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Just when it appeared that work was picking up at B2—the long-delayed, modular tower at Pacific Park Brooklyn (formerly Atlantic Yards)—the project screeched to a complete stop. In late August, Skanska USA, the contractor of the SHoP-designed high-rise, announced it was halting production of the building’s 930 modules at its factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Skanska blamed Forest City Ratner, the project’s developer, for design errors that it said delayed the project and put it tens of millions of dollars over budget. Forest City disagrees. According to the developer, it is actually Skanska’s construction process that is to blame for B2’s slow and expensive climb. At the time, Forest City said Skanska was trying to “weasel out of” its contractual obligations by issuing a stop-work notice at its factory.
It did not take long for this back-and-forth to find its way to New York State Supreme Court. On September 2, Skanska sued Forest City. About 15 minutes later, Forest City sued Skanska. Nearly two months later, work on the project remains stalled.
This high-profile legal battle is just the latest setback for the tower that was supposed to rise faster and cost less than its conventionally built peers. It was supposed to be a shining example of the possibilities of modular construction. In New York City, and at Pacific Park specifically, building modular was seen as a way to more quickly deliver affordable units. But since breaking ground in December 2012, only 10 of B2’s 32 stories (half of which are designated for low- and middle-income households) have been completed. When B2 is topped off, it will be the tallest modular tower in the world.
James Garrison—the founder of Garrison Architects, which has done multiple modular projects—said it did not have to be this way. “What [Forest City] is trying to do is amazing, but it required more resources, care, and deliberation than it knew,” said Garrison who drew up initial plans for a modular tower for Forest City in the project’s early stages. He said he left the project after the two parties could not agree on a contract.
Garrison explained that modular construction, which has been compared to clicking LEGO pieces into place, is significantly more complicated than many people realize. “It is not a fly-by-night, pick it up on the run body of knowledge,” he said. “It is not easy, it takes expertise. It is like putting together an automobile.”
The challenge of building modular, he explained, is compounded when constructing tall towers. “When you stack these things up 30 stories, you have collective error,” he said. At B2, explained Garrison, the many modules had to be placed within a steel frame to create a stable, self-reinforcing structure that also has the proper internal connections. To accomplish that, every piece of the puzzle has to be perfect.
While Forest City said it hopes to build another modular tower at Pacific Park, there are currently no plans to do so. Despite the setbacks with B2, the development is continuing to grow. Two COOKFOX-designed, non-modular towers—one affordable and the other luxury condos—are scheduled to break ground before the end of the year. And another SHoP tower is scheduled to get underway next year. In the meantime, cranes have arrived next to the Barclays Center to install its long-awaited green roof.
Garrison said that the very public failings of B2 could make developers hesitant about building modular, but that the practice is not entirely doomed. “In the end,” he said, “this business of designing and prefabricating buildings is happening, and it is not going to stop.”
Skanska USA pursued a LEED Platinum rating for this spec lab building in order to create a competitive edge in the marketplace. The high-performance mechanical systems provide more than 30 percent energy cost savings over baseline references.
Skanska USA recently completed a three-story, 123,000-square-foot spec office and lab facility at 150 2nd Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Kendall Square neighborhood. To gain a competitive edge in attracting the high-tech companies that proliferate around MIT, the developer/construction manager hired Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects and landscape firm Copley Wolff Design Group to deliver a cost-effective design that would set a new standard of sustainability for the project type in the region. In that pursuit, the project became the first commercial lab building in New England to be awarded LEED v3 Platinum certification.
Courtesy Elkus Manfredi
Located at a transitional point between Kendall Square’s larger office building core and a triple-decker residential district, the project’s massing and fenestration attempts to strike a happy medium between the two scales. While providing a high R value overall, the facade design is nothing fancy. “We architects like to talk about high performance buildings as being smart buildings, and we usually think of that as being an active solar control system or some high tech thing,” said Elkus Manfredi principal John Martin. “In that sense this building is not a smart building. We like to call it a clever building.”
To balance insulation values and daylight, the design team limited the amount of glass in the building enclosure to 42 percent, deciding on a stick-built ribbon window system with 1-inch-thick, low-e IGUs and straight-out-of-the-catalogue Kwaneer brise soleils on the southern exposures. The bulk of the envelope is made up of Alucobond metal panels, though in sections a brownish fiber cement board (Öko Skin) rain screen system breaks up the massing.
