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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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..

Construction Update: Shepard Hall TSRU Models

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Fabrication has begun of the models needed for the production molds for the thin-shell replicas that will replace the deteriorated terra cotta. Together with the previous nine phases, more than 60,000 pieces have been replaced making this by far the largest historic reconstruction of its kind in the world.

The thin-shell approach was developed in 1986-87 by Elemental (then The Stein Partnership) as a means to rebuild the failing structure on an accelerated schedule and still allow for a cladding that accurately reflected the original material.

At the project outset, more than one third of the original terra cotta had already failed and been removed to protect the public safety. As a result, many of the sculptural elements required either partial restoration or total recreation based on the surviving fragments and old photographs. Here, from the first phase (1986-1991) are original grotesques with missing heads, replicas awaiting installation and the rebuilt turrets with the new thin-shell cladding.

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This process continues today. Because the contemporary manufacturing processes offer a much higher level of precision than did the original, care is taken to introduce the imperfections that are characteristic of the terra cotta. These include tooling marks, irregularities on flat planes and slight variations in the characteristic “white” color from piece to piece. Depending on the level of deterioration of the original terra cotta, the process of obtaining models can vary from the direct use of terra cotta originals as new molds, to partial reconstruction of damaged terra cotta and fabrication of complete recreations based on historic photographs and interpolations from other similar pieces on the building.

Here, models have been fabricated based on typical profiles found throughout the building

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In other cases, terra cotta that had suffered minimal damage serves as models, such as these florettes

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This unique grotesque from the building, missing pieces of his nose and and fingers, was carefully removed from the building

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and restored to serve as a model for the new GFRC replacement.

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When the models are finished, rubber-lined production molds will be created. The thin shell replacement units (TSRU) are then fabricated using a sprayed glass fiber reinforced cementitious system, about three quarters of an inch thick. The description of the process will continue as the project progresses.

Stay tuned for continued updates from the field.

Carl Stein to Speak at AIANY Symposium

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Carl Stein, FAIA will speak as part of the “Modernism by Choice: The Economy, Politics, and Sustainability of Preservation” symposium this Saturday at AIANY Center for Architecture. The symposium is in conjunction with the World Monuments Fund’s “Modernism at Risk” exhibition on view at the Center through May 1, 2010. See here for more information on the exhibit.

Panel 1: Advocacy for Vacant Structures:
Case Study 1: Michael Reese Hospital, Chicago, IL
Speaker: Graham Balkany, Director, Gropius in Chicago Coalition
Case Study 2: Miami Marine Stadium, Miami, FL
Speaker: Jorge Hernandez, Architect, Co-Founder, Friends of Miami Marine Stadium
Case Study 3: Bell Labs, Holmdel, NJ
Speaker: Michael Calafati, AIA, Principal, Historic Building Architects, LLC, Trenton, and Chair, AIA-NJ Historic Resources Committee
Moderator: Theo Prudon, DOCOMOMO US
Respondent: Frank Sanchis, Senior Vice-President, Municipal Art Society

Panel 2: Sustaining Operations in a Modern Building:
Case Study 1: Taliesin, Spring Green, WI
Speaker: Victor Sidy, AIA, Dean, Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Case Study 2: Central Branch, Atlanta Fulton Public Library, Atlanta, GA
Speaker: John Szabo, Director, Central Branch, Atlanta Fulton Public Library
Moderator: Lisa Ackerman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, World Monuments Fund
Respondent: Carl Stein, FAIA, Elemental Architecture, LLC; formerly of Marcel Breuer and Associates

Organized by: the Center for Architecture in collaboration with the World Monuments Fund, DOCOMOMO US, and World Monuments Fund, DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State.

Price:
Free for Members
$5 suggested donation for students

FDNY Rescue 1 in The Architect’s Newspaper

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Aaron Seward of the ‘Architect’s Newspaper’ discusses our design of Rescue Company 1 as the first among a new generation of firehouses for elite FDNY companies.  Read the post here.
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Construction Update: Shepard Hall Entry Ramp & Facade Work

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Entry Ramp Takes Shape:
Central to the entry redesign is the reconstruction of the original ground floor entrance. In addition to the salvaged schist stone wall, concrete retaining walls form the stair opening leading down to the original lower level stone arch entry.  Earth and gravel fill are compacted to serve as a supporting base for the new concrete stair slab.

Facade Reconstruction Underway:
Scaffolding has been erected and selective demolition and removals have begun on the main building. The first step of the facade reconstruction is the selective removal of existing terra cotta sculpture to serve as models for new Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete (GFRC) replicas.

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A rigorously tested thin-shell GFRC, strong, light weight and durable, has been the material for all the terra cotta reconstruction. The entire reconstruction, totaling over 65,000 pieces, is currently the largest GFRC reconstruction project in the world.

Following careful removal of the representative sculptural pieces, demolition of the remaining terra cotta will begin.
Steel lintel Investigation:
Meanwhile, the demolition of the existing terra cotta window surrounds exposes the original steel lintels that support the window openings. Each steel lintel is inspected to determine its structural viability. Where possible, salvaging the original steel is preferred.

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Schist Stone Sounding:
Local Manhattan Schist stone is the primary façade material of Shepard Hall as well as the other campus buildings originally designed by George Post.  Through a process called “sounding,” each stone on the building is struck with a mallet and the sound produced is an indicator of the stone’s integrity.  Stones that sound “hollow” or are visibly damaged or deteriorated are marked by the design team for replacement.

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Stay tuned for continued updates from the field.