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Hudson River Park/Pier 40 deal reveals the tangled web of calculated collusion that shapes NYC
The planned redevelopment of the St. John’s Terminal site in Hudson Square, a Manhattan neighborhood known for its fervent opposition to new construction, could be the key to ensuring much-needed infrastructure improvements to nearby Pier 40 and Hudson River Park.
In an agreement outlined by the de Blasio administration this past October, the Hudson River Park Trust—a partnership between New York State and City that operates Pier 40—plans to sell 200,000 square feet of its unused air rights to the owner of St. John’s Terminal to allow for the construction of taller buildings. The estimated $100 million sale would provide funding to repair the decaying 15-acre pier, which is sinking into the Hudson River.
Although the salvation of Pier 40, home to a popular sports and recreational complex, is generally viewed as a victory, the pending deal has been criticized by community members for its lack of transparency.
“We want to examine how much the developer will be paying for these air rights, ” said David Gruber, chairman of the Air Rights Transfer Working Group of Community Board 2. Mr. Gruber, a real estate broker, is skeptical as to how the $100 million was calculated. “There is a sense that they’re getting an under-market deal,” he said. He hopes that the Hudson River Park Trust will get a greater amount.
Because rezoning will be required for the successful transfer of Pier 40’s unused development rights, the COOKFOX-designed proposal is now undergoing an extensive Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Throughout this process, public committees ranging from the community board to City Council evaluate the project’s land use and assess potential environmental impact.
If the ULURP application is approved, a five tower, mixed-use development could replace the existing St. John’s Terminal, a bulky warehouse spanning three blocks of West Houston Street from Charlton to Clarkson Streets.
According to Mark Ruzitsky, senior associate at COOKFOX, the terminal currently acts as a barrier to the waterfront and to Pier 40. “The first impulse is to really remove some of that barrier and create more access to the park, really opening it up,” he said.
The project could provide up to 1,586 much-needed residential units —a third of which would be designated as affordable and senior housing.
There are also plans to include 14,200 square feet of publicly accessible open space in the form of a High Line-style park, a proposal that Mr. Ruzitsky said is in line with the firm’s emphasis on biophilia “We’re looking to take obsolete infrastructure and create a diverse community,” said Mr. Ruzitsky. “It’s part of the way we look at projects—connecting people with nature.”
In the months to come, the community will be able to voice concerns about a number of factors, from the size of the proposed buildings to mandates for affordable housing. The public review process aims to be complete by October 2016.
For 80 years, buildings in Brooklyn followed a local rule: Rise no taller than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower at 1 Hanson Place.
Then, a 2004 rezoning of downtown Brooklyn allowed for taller construction. In 2009, GKV Architects’ 51-story, 515-foot-tall Brooklyner broke the height barrier, besting the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower by three feet and 14 floors. In 2014, SLCE Architects’ 53-story 388 Bridge Street stole the high crown, rising 75 feet above the Brooklyner to become the borough’s tallest. SLCE’s newest Brooklyn building, the Ava DoBro, tops off at 575 feet to beat its sibling.
The slowly rising bar will be soon be shattered by a spate of tall—possibly supertall—new towers. It is rumored that SHoP will build a 90-story, 1,000-foot-tall residential tower at Fleet Street and Flatbush Avenue. It is confirmed that Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) will unleash a 600-foot-tall, approximately 40-story tower at 420 Albee Square. The 400,000-square-foot building will be the first nonresidential high-rise in downtown Brooklyn.
The rezoning was supposed to create 4.5 million square feet of Class A office space in downtown Brooklyn. But, last year, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (a local development corporation) reported that only 250,000 square feet of office space has been built.
Elie Gamburg, director at KPF and lead architect on 420 Albee Square, echoed the partnership’s findings, noting that, so far, the rezoning has produced only residential towers.
KPF, he said, capitalized on a “trophy” corner to create “something of great impact, to really accentuate the verticality” of the building. Though the structure will be bound on all sides by other buildings, the prow-like curve of the facade, visible to travellers coming over the Manhattan Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue, will make a “full gesture to mark the project from those vantage points.”