Inside, the directive was column-free space. To create that, the design team had to span 50 feet from the core to the perimeter. With standard structural steel wide flange sections, reaching such a distance would require quite a deep, heavy beam, adding not only to the weight, cost, and floor-to-floor heights of the building, but also to its carbon foot print. To mitigate this condition, the design team opted to use composite steel trusses for the floor framing instead of wide flange sections, a decision that not only reduced the weight and carbon profile of the project, but also provided penetrations in the structure through which to run ducting, piping, wire chases, etc., and making for a more efficient floor section. As a result of this choice, the design saved 188 tons of structural steel.
As an urban design gesture, the L-shaped building features a public entry court on the corner of 2nd and Bent streets, which faces a future public park to the southeast of the building. The court is outfitted with ipe benches and bike racks and locally sourced, light-colored paving that meets the LEED solar reflectance index value of below 29. It also features rain gardens planted with native and drought resistant vegetation—sweet gum and red maple trees, native holly shrubs, and sedges and ornamental grasses—that were designed to absorb all stormwater that falls on the court.
In December 2013, Skanska USA reportedly sold 150 2nd Street to Alexandria Real Estate Equities for $94.5 million, or $766 per square foot. While we can assume the company made a handy profit on the project (the project cost was not released as of press time) it has also established an important precedent: a sustainable, cost-effective, and easily repeatable model of lab development.
On December 17, the New York State Thruway Authority unanimously selected a winning proposal for the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge in the Lower Hudson Valley. The authority picked the cheapest of three proposals it had under consideration—the $3.1 billion dollar design by Tappan Zee Contractors. Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2013 and completion is projected for 2018.
The winning design features a twin roadway with a central 350-foot-long, composite-deck, cable-stayed span supported by four reinforced concrete towers that resemble capital "As" turned on their heads. The outwardly inclined towers will be robust enough to handle the loads of rail and/or select bus rapid transit, which may be added to the project at a future date.
The replacement will be the single largest bridge project in New York history, with a construction price tag of $3.1 billion plus another $500 million to $800 million in environmental mitigation, management, and other costs—still considerably less than the original $5.2 billion estimated by the state. The state also enacted special legislation for the project that requires the design-build contractor to cover cost overruns and delays.
Winning design team Tappan Zee Contractors is a consortium between, among others, Pennsylvania-based American Bridge Company (the builder of the original crossing) and Texas-based Fluor Corporation. Those firms were members of the team that designed and constructed the recently completed San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge replacement. The team will make use of special heavy-lifting equipment it constructed for that project to cut costs and time from the Tappan Zee replacement, a factor that gave the firms the confidence to enter a bid that was approximately a billion dollars cheaper and a year faster than its competitors. It also proposes to reduce the amount of dredging necessary from 1.8 million cubic yards to less than one million cubic yards, reducing environmental impacts, costs, and the schedule.
Tappan Zee Contractors’ proposal beat out a $4 billion proposal by a joint venture involving Kiewit Infrastructure and Skanska USA and a $3.9 billion proposal from Bechtel Infrastructure and Tutor Perini. Those proposals required closer to six years to complete and required more dredging.
The existing Tappan Zee Bridge was completed in 1955. The 3 ½-mile-long crossing spans the Hudson River at its second widest point, connecting Rockland and Westchester counties 25 miles north of New York City. It serves approximately 138,000 vehicles per day, far more than it was designed to accommodate. Traffic jams and accidents are a regular occurrence at the crossing, a factor that kicked off replacement talks more than a decade ago. The 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis added a sense of urgency to the project, though no significant progress was made on the project until Governor Andrew M. Cuomo took up the cause when he entered office in 2011.
National attention focused on the recent opening of the Expo Line, an 8.6-mile light rail route that connects downtown LA with Culver City. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Before all is said and done, Los Angeles —long stereotyped as a car-only city—will have more than 100 miles of public transit lines, as the West Coast, home to the nation’s first light rail line in San Diego and to its most comprehensive light rail system in Portland, continues to add a slew of new rail.
New lines, stations, infrastructure, and transit-oriented developments are popping up and in planning stages in and around Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. And if you count West Coast–adjacent cities such as Phoenix and Denver, there are even more. Los Angeles and Seattle are set to double their offerings while Marin and Sonoma are just beginning to add rail to the mix.
