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Charles Lauster Architect, P.C.

Coney Island Story

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on September 15, 2009


Coney Island Story

CLAblogConey Island’s high tide was in the first half of the 20th Century. By the 1960’s, like so much in New York, disinvestment and demographic change accompanied the decline of the amusement district. See the movie “The Warriors” for a 1970’s image of its fall.

Fast forward to 2005. The area was weak but not dead. The minor league baseball Keyspan Park was drawing good crowds but they didn’t linger after the games. A fraction of the amusements held on but the boardwalk itself was in good shape. And the big beach was still there.

Enter Joe Sitt. He is from the neighborhood and people call him Joey. He has made millions buying derelict urban property and building inner city malls. His company, Thor Equities, has millions of feet in property throughout the country. Over a number of years he bought up most of the amusement district between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk. Sitt’s 2005 concept, he said, was to build a Vegas style, Bellagio complex from Keyspan to the Wonder Wheel on about 12 acres. There would be a hotel, shops, an indoor water park (swimming in February), megaplexes, and a giant merry-go-round. Complete glitz.

Initially the City was supportive but Joey never seemed to pull the trigger and move the project along. He has the local council member on his side but the community was divided. The small time operators, the people who make this New York’s Coney Island, were afraid the indoor mall aspect would drive them out. There is a housing component of 4,500 units of housing, 35% affordable according to Sitt, at the west end of the project. While the affordable and market housing is a far cry from the low income units that went up in the 1960s, there is a great deal of neighborhood resistance to more demographic change.

By spring 2009, the City was actively hostile to Joey. They have been offering $110,000,000 to buy him out and he won’t sell. (He bought the property, according to the City, for $93,000,000.) The City is calling him a speculator, not a developer, and he is saying the City is trying to steal his land. It’s a stand off. Sitt can’t do too much in this financial climate without a zoning change permitting his mixed usages. The City can’t do much either without the land.

At the end of July the City Council approved the zoning changes needed to execute the City’s, i.e. the Mayor’s, concept for the property. It turns out that the mayor wants hotels, restaurants and amusement park rides too. On the same 12 acres. Even the housing is there in the same place.

Like so many of Mayor Bloomberg’s planning efforts, he is trying to develop land he doesn’t control. This happened with the Jets Stadium, the West Yards and Willets Point.

An eminent domain struggle with Thor would be very messy. Joey may be gaming the City but he is a real developer elsewhere.

Given the similar approaches that Sitt and the City are taking to the site, it is not clear why the City wants to buy the site. Why doesn’t the City come to an agreement about what Sitt includes in the project and approve that agreement as the zoning change? Is Joey too unstable to be a partner in such a project? Time will tell. Nevertheless this is shaping up as yet another grand New York development that sinks beneath the waves.


Nan Shan Center

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on August 25, 2009


Institutional   Commercial   Planning   Residential

Nan Shan Queens Center
New York City 2017

This ten-story community services building serves the Flushing, Queens community. The center houses a senior center, a child care center, a fourth floor, outdoor playground, a learning center and three floors of medical offices. A garden at the rear of the building can be seen from the front door.

The seniors’ dining hall in the basement is lit by a fifty-foot long skylight. It can accommodate 110 people. The second floor has an assembly room for 152 people. A game room on the first floor fronts on the garden.

The enclosure employs a rain-screen of a technically advanced panel that preserves wood veneer in a Kynar material. The wood doesn’t age or deteriorate. These panels are combined with glass and metal curtain wall. The detailing of the enclosure resists thermal bridging.

Building Green

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on July 28, 2009


Building Green

CLAblogBy Peter Kincl and Charles Lauster

It may have a shiny plaque at the entrance signifying LEED[1] Gold status, but the Seattle City Hall is an energy hog. According to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer[2] it uses up to 50% more power than the older, larger building it replaced. London’s City Hall, a futuristic glass egg designed by Foster and Partners, advertises itself as a “virtually non-polluting public building”, but it, too, guzzles energy. In fact recent data suggests that LEED certified buildings use 29% more energy than similar, non-LEED certified, buildings[3]. What is going on here?

This conundrum makes sense if one accepts that there are two ways of looking at a “green” building: energy efficiency and carbon footprint. The two approaches have different implications for how we build and how we evaluate successful building performance. Both are of the highest importance to humankind’s future but they are not the same thing.

Energy efficiency, as it applies to a building, is a relatively simple concept: it is a measure of energy used per square foot of area. A monthly utility bill divided by the size of a house equals the house’s energy efficiency. It is straightforward, clear, and, importantly, verifiable because it is a physical test that it is done after a building is up and running.

Determining the carbon footprint of a building is a much more complex issue. It is more a holistic concept than a technical one. It can be organized as series of calculations, some of which are neither simple nor clear. The carbon footprint of a building takes into account all the energy from various sources that goes into making the materials used in its construction, moving those materials to the site, constructing the building and then operating it. The calculations can include such wide-ranging environmental variables as climate, water management and transportation modes of the occupants. They can involve the chemical behavior of materials, pollution from the manufacturing of construction components or the use of endangered species. It is a modeling of the total environmental impact of a building project.