Usually, a tower this size sits on full or half block sites. In Manhattan, this building’s floor plate would be 30,000 to 40,000 square feet, though 420 Albee Square’s floor plate is 16,000 to 18,000 square feet. “We developed a small floor plate with an off-center core to provide a big floor plate feel,” firm principal James von Klemperer explained.
When asked if there was anything particularly Brooklyn about this tower, Gamburg mused on stereotypical Brooklyn design—exposed brick, Edison bulbs, and converted warehouses. He drew a thread between the borough’s penchant for the past, its industrial legacy, and the cultural logic of late capitalism. “[We have] moved from a nostalgic idea to what the model for the city will be in the future. The office building achieves a new warehouse typology as a ‘warehouse for work.’”
Gamburg sees a reciprocal relationship between the building’s success and the success of the street. The frontage on Albee Square (Gold Street), across from the (COOKFOX-designed) retail development City Point, would be a prominent place for the lobby. Yet the lobby is positioned away from Albee Square so it doesn’t kill a vital retail strip.
Though Gamburg predicts that KPF’s tower will be a centerpiece of the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, he concedes, “great skylines are really the contribution of many players. It’s not a load that one building can carry on its own.”
In 2015, our editors talked to some of the most influential academics, designers, developers, engineers, and architects in the world. Here are the top interviews you read from The Architect's Newspaper last year.
The COOKFOX architect discusses her firm's approach to Biophilic Design.
The Pritzker prize winner talks about revisiting The Pulitzer Arts Foundation.
AN sits down with Bjarke Ingels to discuss the architect's design for Two World Trade Center.
Calatrava discusses his work on the World Trade Center Transit Hub and a nearby Greek Orthodox Church.
AN talks with Zaha Hadid in Chicago about her first building in New York and her thoughts on the Biennial.
The Tokyo-based architect weighs in on nature, experimentation, and the Zaha Hadid stadium controversy.
Buro Ole Scheeren's first North American project reframes architecture's core values.
Sam Lubell speaks with the Richard J. Neutra Medal winner.
The Architecture for Humanity co-founder on his for-profit venture, the Department of Small Works.
As part of the AN developers feature, Matt Shaw interviewed representatives from four developers who are innovating in New York and elsewhere using alternative models for development. These perspectives offer new ways forward as the architecture and business communities work together to find new design, housing, and community-oriented solutions to our 21st century urban issues.
Sumaida + Khurana
Up-and-coming developer Sumaida + Khurana is bringing high-profile international architects to do its first buildings in New York, including NoLita condos by Tadao Ando and a forthcoming 400-foot midtown tower by Alvaro Siza. Amit Khurana has more than two decades of experience in the real estate industry, while Saif Sumaida holds an architecture degree from the Cooper Union. Together, they are changing how New York development is designed.
Matt Shaw: How did you end up working together as developers?
Saif Sumaida: I graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture, and the education was very rich in discourse and concepts. Just by accident, I actually ended up in construction, and over the last 23 years, I’ve been building in New York. I like working as a developer because you have control of authorship both from a construction and architecture perspective, but also as the developer when you put the vision together.
Amit Khurana: Saif is tremendously experienced and when we met it was an interesting fit just because I love architecture and design. I have to give Saif such credit for this but when we are in a room with an architect and we sit down, his knowledge is so fantastic, to not only think of just construction but to think of how architecture relates to construction. And I think that it was a unique situation because there was a shared vision and very complementary sets of skills.
What do you feel these projects bring to New York as a city, not just for the residents of the buildings?
AK: We see ourselves as developer/custodians of the built environment and ultimately we have a responsibility because we play a very important role that really changes the city. Small or large—it doesn’t matter. It’s about uplifting people, and fulfilling the dream of the city too, right? I think if you ask anyone, at the end of the day people appreciate excellence. It’s not about the asset type, it’s not necessarily about who is going to live there or rent there or work there. It has something to do with a kind of purity of design and the impact it has on people.
SS: I think the problem is a lot of developers are really looking at buildings as commodities to monetize. But I think there is a legacy to be made in selecting the architect and making something that has meaning and has a place in the fabric of the city and that is something that you’ll ultimately be proud of. We want to create places. We feel that we have some sort of a social responsibility to do that.
Why bring in these architects?