Of course, this transit explosion isn’t just a local trend. According to the American Public Transportation Association, from 1995 through 2010, public transportation ridership increased by 31 percent—a growth rate higher than the 17 percent increase in the U.S. population. In part this shift is a result of people returning to urban cores. But perhaps the most compelling reason for the expansion is the crippling impact of traffic in the region and in the country, and its accompanying demons—sprawl, pollution, and climate change. Municipalities are creating new land-use strategies—some a result of new anti-sprawl laws like California’s SB 375— that emphasize walkability and dense development near rail.
As a testament to their popularity, most recent rail projects and extensions along the coast have been paid for not just through federal largesse but by local ballot measures such as LA’s Measure R, San Diego’s TransNet, and Marin and Sonoma County’s Measure Q.
“The biggest surprise for all of us wasn’t that we envisioned it, but that there was so much support,”said David Mieger, deputy executive officer of countywide planning and development at Metro, LA’s transit agency, of Measure R. “In 2008, we got two-thirds of the voters in the county. Motherhood and apple pie usually doesn’t rate that high.”
Opponents, particularly neighborhood groups fighting tax increases and construction disruptions, charge that rail’s extensive costs aren’t worth the benefits; they say that
ridership still isn’t what it should be. For instance the new Expo Line’s ridership has so far reached only half the projected load. “Every commuter rail project in the country has exceeded ridership,” answered Matt Stevens, a spokesperson for Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART). Mieger adds that, unlike just a few years ago, a good portion of riders in LA are now “discretionary,” meaning that they choose to take public transit, even though they don’t have to.
Rail doesn’t just provide architects and engineers with jobs designing stations and related infrastructure; it can also completely transform municipalities’ land use patterns, ushering in transit-oriented development and walkable streets. Cities have been incorporating these plans into their new approaches to land use and will continue to do so. Metro, for example, has developed an extensive transit-oriented development program in Los Angeles that has spurred the creation of more than a dozen pedestrian-friendly, transit-adjacent projects. “This is a planning solution, not just a transportation solution,” said Metro’s Mieger. San Jose “is directing new growth to build out downtown in a more urban way,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which just opened a new office in San Jose. He warns though that in Silicon Valley “they’re fighting some pretty big forces and some pretty entrenched traditions” favoring sprawl and the automobile.
The return to rail is, in some surprisingly convenient ways, a return to the past. Many of these lines were built on the rights of way of existing train and trolley systems that were active in the beginning of the 20th century and abandoned in favor of cars and buses around mid-century. LA’s Expo Line runs on a former right-of-way of the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad. Marin and Sonoma’s runs on a right-of-way owned by the Southern Pacific Railway.
Of course rail isn’t a flawless solution. Besides pockets of underuse, rail and light rail are still far from reaching the tipping point on the West Coast. In LA, for example, 80 percent of the city’s residents still don’t live within convenient distance to rail. The recession has stalled plans that were even more ambitious. For instance slower returns from Measure R’s tax-related funding have forced the completion of LA’s Purple Line subway extension beyond 2030. (LA Mayor Villaraigosa hopes his 30/10 program will significantly speed projects up). And architects and engineers claim that regulations regarding rail design—often overseen by public utilities commissions rather than design or building experts—are still not suitable for innovation. But the progress is palpable, making cities feel more like cities again. “For a lot of these cities these lines and stations are the biggest things affecting their development in years,” said Roland Genick, of LA-based Parsons Corporation, which oversaw the Expo Line and is now working on LA’s Gold Line Foothill extension.
San Diego, the city to first re-introduce light rail to the West Coast (and to the country) back in 1981, now has 53 miles of light-rail track. Its most recent extension in 2005, the green line, extends from Old Town San Diego out to Santee, east of Qualcomm Stadium. The extension stretches about six miles and five stations, closing what was a gap in the system’s loop through the city.
Plans for an 11.2-mile extension from old town to UC-San Diego in La Jolla is set to be in place by 2018, said San Diego Metropolitan Transit System spokesperson Rob Schupp. Most likely the line will be an extension of the city’s blue line. Roughly $1.2 to $1.8 billion for the project comes from a local sales tax called TransNet, which will provide half the funding. The remainder of the money will come from federal funds.
Even posh La Jolla was “all for it,” said Schupp. In addition to the new lines last year, the city added $700 million worth of retrofitted light-rail vehicles (64 in all) to its Silver Line, which was completed in 2005.
