Sustainable Systems Survive Convention-Sized Value Engineering

New York Convention CenterThe behemoth of black metal and tinted glass known as the Javits Center is awaiting its long-needed renovation in an attempt to boost the functionality, size and appearance of New York’s largest convention center. Much like Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, the project needed help from the moment it was completed in 1986. In the current economic climate, the budget for the work shrank drastically from its intended funding levels, but amazingly enough the sustainable systems of green roofs and high performance walls—treated as novelties by some—were deemed priorities by the project team and survived cost cutting.

According to the Architect’s Newspaper, the original goals of the project were to expand the center’s 675,000 square feet (apparently paltry when it comes to convention space in bellwether cities) to a resounding 1.3 million. Originally, project architects FXFowle and Epstein could do this and more with a $1.7 billion budget, but years later in the planning process the fortitude of local political coffers has evaporated, slicing the available funding to $465 million (which is still gathered from tax-payer dollars).

“Value Engineering” is a phase of project development that usually involves a reassessment of anticipated building costs relative to the available budget. Admittedly, it is rare for a general contractor to tell architects and clients that the design they want to construct will actually cost less than the most they have to spend. The team then has to put their heads together to try and eliminate cost components from the project and “engineer” the price lower.

Proponents of sustainable building systems, like myself, often find much more fruition from their efforts on projects with a bit of budget to spare. Despite having made notable strides over the course of the past decade, green building components are often still viewed as amenities rather than core systematic components of new buildings which makes them markedly vulnerable to a budget cut of 70%–especially in an environment like New York City where dollars spent on things other than square footage face an uphill battle.

The New Javits Center

Javits Green RoofImpressively, the Javits team pegged upgraded systems centered around efficiency as priorities to avoid the ax of value engineering. Instead of its massive expansion, the center will get a sustainable face lift including the replacement of its exterior glazing for more energy efficient Insulated Glazing Units (IGUs) complete with frit (as seen on such projects as Cook + Fox’s One Bryant Park). New lighting and mechanical systems will help curb energy usage to temper and illuminate the large space. But the jewel of the project will reportedly be a 6.75 acre green roof, one of the largest in the country, that brings benefits to not only the building but the neighborhood at large.

At the building scale, the green roof helps to achieve an anticipated net 26% decrease in energy consumption. As the size of building floor plates expand so does the area of roofscape exposed to the elements, making green roofs increasingly attractive as vegetated buffers to protect the building year round. As plants transpire, heat is pulled from the ground and used to help convert water into vapor, leaving the earth cooler below. In the summer, the difference between the temperature of a roof membrane exposed to the sun and one sheltered beneath even an extensive green roof can be upwards of 50 degrees. In the winter, snow and wind are held off of the building while the soil acts as a blanket to trap in the warmth below.

Javits space frame

Interior rendering of the proposed Javits renovation

Beyond the convention center itself, the neighborhood benefits from the absence of the heat island that radiates off a black roof during the summer months. When it comes to stormwater runoff (a poignant problem for NYC) 6.75 acres of plants can absorb a great deal of rain, doing its part in relieving some of the strain on the city’s burgeoning sewer system and diverting sewage from overflowing into the surrounding waterways. Lastly, green roofs can create microclimates of their own, promoting ecological diversity in an environment that struggles with maintaining habitats of all manners of creatures.

When faced with lofty goals and a shrinking budget to accomplish them, this project team chose to build a smaller, more efficient space rather than a larger structure that bleeds energy and resources. As logical as this may sound to readers, I can assure you that it flies in the face of standard practice in the bulk of U.S. buildings; all the way down to single family homes.

Projects like this should continue to serve as a model for all of our buildings on the public and private side of construction. In all cases, simple decisions based in sustainable systems end up saving us money, energy and resources with the only sacrifice being space—which we have a tendency to over supply anyway.

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