AK: New York is a melting pot with a lot of influence from outside. We also came from different countries although we spent so much time here. We wanted to just focus on, in a very pure fashion, this idea of bringing master architects to New York to design their very first buildings here. Especially in New York where as-of-right sites are such a tremendous opportunity to work in a specific way and to push the envelope a little bit. looking at it and finding a site, we’re actually looking for a site for Ando or for Siza. This inverted process allows us to think about things a little bit differently.
SS: A lot of developers rely on marketing people to tell them what has worked. They’re following formulas because they believe that these are the formulas that will get them the profit. People find a proof of concept and just follow it. You don’t have to think too much. When you bring somebody else from abroad or somebody who hasn’t built anything in New York, they actually bring a certain amount of freshness. What’s amazing about New York is that it allows for this diversity. You can still be visionary and make it successful.
Do you think that your experience as an architect lets you work with these architects in a different way rather than other developers?
SS: I think the one thing is, I’m very respectful of the process. I’m always able to talk to architects in their language. Instead of looking at it, again, as a commodity, I can engage them in their concepts and be able to enter that dialogue and be able to discuss it with them as opposed to always looking for an end product. I can enter the process and into a discourse with them so that once I understand what they’re trying to do we can then figure how best to get there.
You mentioned affordable housing a little bit. Do you see that as a project that could be interesting to take on?
SS: Very much so. I think there’s a responsibility for developers to be able to bring to the city various projects. It can’t just be building for the wealthy, you have to be able to do it for all. Otherwise, you’re not really making an impact in the city as you think you are. To make an impact on the city you have to touch on the various fabrics.
AK: Well I think that it’s also responding to the realities of where you are in a market cycle. Currently we’re in a market where land is insanely expensive. So we have to respond to that. It’s always allowing yourself to be flexible with different opportunities. I mean, imagine bringing in a famous Spanish architect to New York to build a wonderful, affordable housing project or something like that. It isn’t about how many dollars per foot you spend on a construction; it’s about thoughtfulness. We have the ability and skillset that allows us to also control costs and control some of these variables that can get out of control.
Thorsten Kiefer, HFZ
Thorsten Kiefer is Director of Design and Development for HFZ Capital Group. In this role, he has helped initiate collaborations with architects such as David Chipperfield, BIG, Moshe Safdie, and Isay Weinfeld on projects at various scales in New York and Miami. He talked with AN about his background at OMA, SOM, and SHoP, and what someone in his position can bring to the firm and ultimately the city.
As an architect at OMA in Rotterdam, his job included working in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on a master plan for Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2001. This experience at OMA also led to HFZ bringing in OMA to develop an entire empty city block in New York between Tenth and Washington streets along the High Line. However, OMA wasn’t able to continue because of previous contractual commitments, so HFZ turned to another OMA alumni, Bjarke Ingels of BIG, who had worked with Thorsten 15 years ago.
Matt Shaw: You have an interesting background. How did you end up in this role as an experienced architect working directly for a developer?
Thorsten Kiefer: My time at SHoP was truly formative. At SHoP I worked on competitions in London and New York as well as the redevelopment of the South Street Seaport, initially with General Growth and then followed by Howard Hughes. I formed a number of connections with the development side of the business and after a couple of years at SHoP I began looking for the next career challenge. This opportunity seemed interesting for myself.
What is your role at HFZ?
As Director of Design and Development, I work closely with the marketing team and our executives on the overall conceptual and programmatic framework. The team establishes a list of architects, which we believe would be a great fit for the project. In high-end residential development, the branding aspect of an interior designer or design architect can make a difference in sales.
The global desire for design is higher now than it was 20 years ago. There is money from many countries. Different cultures have different attitudes toward design, and the global market is reacting to that. A lot of global people invest in the city. HFZ tries to offer a high quality product. We do high-end residential, and without design, we wouldn’t get the margins. The value added from the architecture is necessary to get the numbers. 432 Park Avenue by Viñoly has a tremendous location, so people would buy there anyway. But 432 is getting astronomical numbers. Would you get the same price per square foot without the good design? Would the Russians, Chinese, Europeans, and South Americans still choose it?