The city’s newest transit line is the Expo light-rail line, an 8.6-mile route now running from downtown LA to Culver City. By 2015 the Expo is expected to extend to Santa Monica. Designed by Gruen Associates, with support from Parsons and Miyamoto International, the line has been funded mostly by Measure R, a 2008 city sales tax increase estimated to eventually bring in from $30 to $40 billion. About 35 percent of that, up to $14 billion, will go toward rail projects.
The measure also funded an extension of Metro’s Gold Line into East LA and is helping fund the Gold Line Foothill Extension, stretching farther into the San Gabriel Valley. Other city transit projects—totaling 12 in all— include the Regional Connector, a 1.9-mile underground light-rail route linking the city’s Gold and Blue lines; extensions of Metro’s Green Line to LAX airport and farther into the South Bay; and the Purple Line subway extension down Wilshire Boulevard all the way from downtown to Westwood and, funding allowing, to Santa Monica. In fact, by the time Measure R’s funds are all spent, LA’s rail lines will have doubled, from about 60 miles to about 120, said Mieger.
Partially as a strategy to reflect LA’s diversity and partially because each line has its own construction authority, the stations along each route are widely different. The Expo’s minimal stations are highlighted by wavy metallic canopies and blue steel frames; Foothill takes on gabled roofs and a traditional vernacular; and the Gold Line into East LA has an explosion of colors and forms.
San Francisco opened its first light-rail line in over 50 years in 2007 with its T-Third line, which included 5.1 miles of light rail spread over 18 stations. The line has proven a huge success and brought San Francisco up to seventy miles of light-rail track. The next move for the T-Third is the T-Central subway, an underground extension of the line another 1.7 miles from Mission Bay into downtown, with stops in South of Market, Yerba Buena, Union Square, and Chinatown. The project is funded primarily via the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, with about $942 million coming from that source. A combination of federal, state, and local sources will provide the remaining funds. The line is slated to open in 2019.
Outside of San Francisco is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project, largely funded by Measure Q, a 0.25 percent sales tax passed by voters in the two counties in 2008. SMART will provide rail service along 70 miles of the historic Northwestern Pacific Railroad alignment. Slowed by the economic downturn, the plan is to open a 38.5-mile initial operating segment between Santa Rosa and San Rafael by 2016, with additional segments to be opened as funding becomes available. Ultimately it will extend 70 miles. The project is the first passenger rail project in Marin and Sonoma counties since the 1950s. According to spokesperson, Matt Stevens, designs for the stations have still not been finalized, although Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF) did complete preliminary work.
Meanwhile in Silicon Valley the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is overseeing a the Capitol Expressway Light Rail Project, extending light rail by 2.3 miles and four stations in San Jose. But the big news in that area comes with heavy rail. The VTA is overseeing a $2.3 billion, 10-mile, two-station extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) into Silicon Valley from Fremont to North San Jose. A total of $900 million is coming from the Federal New Starts program, with $1.18 billion coming from the local half-cent Measure A sales tax. Design-build is being overseen by the joint venture team Skanska- Shimmick-Herzog. The second phase, still in project development, will reach six miles and four stations running through downtown San Jose and ending in Santa Clara. That would cost about $3.6 billion, largely because it would be underground.
Sacramento’s contribution to the transit extravaganza is the 1.1 mile extension of its green line from downtown Sacramento north to the city’s river district. The extension just opened on June 15, to big crowds and even fireworks. The city is also planning a $270 million, four station, 4.3-mile extension of its blue line from Meadowview road to Cosumnes River College. A team of design-build architects, including Vrilakas Architects and MFDB Architects, have produced station designs unique to their locations. “We want our stations to reflect their neighborhoods,”said Sacramento Regional Transit District Architect David Solomon “It’s easier for the riders and it makes for better community building.”
With a mature and extensive system of 82 miles of track and 85 stations operating since 1986, Portland has been a model for city officials throughout the nation for how light rail can work. In 2011, over 41.2 million riders boarded Metropolitan Area Express (MAX), according to the local transit authority, TriMet.
There are currently four lines operating and a fifth—the Portland-Milwaukie MAX light rail Orange line—under construction and expected to open in September 2015. It will extend to Milwaukie in Clackamas County, 7.3 miles south of the current Yellow line that runs from the Expo Center to Portland State University.
