Our culture’s current efforts in sustainability can usually be divided into one of two groups. The first group is trying to add efficiency and/or decrease the negative impact of the way that we do things now. Given its inherent benefit of requiring minimal change to the way people are already operating, this method is unsurprisingly popular. Examples include hybrid cars, LED light bulbs or printer paper with recycled content. These products help mitigate the negative repercussions of our current lifestyle.
The second group is changing a paradigm, archetype or cultural norm in order to operate in a more sustainable way—challenging the baseline to redefine the standard rather than tweaking an existing solution. Examples of this direction would be more in the vein of transit-oriented-development, designing spaces around more natural light or entirely paperless offices. One could argue that the first train of thought is looking for a better answer, where the second one is challenging the underlying question. Do we need to universally rely on automobiles? Do we need so much artificial illumination? Do we need to print things?
It is rare to find proposals for things that question the paradigm rather than just improving the solution and the same is true for architecture. Many of the green tools we have developed to make buildings more sustainable are systems-oriented solutions that can depress our consumption of resources and its resulting stress on the natural environment. Though I stand as a proponent of LEED for numerous reasons, one could criticize the system as focusing more on the deployment of progressive systems rather than inciting the questioning of our current archetypes.
So to find a building that tries to establish a new standard is a rare event – but one that proposes a new view of workplace design is COOKFOX’s new proposal at 300 Lafayette Street, in New York.
Fill ‘Er Up
Bounded by Crosby, Lafayette and Houston, the site for the building has existed for decades as a gas station. Petrol stops in New York City have been a fading commodity for years now as land values and housing demand trump the need for drivers to regularly refuel. As of last October, the Island of Manhattan was home to 117 gas stations according to the NY Times, representing a 44% drop since 2004. The planned retirement of this piece of petroleum-based infrastructure in deference to increasing the density of the island is a fitting start to a sustainable project. Though it is targeting private property, this kind of program shift is only one step removed from some theoretical changes to reformat the urban grid of the city away from vehicular dominance and towards pedestrian mobility.
As expected for a building in the COOKFOX portfolio, the design is shooting for a ‘Gold’ rating in the USGBC’s LEED system. As a result, the building has a number of systems that a sustainably-minded architect would come to consider commonplace. Much like the firm’s One Bryant Park, this proposal includes an underfloor air system that provides more options for individualized thermal comfort while providing the flexibility needed for commercial office space. Low-flow fixtures, energy efficient lighting and recycled content in materials like concrete; all no-brainers for a LEED building.
Things start to get interesting when one looks at the design of the building structure. Though not a tall building by New York City standards, the proposed concrete structure complements the views to the north, east and west by having only a single column placed in the middle of each commercial floor plate. Thanks to both a voided slab (also known as “bubble deck”) and post-tensioning, the structure can span longer to decrease the need for intermittent vertical supports,while reducing the amount of material needed to span those distances.
In its review process by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Commissioner Michael Goldblum noted that the “project could have been done for probably one quarter or one half the budget shown here” and applauded the client’s commitment to bringing a well-designed and energy efficient building to the Noho-Soho border.
I’ll Take the Green One
Those that are familiar with the dealings of urban real estate know that the focus of developing land revolves around F.A.R., or Floor Area Ratio (a metric that compares site area to how much total square footage is achieved in the building). Partner Rick Cook touches on the project’s goal of G.A.R. or Green Area Ratio. This metric tracks what percentage of overall site area is utilized as green space. For most urban buildings, the result would often be close to zero. On this project, the design team was committed to hitting 1.0.
Guided by the principals of Biophilia (a term describing our inherent connection to nature) and research into Dr. Sanderson’s work with the Mannahatta Project, the building hosts a series of planted terraces on each of its upper floors into order to make the connection to natural space in our workplaces the baseline, not the exception. Inside a ring of terra-cotta-clad columns, the glazed walls of the exterior step back from the line of the street on each of the uppers floors, making space for deep planted terraces that wrap around building as it peaks out onto Houston Street.
As noted by Terrapin Bright Green in their white paper on the Economics of Biophilia, there are a broad range of benefits from designing more of our workplaces with views and access to nature -including reductions in illness, stress and absenteeism coupled with increases in productivity. As someone who works in an office that looks out over greenscape with the skyline beyond, the experiential difference is beyond question. Naturally, these are paired with the broader sustainability benefits that urban green space affords us: cleaner air, reduction in urban heat islands, mitigation of stormwater runoff and the fostering of micro-climates and biodiversity.
Though we are seeing more buildings utilizing roof space for green roofs or terraces (which is great), the buildings that try to link every floor to occupiable gardens that serve as a foreground for views out to the city are few and far between. One of the rule of thumb tests for how much a proposed project is challenging the status quo is to try and imagine the state of the urban landscape if the tenets of the design were repeated throughout the city. If every building hit a G.A.R. of 1.0 with access to green space spread throughout the floors, New York would look very different.
Having already achieved regulatory approval from both the City Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, we are left to eagerly wait for construction to start on the corner lot. The sooner it can get finished, the sooner it can potentially set a new tone for subsequent projects.
Image Credit: All imagery courtesy of COOKFOX Architects