This position is more common than maybe known in the architectural community. Large developers like Related or Extell have in house design teams. I do believe that this role is valuable. There are very different mindsets in design, construction, and development. The architect is best suited to mediate in between all of them. I also work with zoning lawyers to see if our massing is possible, and also with the construction team to make sure quality is good.
How do you see your role impacting the designs and ultimately the city?
Ziel Feldman, founder and chairman of HFZ as well as Nir Meir, Principal partner at HFZ are very keen on design and quality. Good design simply distinguishes our product within a very competitive market, and we understand this well. I’m also really interested in finding smart solutions to making the city a nice, vibrant place to be.
We are working with David Chipperfield on the last empty lot at Bryant Park and those units will come on the market in the next couple of months. I truly believe that it will not just be a beautiful piece of architecture completing an important urban space in New York, but also a very successful development.
What can this position bring to a company?
I believe an architect is best suited to communicate between all the different groups involved within the development process. We all know that the motivations of construction, marketing, development, or design are not always necessarily aligned, so the role we have with the position is to bring the different mindsets a little closer and hope that the end result is good design.
Do you ever push for different types of projects, like affordable housing?
I certainly have my personal opinion on “affordability” in New York and I do think that affordable housing will be a challenging component in any future residential development in this city.
Brenda Rosen, Common Ground
Common Ground is the largest supportive housing developer and operator in New York. The organization offers formerly homeless people quality environments and services to recover, and also works to develop more traditional affordable housing. Its non-profit status makes its work different from many other developers in the city. Brenda Rosen is the president and CEO, and she gave us some insight on how Common Ground supports its tenants and navigates the non-profit development process.
Courtesy Common Ground
Matt Shaw: What is the mission of Common Ground?
Brenda Rosen: Supportive housing is affordable housing with onsite services so that’s what is different from your cookie-cutter affordable or market rate operation. There is a percentage of the tenants that come through the lottery process like any other affordable low-income tenant. And the other part of the building is filled with formerly homeless people who oftentimes are suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues or medical issues and often times all of the above.
So there’s 50 percent or 60 percent of the building that is set aside for people coming from those circumstances and that is why we have onsite support to make sure that all of our tenants—low-income, regular working people, and those who are formerly homeless and who are coming with a lot of challenges and a lot of issues—have the support that they need to do that and to be as successful in housing as anybody else. With the exception of a few projects, one in Rochester and two in Connecticut, we are the property managers for all of our projects so we never leave the project.
We are about to break ground on our first stand-alone conventional affordable project which will be 248 units of affordable housing and that will not have a supportive housing component at all. Because our buildings are tax-credit buildings, your income has to be at 60 percent or less of the Area Median Income. We do the same marketing, advertising, and lottery like any other developer in the city for the affordable housing.
What are some of the challenges of being a non-profit? What does it mean to be a non-profit developer?
What it means is that the financing of the projects can be incredibly complicated compared to for-profits. When we finance a project we have multiple streams of support coming in for capital and for operating. We’ll use bonds, we’ll use tax credits, we’ll use state and city subsidies. And sometimes borough presidents or city council funds will fill a gap that we might have on the capital side. We also have government contracts that are providing operating support so we have regulatory agreements and government contracts, which means we are under intense scrutiny at all times regarding the services that we’re providing and the quality of the housing.
Can you talk more about what it means to be non-profit and specifically do affordable housing?
Fortunately or unfortunately we are not in this business to make a ton of money as we develop. Any non-profit developer that builds housing—for whatever population—will be collecting a developer fee. I think that the thing that really sets a non-profit apart from a for-profit developer is that all of the development fees that we collect, all of the net proceeds of whatever we’re doing, goes right back into the services and the housing that we’re providing. At the end of the day, again, we’re here to have a sound investment for investors that will buy our tax credits and finance a building. But we aren’t here to come out with this monstrous surplus in our budget. I think that because we are a mission-driven organization, our goal is ultimately to develop and operate housing for vulnerable people in New York.
What role does design play in your mission and in your projects?
Design in all of our projects is a top priority for us. We believe that a pride in home and surroundings helps recovering people to gain stability and to really end up succeeding. Ennead [Architects] did Schermerhorn in downtown Brooklyn for us. It has a ton of green elements, is cantilevered over a subway, and it’s incredibly beautiful. We have worked with COOKFOX who designed a building for us in Brownsville and is designing our next two buildings up on Webster Avenue in the Bronx—both a supportive building and an affordable building. The apartments and hallways are really flooded with natural light.