The ten stations along the Orange line will feature a mix of landscaping and public art to reflect the character of each surrounding neighborhood. The Lincoln Street/Southwest 3rd Avenue Station in the Halprin District will include a vegetated trackway dubbed an “eco-track”; at the SE Tacoma/Johnson Creek station,
a Bike and Ride station will provide secure parking for over 100 bicycles; and at the OMSI/SE Water Ave station, two artists have proposed a large “sonic dish” that will reflect sound and light as nearby commuters pass by.
Half of the $1.5 billion project is being financed by the Federal Transit Administration, with the remainder coming from local, regional, and state sources, including $250 million in bonds financed by future Oregon Lottery revenue. This is the most expensive line Portland has ever built because it traverses urbanized land and adds a new bridge, the first to cross the Portland section of the Willamette River since the opening of the Fremont Bridge in 1973.
When open, by September 2016, the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge in the South Waterfront District will be the first multi-modal car-free bridge in the nation. TriMet hired Donald MacDonald of MacDonald Architects, as the lead designer and chose a cable-stayed bridge design, which would help maximize horizontal and vertical clearance on the busy river and keep costs lower. Approximately 1,720 feet in length, the bridge will feature two towers and include, in addition to a light-rail track, dedicated bus lanes and two 14-foot wide paths for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Light rail in Seattle had a shaky start ten years ago. Initially it was met with fierce opposition, then a threatened loss of funding, and eventually the resignation of the former CEO of Sound Transit, the agency that serves the Puget Sound region. But finally, after almost a decade of debating and lawsuits, the first light-rail line in the city, Sound Transit’s Central Link, opened in July 2009, a 15.5-mile route connecting downtown Seattle to Rainier Valley and SeaTac Airport.
The city is now pushing forward with a huge light-rail program, with a total of 36 miles planned by 2023. This includes the University Link (U-Link) a 3.1-mile underground section running from downtown Seattle north to the University of Washington, scheduled to open in September 2016. There are three more planned sections: a 1.3-mile section south toward Tacoma to open in 2016; a north leg to Northgate and eventually Lynnwood that will open in 2021; and a 14.5-mile extension east over the I-90 bridge through Mercer Island to Bellevue that will open in 2023.
Construction of the U-Link is now underway. At the University of Washington station, designed by LMN Architects, a pedestrian bridge will traverse Montlake Boulevard, linking the upper campus, the University of Washington Medical Center, and the 27-mile Burke-Gilman Trail, affording views on a clear day of Mount Rainier.
Total funding for the U-Link project is $1.9 billion, with $750 million derived from a blend of grants from the Federal Transit Administration, including a TIGER I competitive grant, as well as local support. In 2008, voters approved the Sound Transit 2 measure, increasing sales tax and motor vehicle excise tax.
“It’s so nice to discover that after all these years we’re not done yet, and we can still change our cities,” said SPUR’s Metcalf.
"MIT retained outside consultants to examine the construction for defects, and those consultants produced reports which are not publicly available." The account does not say whether any money changed hands in the settlement. [...] In an email Tuesday, Gehry said no money was involved in the settlement. On March 30, the university's news office issued a joint statement from MIT, Gehry's firm (Gehry Partners) and Skanska saying that the lawsuit had been "amicably resolved."So there you have it. Legacy preserved.
The cool modernist ensemble of United Nations buildings that Wallace K. Harrison called a “workshop for peace” will soon be a workshop for long-overdue renovations. After breaking ground last month on the northern lawn of the U.N. complex for a 175,000-square-foot concrete and steel temporary building to house U.N. conferences and the office of the secretary-general until at least 2014, U.N. officials will relocate thousands of staffers from buildings completed in 1950.
Actual work on one of the world’s most recognizable architectural ensembles comes after ten contentious years of preparation and a series of different plans for overhauling the asbestos-filled structures, which have serious leak problems and antiquated mechanical infrastructure. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, security concerns gave greater urgency to planning for any potential attack on the 18-acre site.
In 1998, the U.N. General Assembly, which represents all the organization’s 192 member states, voted to completely overhaul the buildings, which had undergone ad hoc alterations over five decades. An initial plan envisioned renovating the complex section by section while staff remained on-site, to minimize the need to pay high rents in New York’s booming real estate market. An alternate scheme would have involved building a second 35-story U.N. tower on a playground immediately south of the current ensemble. In 2001, an expanded visitors’ center was proposed under the North Lawn. The current plan relies on placing the U.N. leadership and conferences in a temporary structure on U.N. property, which will be demolished after renovation is completed, and locating most of the personnel in leased office space.
