elemental a life-long commitment to social activism. This commitment, which led her to first think about architecture’s place both in nature and the larger human community, has sparked her involvement with a range of organizations and initiatives—from providing art therapy to children at New York City’s Foundling Hospital to meeting with congressional leaders in Washington D.C. to discuss increased homeless services.

Ms. Black received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Kansas with a concentration in Environmental Studies where she was named a Kansas State Honor Scholar and was a recipient of an Undergraduate Research Award for her development of an early online resource created to educate students and professionals about the principles and practices of sustainable design. Her studies also included a fellowship at the Universitaat Stuttgart, Germany to study green architecture as a cultural practice.

About elemental

elemental is an award-winning New York City based collaborative consisting of Elemental Architecture LLC & Sine Elemental LLC joined by an inherent commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Founded on over 40-years of research and experience in energy-conscious design, current elemental projects include a high-performance addition and renovations to the Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County, in Ithaca NY; the $150 million Historic Reconstruction of Shepard Hall for the City College of New York; Interior design and identity & media for Greenhouse 26, projected to be New York City’s first ‘green’ boutique hotel as well as several private residential projects throughout New York. elemental is located at 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 212.616.4110   www.elementalnyc.com

Commemorating Walt Whitman’s 191st Birthday

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Yesterday, May 31st, commemorated Walt Whitman’s 191st birthday. His modest birth-home, a farmhouse,  is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Our design of the adjacent interpretative center was conceived to shelter the farmhouse and visitor experience from the bustle of twenty-first century Long Island; the natural and built environments are joined with the presentation of cultural history through a curving cedar wall time-line that starts within the exhibit space and leads across the grounds to a point directly in front of the house where Walt Whitman was born.

The Interpretive Center brings together several design aspects that have characterized the work of elemental – environmentally sensitive, energy efficient architecture. The use of passive solar gain and thermal storage, and gravity ventilation — both characteristics of nineteenth century vernacular building design — can be seen in the large, south facing windows of Whitman’s house.  Similar features have been incorporated into the Interpretive Center.

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The new facility serves three interpretive functions: the building is a gateway from the modern world to the historic site; it includes the exhibit space which encourages the visitor to experience Whitman’s life, writings, and philosophy in an environment that reflects the poet’s lifelong concern with the interrelationship between humankind and nature, and in full sight of the birthplace building. Once the visitor has passed through the gateway onto the historic site, the building and the extended cedar wall establish a peaceful precinct, shielding the view of cars, trucks, signs and neon lights.

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Walt-Whitman

To learn more about the Birthplace Association, click here.

New York Times Op-Ed: Don’t LEED Us Astray

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In the May 19th issue of the #NYTimes, Alec Appelbaum writes a well positioned Op-Ed piece on the question of green, LEED-rated buildings potentially loosing their luster once in full operation.  Mr. Appelbaum essentially promotes the idea of a creating an incentive program for buildings to go beyond LEED certification, a benchmark that many new construction projects can achieve, and that those buildings should receive credits/subsidies to maintain and promote further energy and resource conservation – a position we fully support.

While we’re fully in support of LEED and the sea change it has created,  Mr. Appelbaum’s view and critique of where LEED certification leaves off is one we also maintain.

Read the full piece here.

Invitation – Westbeth Artists Housing 40th Anniversary Celebration

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You are cordially invited to join the Westbeth Artists Housing Association in celebrating its 40th Anniversary and designation as a National Historic Landmark on Monday, May 3, 2010.

Located in the far West Village of New York City, Westbeth provides affordable living and working spaces for artists and their families. Opened in 1970, through funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the J.M. Kaplan Foundation, Westbeth continues to offer affordable artists’ housing and an array of cultural activities.

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Master of Ceremonies:

Carl Stein, FAIA, Principal, Elemental Architecture

Brief Remarks by:

Jerrold Nadler, United States Congressman

Kate Levin, Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs

Robert Tierney, Chair, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

Wint Aldrich, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation, NYS Parks

Joan Davidson, Trustee, J.M. Kaplan Fund

Richard Meier, FAIA, Principal, Richard Meier & Partners

Steven Neil, Executive Director, Westbeth Artists Association

George Cominski, President, Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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Gallery show beginning at 5:30 with brief remarks at 6:45

Jazz by Westbeth musicians

Light refreshments following remarks.


South Jamaica Branch Library – AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects Award

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In recognition of Earth Day, the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE) annually recognizes the Top Ten Green Projects in the profession. The COTE Top Ten Award is considered by many as the best recognition program for sustainable design excellence. In 2000, the South Jamaica Branch library was honored to have been selected as a winner of this prestigious award. It is one of only five such projects in New York City. It was also the first building designed under the NYC High Performance Building Guidelines.

Among the building’s many features, the library reduces the embodied energy and embodied pollution through the use of low energy and recycled materials and provides enhanced indoor environmental quality through the use of chemically and physically stable materials and special filtration systems.

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The “saw-tooth” shape of its roof not only introduces sunlight into the main reading room, but also promotes hot air stratification, concentrating at the peaks. The building has two return/exhaust air systems; one collecting air at the peaks and one collecting air near the floor.  In the winter, the hot air from the peaks is recirculated throughout the building, its heat being stored in the slabs and masonry walls.  Exhaust air is taken from the cooler air near the floor.  In the summer, the hot air from the peaks is exhausted and the cooler air is recirculated.

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The building established goals to consume significantly less energy than that allowed by the New York State Energy Code: 48% less for lighting; 62% less for heating; and 34% less for cooling. Unsurprisingly, the actual electric meter readings after two years of operation demonstrated that the building has out-performed these goals: by 30% for heating and 50% for electrical (lighting & cooling).

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For more information on the COTE Top Ten and to see the other winners, click here..