COOKFOX and Robert A.M. Stern are normally known for high-end buildings and yet they come back and work with us again and again, and bring those same design elements into an affordable project. Not many non-profits get to say that Robert A.M. Stern is going to be doing their next project and build in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. We also develop mini studios, where the average apartment is between 225 to 300 square feet. We have to be really thoughtful about the design of the interior of each apartment. I’ve joked that we were doing micro units long before micro units were popular.
What are some of the challenges that you face when choosing sites?
Years ago when we were looking for land, we would site projects in Manhattan and in Brooklyn and in other places. Over the last several years we’ve done new construction in downtown Brooklyn, Brownsville, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side, in addition to our older Manhattan sites in Midtown. But now primarily the only affordable land for us at this point is in the Bronx.
Common Ground tends to build large. Our smallest building has 72 units and our largest has 640. We prefer to have a building with 200 or more units. So you need a lot of buildable square feet for that, because in addition to the apartments we have a lot of community space in our buildings for our tenants—so we can have computer labs, a multi-purpose room, a gym, outdoor spaces, and offices for the onsite support staff.
Lisa Kim, Two Trees
Two Trees Management Company was founded in 1968 and has developed over 3 billion dollars in real estate. It is most famous for its redevelopment of the industrial neighborhood of Dumbo, Brooklyn. The company has remained committed to fostering artistic and cultural activity in the area through subsidized spaces for arts community tenants, and more broadly, supporting art as an urban issue. Lisa Kim is the Cultural Affairs Director for Two Trees. She formerly served as Private Collection Manager and Director of Exhibitions and Operations at Gagosian Gallery.
Courtesy Two Trees
Matt Shaw: What initiatives does Two Trees have to support arts and culture?
Lisa Kim: Just having someone in my position is different. I am not a real estate person. My entire background comes from the art world. And so they brought me in to be the liaison to the art community and to think about this notion of organizing the company’s efforts of cultural philanthropy and making space for arts and artists in the neighborhood and how that integrates into our development. For Two Trees in Dumbo, it was really organic from the beginning. They own the majority of this neighborhood, and have seen it change.
It has become expensive for artists to work in Dumbo. The reason for the cultural space subsidy program is to find an organized way to create a level of support for the art community and open up space in our buildings for artists and non-profit groups. We thought an application process was the best way to do it. The space subsidy is rather dramatic. If you are granted a space subsidy here you’re given a lease of up to three years at basically a dollar a foot per month.
It’s tricky because there are a lot of people that certainly do want to bring artists in just to kind of spruce stuff up and then leave them when they don’t need them, but that’s not our case. We have 17 tenants—11 artists and six non-profit groups. With the cultural space subsidy tenants who’ve come in, we want to make sure that they’re also an active part of the community over there.
We want them to know who else is in the neighborhood. We had a little happy hour event last month where we brought in, not just the cultural space subsidy tenants, but our other artists and arts organizations tenants.
Who are some of the tenants?
We have New York’s first feminist cooperative gallery that was founded in 1972 and has been in Dumbo for eight years. On the 2nd floor of 20 Jay Street is a young theater group that goes to empower young women, to teach them how to write, direct, and perform plays about women’s issues. So here you have an A.I.R. gallery, a 40-year-old institution meeting Girl Be Heard, a six-year-institution with very-like minded initiatives talking about what they do.
We’ve been the go-to for arts groups that need a space once they’ve been booted from Tribeca, or Chelsea, or Soho. So we have arts support groups such as the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Faith Program. We also have the sculpture studio for the NY Studio School. Brooklyn Arts Council has their offices here. Arcadia is another arts funding organization that has its office here. We’ve been very supportive, for decades, to St. Ann’s Warehouse and to Smack Mellon. These are all tenants who had free to low rent. So it creates a very serious art community and a cluster in this neighborhood.
Do these cultural initiatives translate to added value for the developers? Or is this sort of a cultural, philanthropic project?