The cost for the entire six-year project, called the capital master plan, is estimated at $1.9 billion. The U.N.’s three principal buildings, designed by a team that included Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Wallace K. Harrison, were built in 1949 and 1950 for $65 million on land bought for $8.5 million by the Rockefeller family and then donated to the international organization. A fourth building, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, opened in 1961.
Steven Pressler of Skanska, the construction manager, characterized the ensemble as “old, in need of a facelift,” and called the project “a big demolition job with a lot of asbestos thrown in; then building it back is almost building it like new.” Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering is the lead architect for historic preservation, and R.A. Heintges is consulting on the restoration of the curtain wall. HLW International is developing interior design guidelines and is designing the North Lawn building.
“As with all institutions, the last place they wanted to put their scarce resources was in fixing up their own house, so the U.N. delayed the decision, because resources are scarce, and their mission is extremely broad, but after 9/11 it raised the priority of making this project happen,” said Michael Adlerstein, the architect who now heads the capital master plan. Adlerstein had previously been vice president of the New York Botanical Garden and was a student of George Dudley, author of the most comprehensive study of the design and construction of the U.N. Adlerstein’s predecessor, John Frederick Reuter IV, quit two years ago in frustration over the increasingly political nature of the process. “I am interested in building buildings, not ‘selling’ them,” Reuter said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to convince member states, and particularly the host country, that the physical condition of the United Nations Headquarters is not a political matter."
Selling the renovation has indeed been a challenge. The plan required the unanimous approval of the 192 U.N. member states in the General Assembly, and winning support in New York and Washington was yet another battle. In 2004, the organization held an architecture competition, restricted to Pritzker Prize winners, for a 35-story tower that would provide swing space for staff displaced during construction and eventually house U.N. offices that are now in rental buildings, at below-market rents, controlled by a public firm called the United Nations Development Corporation. Richard Meier, one of those considered, dropped out of the running, calling the cramped First Avenue site inappropriate for a building of that scale. (He subsequently designed four towers nearby on the East River waterfront for the developer Sheldon Solow; these are still in the approvals stage.) The commission was awarded to Fumihiko Maki of Japan, whose sleek grey column was chosen over entries by Foster + Partners and Herzog & de Meuron.
The site, however, was a concrete patch called the Robert Moses Playground, and construction required a vote by the New York State Senate to enable “alienation” of parkland, even though the plan provided for a riverbank esplanade of comparable size in exchange. The local New York City Council member, Dan Garodnick, points out that his district has the least parkland in the city.
Elected officials found that attacking the U.N. was even more effective than attacking the French. At the end of 2004, the State Senate delayed a vote, citing a history of unpaid parking tickets by U.N. personnel, alleged anti-semitism, and opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I view Mr. [Kofi] Annan’s stonewalling on the release of oil-for-food documents to Congress as a potential cover-up for corruption and will use it as leverage to deny passage of state legislation,” vowed State Senator Martin Golden in a letter to the New York Times in January 2006. Golden carried the day. The matter never came to a vote, despite support from Mayor Bloomberg, then-governor George Pataki, and the Bush administration. “It was politics, pure politics,” said Edward Rubin, an architect who chairs the Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 in Manhattan.
In 2005, the ever-opinionated Donald Trump weighed in. After building his Trump World Tower on a site overlooking the complex, he was contacted by the Swedish delegation for some informal advice. He testified before the International Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, and suggested that the U.N. sell its East River campus and use the profits to create a new building on the site of the former World Trade Center. Trump also offered to renovate the original East Side buildings himself for $300 million, warning that U.N. costs (which he said would rise to $3 billion) had been inflated by internal “corruption and incompetence.” Part of the problem, he added, was that the organization would be extorted for short-term office space by New York landlords—”There is no worse human being on Earth, okay?” Trump said. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Trump to bid on the project, but he never filed a bid. “He would only do it if the U.N. were to have offered it to him, and under the rules of procurement, it would be literally impossible to source a project of this size to a single vendor,” said Adlerstein.
Some critics even wondered whether the iconic buildings were worth preserving. “I always found this futurist architectural experiment tacky,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who was frustrated in his effort to link U.S. support for the renovation to a general reform of the U.N.’s procurement process. “I found the General Assembly [building] to be vaguely fascist,” he added.
Even those who admire its architecture still call the complex a firetrap. In testimony before Congress in 2005, a U.N. official predicted that a serious explosion at the U.N. would spray asbestos throughout the neighborhood. And since it doesn’t even have a sprinkler system, the U.N. fails to meet New York City fire code.
