Green Buildings: One Bryant Park

one-bryant-parkMany people still seem to be interested in the new Bank of America Headquarters at One Bryant Park. Not surprising really—the greenest skyscraper in the world is something to marvel at. As a result, I decided to do a definitive case study on the building so more people could know exactly how green the skyscraper is. Having had the pleasure of working at Cook+Fox and specifically with Rick Cook and Bob Fox, I can speak to their holistic approach to sustainability and scrutiny that they apply to every design challenge. For those that know Rick and Bob, a finished product like One Bryant Park is no surprise.

The new Bank of America headquarters sits on the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, overlooking the trees of Bryant Park leading up to the New York Public Library. Owned by the Durst Organization and designed by Cook+Fox Architects, at 54 stories the glass curtain wall skin of the tower rises to 944 and a half feet above the street with a spire that tops out at 1200 feet, making it the second tallest building in the city beneath the Empire State Building. In its 2.1 million square feet, the building seeks to become the greenest skyscraper in the city, and possibly the globe, being the first building of its height to earn a LEED Platinum rating from the United States Green Building Council and the second in the state of New York (after Cook+Fox’s own office.)

It is impossible to find a sustainable solution to a design problem that is not catered specifically to its immediate environment. Cook+Fox started with the site itself as a storehouse of opportunity. There are few concepts more inherently sustainable than density. Placed in the heart of midtown, the decision to build higher with more square feet anchors the project in efficiency from the start. Its location places the building on the same block as two subway stations, now linked beneath the tower, with access to 17 subway lines. Grand Central Station sits only two blocks away to yield an amazing access to the rest of the city and beyond. Utilizing one of the best mass transit systems in the country is essential to supporting more transit growth in our nation and steering the populace away from car usage.

Despite New York’s accomplishments, there are aspects of its aging infrastructure that remain fragile. One of the most prominent examples is its sewage and stormwater system. Like many old, American cities, New York was built in an age known for unbridled expansion and industrial strength—not environmental stewardship. As a result it has a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system which means that rainfall brings stormwater flowing into the sewage pipes. Even a small amount of rain can cause the sewers to reach capacity and stress the treatment facilities of the city. To relieve the congestion a mixture of rain and raw sewage overflows directly into the Hudson river. Any effort that minimizes the release of sewage or stormwater from a site lowers the risk of environmental damage by CSOs.

One Bryant Park collects every drop of rainwater that falls on its site, nearly 48 inches per year. A series of collection tanks distributed throughout the floors can store over 329,000 gallons of water that is used for irrigating plants and flushing the building’s toilets. But it does not end there. Greywater treatment on the site takes water from the building and treats it for use in the cooling towers that returns water back to the atmosphere in the form of vapor—essentially completing a cycle back to nature. Cook+Fox helped to cut the building’s water usage by half employing low-flow lavatory sinks and waterless urinals.

The building also stands as a prime example of how our cities can move towards a decentralized energy grid. Right now, our national grid is a bit clunky and kind of like a leaky pipe. For many power plants, pointedly the throng of aging coal plants in the US, as much as 66% of the energy produced can be lost right out of the stack in the form of heat. An additional 7-10% is lost in transmission so collectively three quarters of the energy we produce can be lost before it even gets used. The tower proves to be perhaps the best example to date of tapping into onsite generation. A 4.6-megawatt, natural gas-fired cogeneration plant provides two thirds of the buildings electrical demand and is expected to reach 77% efficiency (zero transmission.)

The usage of the energy is also maximized to provide the least amount of stress on the surrounding grid. At night, while demand in the building is low, the power will be used to make ice in 44 storage tanks in the basement of the building. During the day, this ice is allowed to melt and used to cool the air of the building, drastically lowering its energy consumption during peak hours.

OBP 1When it comes to air quality, the building pushes the envelope again to deliver fresh air to the entire building that is filtered of 95% of particulates. Even more commendable is that the air that leaves the building will thus be notably cleaner than the air that goes in, rendering the structure as a public air filter for midtown. When the air does reach building occupants, it comes through an underfloor air system—a pressurized air plenum beneath removable floor tiles, that brings tempered air closer to occupied space rather than originating from the ceiling.

Sustainability is a cyclical concept knowing that there is no finality to the life of any process or product. Rather it is merely the prelude to another use or stage of existence. In order to minimize the impact of new construction it is vital to use materials that decrease the net lifecycle costs of the project including the material that comes in and the waste that goes out. One Bryant Park managed to surpass its goal of recycling 75% of its construction waste to end at 83%. Additionally, with materials such as concrete with blast furnace slag and 60% recycled steel, the building contains 35% recycled content.

One way to tackle energy savings is by incorporating efficient fixtures for workplace illumination. One Bryant Park chose to tap into more daylight for workspaces, evident by its clear exterior. By using baked frit to reflect light outside of the main vision plane, each floor has floor to ceiling glass that allows light to penetrate deeper into spaces and minimizing the need interior lighting and providing views of the city.

In two industries (New York development and corporate banking) where cost is always paramount it may seem counterintuitive that this team placed so much time and equity in making sure that their building embraced green qualities. Moreover, the fact that a financial institution was convinced that sustainable systems would prove profitable investments is a boon to the movement as a whole. So how did that work exactly? Yes, saving water and energy also saves money but the payback on such systems takes time and is likely not large enough to be considered a revenue stream. What turned heads was looking at how work conditions affected the productivity of employees. While the figures for environmental productivity are constantly debated, consider only 1% of a common working day: 5 minutes. The firm estimated that increasing the 1% increase in productivity of the workers in One Bryant Park would yield $10 million every year (a number clearly visible on the balance sheet.)

In many ways One Bryant Park stands as what will hopefully become a new standard in high rise, urban development. Like any successful ecology, all parts of the building process must be in concert in order to create a product of such caliber. From client, to tenant, to designers and builders, all components of creation and use were necessary to reach such an outcome.

[UPDATE:  An article on New Republic took a stab at trying to diminish the progress of One Bryant Park while also taking a jab at LEED. My response to that article can be found here]