I think it’s cultural and philanthropic. A lot of people want to quantify what happens when you bring culture, but you can’t say when you put in X amount of dollars into arts support that you’re going to affect your bottom line by another number because you can raise property values or rents are higher or various other things. I mean I think it’s really anecdotal. I wish I could give you a metric. If you have cool shit for people to see they’re going to come see it. So who’s doing the cool shit, it’s the arts groups, right?
So how are these initiatives structured financially? Are they part of a separate non-profit? How does it relate to Two Trees?
Well, we’re a two-person part of the staff of Two Trees. The cultural space subsidy program is straight out of Two Trees. You get the same commercial space you would get if you were a market rate tenant. In Dumbo we have three commercial buildings—45 Main, 54 Washington, and 20 Jay Street—and our subsidy tenants are spread throughout all three buildings.
Then, separately, there is the non-profit Walentas Family Foundation with two programs as part of it. One is a neighborhood school program where grants are given for innovative school programs. The other half is the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program that offers 17 selected artists free studio space for one year in New York.
What does someone in your role bring to the development firm?
Because I’m naive to the world of development I can really be fresh about my approach in thinking about the art first. I go create it first and then there’s the reality check of is it possible to do this? On this site? Is it possible to do it in this budget? Does it make sense for this project or development?” And that’s when you start to put things together.
One of the buildings is a rather significant renovation and that’s the old Galapagos Art Space building at Water and Main streets. Four galleries will occupy that space. We spent the winter and spring months renovating that building from a cavernous, theater event space/bar to four beautiful sixteen-foot-ceiling white box gallery spaces.
Humankind has come a long way from its primitive origins in terms of constructing shelters to isolate itself from the insalubrious harassments of the outdoors only to find that hermetic environments come with their own costs and consequences.
In this feature, AN looks at four commercial and four hospitality interiors that, from a comfortable remove, reconnect inhabitants with nature. Plus, we talk to COOKFOX Senior Associate Pam Campbell about the biophilic design principals that guide much of her firm’s work.
Wadi Rum Desert Resort
Chad Oppenheim conceives a remote desert resort carved into the sandstone cliffs of the Jordanian desert.
Bestor Architecture deftly navigates a historic building's past for fashion retailer Nasty Gal.
The Mesa at Amangiri
Selldorf Architects designs a private luxury retreat in the rugged desert landscape of Southern Utah.
The French Laundry
Inspired by the movements of the dining experience, Snohetta, Envelope A+D, and Harrison & Koellner revamp the kitchen and courtyard of the renowned Napa Valley restaurant, French Laundry.
A Rogers Partners-designed headquarters in New York City fosters a fluid startup culture within a traditional Wall Street office building.
Reversible Destiny Foundation's experiential passageway in Dover Market seeks to inspire shoppers to reflect on the aging process.
A focus on workplace ergonomics and indoor-outdoor connections define Gensler's Denver office, creating a lively, interactive environment.
A former quonset hut and car dealership in Portland is transformed into a light-filled winery and taproom by local architect Lorraine Gutherie.
Bernheimer and Dattner start work on BAM building as construction in Brooklyn’s art district kicks up a notch
In recent years, sustainability has become one of the most prominent motivators of architectural design. Rarely is a project unveiled without a corresponding press release touting a green roof, photovoltaic array, or an expected LEED ranking. While such headline-grabbing green building features are important, New York City–based architecture practice COOKFOX believes that sustainability should go beyond reducing the energy footprint. The firm has been incorporating principles of biophilic design into its projects in order to produce buildings that treat human beings as an integral part of a natural ecosystem.
AN’s Henry Melcher recently spoke with COOKFOX Senior Associate Pam Campbell about what biophilic design is and how her firm is incorporating it into its architecture.
Henry Melcher: So what is Biophilic Design?
Pam Campbell: The term was initially coined by a social psychologist back in the 1960s called Erich Fromm, but it is generally attributed to E.O. Wilson, who wrote the Biophilia Hypothesis in the 80s, which was a body of research that has developed ever since and really explains that we as human beings have this connection to nature, and that because we developed in a natural setting we have these psychological and physical reactions to natural landscapes and materials.