Most of the renovation work, when completed, will be invisible to the visitor, said Adlerstein, although the sleek wood-paneled Security Council Chamber and the General Assembly will get interiors that are closer to their original bright colors than today’s muted seating. Since the manufacturers of some original materials are no longer in business, and certain woods used in conference rooms came from endangered species, approximations will be made, architects say.
The dramatic change will be in the east and west facades of the Secretariat tower. The leaking, corroded aluminum curtain wall will be removed to replace decaying surfaces and increase its energy efficiency. In the process, a layer of thermal film between the double-pane windows will also be stripped. “The original building was sans film, and had a cooler look. The film underneath the curtain wall had a bluish tint. After removing that film, the building will look more silvery and more transparent,” said Steven Pressler of Skanska.
Transparency—both literal and figurative—has always been an issue at the U.N. Surfing through U.N.-related chat on the web reveals the persistent view that the U.N. belongs to the “why pay less” school. Yet Adlerstein notes that by emptying each building before renovation, the project cut two years off of construction and saved $100 million, which will cover swing space rent in Manhattan and Queens. Additional savings come from the U.N.’s exemption from sales tax. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s belief, the project, he stressed, “was never a runaway train. It was a stalled train. The concern was that it wasn’t moving fast enough.”
But not so fast as to outrun auditors, Adlerstein explained, noting that value-engineering is still in progress. “We are being audited by several different groups at all times… Each member state is entitled to audit us and several do,” he said. “We have eternal audits.” With luck, though, diplomacy will carry the day.
Officials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) went to Boston’s Suffolk County Courthouse on October 31 to file a lawsuit against architect Frank Gehry and contractor Skanska. The claim: Gehry’s design for the Ray and Maria Stata Center—for which he was paid $15 million—was defective and caused the university considerable damage.
The building, which opened in the spring of 2004, featured Gehry’s characteristic flourishes and unconventional angles, and was meant to support interactions among faculty and students in computing, information science, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and philosophy. What critics called “daring” and “bold” at the time, MIT eventually found to be nothing short of problematic. The lawsuit alleges “persistent leaks at various locations throughout the building,” along with “masonry cracking, efflorescence, and poor drainage” in the amphitheater, and “mold growth” on the exterior elevations.
Calling the lawsuit a “great surprise and disappointment,” Gehry said, “I fully stand behind the center’s design and have no reason to believe that it contributed in any way to the problems, which are relatively minor and easily addressed.”
In a 2004 Architectural Record interview about the Stata Center’s budget, which ran approximately $85 million over its original $200 million estimate, Gehry said, “we value-engineered, cut things, bit bullets.” He is now suggesting that the “cut things” include devices that would have prevented leaking. The leaks—at least 38 of them—were first reported in the Boston Globe, just six months after the official opening on May 1.
In repairs done in 2006 and 2007, MIT ripped up the brick amphitheater to install a drainage mat at a cost of $1.5 million. The university is now seeking an unspecified amount for that procedure and for other necessary repairs.
Chicago-based Dennis Bolazina, who is licensed in both architecture and law, and who is a member of the AIA documents committee, which monitors these issues, said, “this is really not that unusual.”
“Frank Gehry does a lot of buildings, and a lot of them are successful,” he said. “The problem for architects,” he continued, “is that they have to rely on other people like structural engineers and construction managers, and with many projects, architects are relieved of their duties during construction.”
Bolazina stressed that “architects need to be very closely involved in the construction phase of the project, maintaining communication and attention throughout it.” He added that, “More than 90 percent of these cases will be settled before they go to court, since most building professionals would rather negotiate in arbitration, where they can deal with people who have knowledge of what the realities of construction are, and not a judge, who would have to determine a standard of care.”
This situation is by no means unique. No sooner had the opening festivities ended at Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum than construction crews were on its roof repairing the building’s many leaks. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy is famously subject to routine patchwork.
Signifying the issue’s longstanding importance, one of the earliest written legal documents, Hammurabi’s Code from ancient Babylon, specifically addresses the issue—but with higher stakes. It specifies that “if a builder build a house … and this house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder should be put to death.” It also says that if an architect “does not make its construction meet the requirements and a walls fall in, that builder shall strengthen that wall at his own expense.” Thirty-eight hundred years later, this is what MIT and Gehry must sort through.