How are these two ways of defining a ”green” building reflected in the business of constructing them? What are the real world implications of each?

Energy efficiency in buildings is like car mileage standards — it is not only a simple idea, it is also doable. It requires an air-tight, well insulated building envelope coupled with a sophisticated ventilation system and heat exchangers. For example, the German Passiv Haus concept is basically a recipe of solar orientation, window placement, architectural details and mechanical system specifications that will produce a building that needs virtually no heating. Such buildings have been erected in Germany and several other European countries and they work.

Until recently, the United States had cheap energy and consequently few building codes addressed energy performance. Current US codes mostly require a total value for thermal resistance. This value is computed based on the published resistance values of the various materials and assemblies used in the building. The catch is that there is no way of factoring for the details used in construction. Yet the details are everything. Poor detailing allows heat to move through walls even if they are insulated; this is what is known as thermal bridging. If the best materials are installed with poor detailing, thermal bridges will destroy the building’s performance. Current codes for energy are thus meaningless. They do not address how buildings are put together.

To be effective building codes should mandate energy efficiency. A key element here is the disclosure of a building’s energy use — in other words the utility bill — in order to make the necessary efficiency calculations. We have no idea how efficient or inefficient most buildings are because owners are not required to divulge their energy usage. In a green context this makes no sense. Would we take car manufacturers’ claims of fuel efficiency seriously if they weren’t by law required to divulge their vehicle fuel economy ratings? Disclosure of energy use would also allow for databases to be built which would unambiguously show which building strategies, materials and details work best.

Last year Britain passed a law mandating that the energy consumption of public buildings be made available. The result has been quite interesting. Many brand new buildings have been shown to be energy wasteful, including highly acclaimed projects like Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum in Manchester and London’s brand new City Hall by Foster & Partners. As Matt Bell, director of public affairs at the UK government’s architecture watchdog agency, put it, “We hear a lot of greenwash. The knowledge that from now on this performance will be objectively measured should mark the end of that.”

However, the simplicity of the efficiency calculation is a weakness in one respect: it misses many of the dimensions that affect the environment. This is what the carbon footprint calculations reveal. Yet these calculations aren’t easily adapted into building codes. First, there are nearly endless formulas for all the different types of energies available, how they are generated and how they are used. It is not obvious how many calculations can be incorporated into codes. Secondly, beyond energy, there are sustainability and even social concerns that can and should be considered. These issues are not easily quantified. Finally, there is a moral dimension in this analysis. Even among people of good faith, morality is complicated and not an easy fit in a building code.

LEED attempts to simplify this environmental thicket by creating specific performance targets. For instance, a project gets points for using sustainable products; if a certain number of points is achieved the design is certified as a LEED project. Because the LEED process occurs during design, it is a measure of intent. How the building ultimately performs in operation is not part of the certification. The inevitable downside is that LEED rating can become a formal exercise based on filling out forms and doing computer simulations. Theory often does not pan out in reality and once a building has been declared LEED compliant, its certification stands, regardless of its energy consumption, which is the one thing that can be measured.

Looked at from a different point of view, LEED can be an effective method of evaluation during design to maintain awareness of environmental consequences in the decision making process. With its numerically weighted ratings, it is a good checklist for environmental thinking. This sort of design approach coupled with post-construction energy efficiency audits would constitute a real energy saving and carbon limiting construction process.

In a world of diminishing energy reserves, getting more output from less oil and gas is critical. Structures account for approximately 38% of the nation’s energy use. How we build, heat, cool, light and use our buildings requires more energy than transportation. Building design, even more than transportation design, can dramatically alter energy consumption. Energy conservation should be a paramount goal of a green building. This is why a verifiable energy efficiency code is critical.

Being aware of a building’s carbon footprint is also important because the world is heating up from excessive production of CO2. But because this is such a complex concept it is not something that is easily codified by local governments and it probably shouldn’t be. Thinking through the carbon footprint is an obligation. LEED status should be an honor. Then post the utility bill in the lobby. That should be a requirement.

[1] LEED stands for Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design, a program to encourage green buildings developed and promoted by the US Green Building Council.
[2] “Energy Audit of City Hall Sought”, August 2, 2005

[3] See A Better Way to Rate Green Buildings by Henry Guifford (available at for a statistical analysis of energy use by LEED versus non LEED buildings. Another good discussion of this issue is Prioritizing Green: It’s The Energy Stupid by Joseph Lstiburek. It can be found at the Building Science website (


At the WTC the PA May be Right

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on July 8, 2009


At the WTC the PA May be Right

CLAblogMayor Michael Bloomberg and Speaker Sheldon Silver are complaining about the apparent intention of the Port Authority to scale back the World Trade Center project. They charge that the P.A. wants to go forward only with 1 WTC, formerly the Freedom Tower, and postpone the other four towers. In this dispute they are backing Lawrence Silverstein in his desire to get back all the square footage he lost on 9/11 as fast as possible.