There has been a lot of research showing how different natural phenomenon within the interior environment contribute to the performance of children in schools and people in the workplace—how healthy they are, how attentive they are, how much they can focus on a certain task.
The thinking is that because of the nature of human beings, we feel at home in natural landscapes so we really need to reestablish that connection—and that is where architecture comes into it. We have this ability as designers to create spaces that can work to reengage people with the natural landscape and the health benefits that go along with that.
Whether it’s views out to a natural landscape or bringing plantings into an interior, we call that “nature in the space.” And then there is something called “nature of the space” and that might not have anything to do with looking at vegetation, but creating spaces that mimic natural settings in which humans thrived and felt most comfortable in the way we developed over time.
There is also something called “prospect and refuge theory.” If you think about humans in the natural landscape way back when, when they could see into the distance to a predator or some danger coming, they would be in a place of prospect, but also in a place where they have some refuge. When you have this combination of prospect and refuge, it has this visceral reaction of how we feel within that space.
And there is “risk and peril.” Our bodies react pretty well to short-term stresses—they keep us more alert, raise our heart rate and hormone levels—and as long as that is not a permanent state, that has some physical benefits to us. So places where you can see over a balustrade, or be in a place where some sort of risk is involved, it can be a good thing as long as there is a safe place within the space.
The other category is “natural analogues”—when you actually have a tree or something in your space. There are other patterns and materials that we can bring into the design that can start to have the same beneficial responses: the grain of a natural wood as opposed to a piece of plastic.
Richard Barnes / OTTO
What are the challenges of using biophilic design in New York City where so many buildings are sealed and climate-controlled?
It is definitely a challenge. When we get the rare opportunity to design a building in an actual landscape, it can do so much for you in terms of general sustainability. But when you are in the city, you have to do so much more because we are in an environment that is 90 percent buildings, as opposed to 90 percent natural.
There is always that delicate balance between daylight and energy savings. Obviously the glazing technologies are getting better and better; we can now afford to have windows that have a significant amount of glazing without killing the energy budget in terms of cooling and heating costs.
Window sizing is really kind of an art form. Some spaces are great to have floor-to-ceiling glazing, but there are a lot of environments where that is not appropriate—it is too much peril, it doesn’t make people feel relaxed and enclosed. So getting the right balance of opaque, solid exterior walls to glazing is probably one of the major things we can do to create a comfortable environment on the interior.
Biophilic design really comes into play when we are talking about the shape of the space, the materials we use, and the views outside. In terms of trying to create natural environments in the city, it is a challenge and what we’ve tried to do with our projects is to create many terrace spaces and outdoor spaces so people can still view, at least in the foreground, some natural landscapes.
And then obviously creating spaces that aren’t so hermetically sealed where people can view the sky, the changing weather, and different light patterns coming into the space. Not just having good daylighting, but having that pattern change how it impacts the space during the day—it can keep people more alert.
At Live Work Home up in Syracuse we had a particular challenge because Syracuse gets half the amount of natural daylight as the rest of the country. It is a particularly gray place. So we created this screen around the house that was perforated and had a pattern that we digitized from a photograph of daylight coming through a tree canopy. With that randomized pattern we were trying to mimic how you might feel if you were walking through a forest.
That screen allows daylight to filter into the building in different ways. On the north side, we painted the interior face of the screen with a reflective white coating so the sun from the south would reflect off that in a pattern and bounce back onto the porch area as well.
Is biophilic design a selling point? Do developers and prospective buyers want these strategies incorporated into buildings?
I think from the developers’ standpoint, for residential, certainly; everyone is interested in outdoor terraces and we are trying to explain why it is a good thing beyond just a marketing tool. Even if people don’t understand the science behind [biophilic design], they get the fact that, yes, looking out of your living room onto an area of plantings and trees that is changing with the seasons is better than looking across the street at another building. People naturally understand that even if they can’t put it into words.
In terms of biophilic design, people do feel healthier when they are looking at a natural landscape, so I think that is pretty well understood and has been for a long time.
Architects always talk about blending the indoor and the outside. How many times have you heard that? It is something that we have all understood, and I think we are in a better position now because there’s actually some real hard data behind it. That body of knowledge lets us control it more instead of just randomly putting some planting outside on a terrace. We can really enhance the design of that by understanding that it should be changing, it should be moving, there should be taller parts and smaller parts, there should be areas where you feel protected and areas where you see over.
There are a lot of biophilic and sustainable design practices incorporated into One Bryant Park, which is LEED Platinum, but then a [New York City benchmarking] report comes out and says the building is using twice the amount of energy as the Empire State Building. So what are the tangible benefits of using these types of designs?
For Bryant Park there is a difference between energy that is generated on-site versus energy that is generated remotely. The thing is it is a bank of trading floors at the end of the day, so it has one of the most intense energy usages of any building type that can exist in the city; but a lot of that energy is produced on-site.
About 75 percent of the power that is produced by power plants actually gets lost through the transmission of that power to a building. When you’re producing that on-site, that loss doesn’t exist anymore. So in terms of the overall energy use and pollution, those things have to be factored in and rarely are. It’s normally just some numbers that are coming up in a meter and it is not taking into consideration the building type and also where that power is coming from.
Where we really caught the interest of the bank and the developer—this was a joint venture between Bank of America and The Durst Organization—was when we started talking about employee retention.
When you employ somebody there is a certain amount of startup time where they are being pretty inefficient, and when you lose somebody and somebody new starts, there is obviously a huge financial cost there. So creating spaces that people want to be in, where they do have access to daylight and they do feel better, it helps with employee retention and also reduces sick days.
In terms of the air that is getting delivered to the space, it is at a higher filtration. The outdoor air in the city obviously isn’t that great, so if we can filter that air to high levels we can reduce the amount of respiratory problems and other reasons why people may end up taking sick days.
Employee retention and creating healthy workspaces is a huge tool that we have in our toolbox.
Where do you think these technologies and tools will take things in the future?
I think biophilic design is something that people are going to start employing more. We are never going to tear down a city and build a forest again so we have to start employing more educated techniques of bringing back the actual environment in such way that we can cohabit with it. That is something that has to get pushed forward.
There are more and more children being brought up in the city and they have less and less ability to really understand what nature is; they tend to come across it in a very condensed, small environment.
How do we expect future generations to care about the environment if they don’t even understand what it is?
150 Charles Street
Designed by Dirtworks Landscape Architecture atop a new building by COOKFOX Architects, 150 Charles includes 30,000 square feet of landscaped and outdoor space, including rooftops, public and private terraces, and courtyards.
“We thought of it as a vertical landscape that helps to give the building its identity,” said Dirtworks principal David Kamp. Plantings change from lush, wooded courtyards up to meadow-like roof landscapes.
Architect: COOKFOX Architects
Landscape architect: Dirtworks Landscape Architecture
Courtesy Shigeo Kawasaki, Thomas Balsley Associates
This three level project, designed by Thomas Balsley Associates, includes an at grade garden with a reflecting pool and specimen tree, a mid level lounge area overlooking the garden below, and a rooftop lawn and lounge with a projection wall and bar. “I’ve been around the city for a while,” said Balsley. “There’s a newer, younger buyer for these condos, who have a very active and very social lifestyle.”
Architect: SLCE Architects
Landscape architect: Thomas Balsley Associates
Courtesy Workshop/APD and Gunn Landscape architecture
Printing House Mews
Workshop/apd and Gunn Landscape Architecture are transforming this disused private alleyway on the south end of the West Village into an intimate courtyard for two townhouses and three maisonettes, as well as a viewing garden for the condominiums above. “The space is well crafted, and the paths, planters, and seating reinterpret the architecture of the townhouses,” said Workshop/apd principal Andrew Kotchen. “There’s also a carefully calibrated balance of privacy and open views that makes the small space work.”
Landscape architect: Gunn Landscape Architecture
Courtesy Future Green Studio
The young Brooklyn-based firm Future Green Studio is known for incorporating vegetation into architecture in innovative and surprising ways. For this building, designed and developed by DDG, Future Green drew on the informal vegetation of the High Line, integrating plantings into the building’s parapet, cantilevered marquee, and on the 8,000-square-foot shared and private roof. “Landscape can help situate a building in its context,” said David Seiter, principal at Future Green. “People are drawn to the wildness and style of the Highline.”
Landscape architect: Future Green Studio