The Port Authority might be right this time. The situation has changed a great deal since the destruction of the original World Trade Center. The Great Recession has transformed the financial sector; the giant equity firms have either disappeared or turned into banks. 19,000 finance jobs have been lost since August 2008 and companies that have been too big to fail have failed, think Lehman Brothers.

When the financial sector bounces back, it may look very different. Instead of being dominated by a few enormous entities, much smaller equity firms may provide the majority of jobs. The current regulatory drive to restrict dangerous accumulations of scale and risk will promote smaller companies whose failure will not bring down the whole economy. These smaller firms will not need the 40,000 square foot floor plates the older generation required. The changes in the industry may mean that building designs that addressed the needs of ten years ago may not meet the needs of five years from now.

Another aspect of the out of date nature of the current WTC plan is energy efficiency. A very large floor plate is air conditioned year round. The energy demands of the buildings being built downtown are tremendous. The United States is finally waking up to the need to take energy use seriously and hence new energy codes will be part of the future of the construction industry. If Germany is an indicator, floor plate size as it relates to energy consumption will be one subject of those codes.

In terms of function and energy performance, the plan being pushed by the Mayor and the Speaker may be exactly what the Financial District doesn’t need. The original World Trade Center was always a bit of a white elephant. This scheme has the same pallor. It may well be a bet on a very large amount of square footage of a sort that the market won’t need. That would be a disaster for downtown.

The P.A. does not have unlimited money. Getting the rail connection from JFK to downtown and building the new rail tunnel to New Jersey are P.A. projects that are much more critical to New York’s future than office towers. Infrastructure is where its money should be going.

Building 1 WTC, the Path Station and WTC Memorial will have a huge impact on the area. Hedging its bets by not building the other towers today allows the PA to invest in New York’s tomorrow.


Childcare Centers

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on April 24, 2009


Institutional   Commercial   Planning   Residential

Childcare Centers New York City 1988-2009
CLA is specialized in the design of childcare centers.

New York City centers are closely regulated and the caregivers highly trained. Having designed centers all over the city, CLA has the knowledge to help groups new to child care and those with great experience to build and furnish new facilities.

For instance, in 2004 CLA completed a four classroom center for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in the Bronx. This center is part of a larger youth and social service center. Separating the childcare function from the other uses while maintaining an overall sense of community distinguishes this project.

In 2003 CLA completed an expansion of the child care center at Brooklyn College which also serves to teach child care as part of the academic program.

One of CLA’s earliest centers is the Chung Pak Childcare Center in Chinatown built in 1992. It is part of a mixed use building that includes retail, low income elderly housing and social service. CLA was part of the original development team for this project and included childcare from the outset.


by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on November 26, 2008


Institutional   Commercial   Planning   Residential

Brooklyn, NY 2008

The Superflex company makes flexible PVC hoses of a variety of shapes and functions. They are in the planning stage to build a new plant on the Harbor front in Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal area. They are currently in Brooklyn and want to double their space to 120,000.

As designed, the new factory will not only provide more space, it will rationalize the use of space for more efficient operations. The site is next to a harbor front park being created by the city Parks Department. The steel panels and glass of the enclosure, the slight racks of the roof and the landscaping are designed to make the building a fitting neighbor to both the old Bush terminal buildings and the new park.

The plant is being designed to achieve a LEEDS rating of 26.

New York City Veterinary Specialists

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on August 23, 2008


Institutional   Commercial   Planning   Residential

New York City Veterinary Specialists
New York City 2005-2009

NYC Vet Specialists is the largest animal surgery clinic in New York City. At 17,000 sf, the Manhattan Center has examination rooms, preparation areas, surgery suites, doctors offices and lounges for pet owners. In terms of medical imaging, there is a MRI, CAT scan, lineal accelerator and several x-ray machines.

The clinic is on two levels of a new building in mid-town. Glass and open space give a light and airy feel. This approach creates the opportunity for visual contact among the staff for quick reactions and overall control of operations.

The Queens Center, 7,630 sf, is a satelite facility serving the Forest Hills neighborhood. It was completed in 2008.

A New York Times article on NYC Vet Specialists: Click here

State of the far Westside

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on February 19, 2008


State of the far Westside

CLAblogby Charles Lauster

Today the state of the far Westside appears in disarray. Five years ago the conventional wisdom was that the area had a coherent plan and it was on the brink of implementation. Today there is no conventional wisdom, only questions. The city, however, may be the better for this thrashing about.

What, exactly, happened to get us to this point? A good place to start is in 2000 when Senator Chuck Schumer led a study of how New York City could add another 30 million square feet of commercial office space over the next 25 years, just as it had in the last 25 years. The Westside was a prime target. With Mayor Bloomberg in 2002 the planning effort became a high priority.

Meanwhile, the Jets football team negotiated with the city to build a new football stadium immediately south of the Javits Convention Center. An expanded and modernized Javits would use the stadium as part of its increased convention space. The new Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Daniel L. Doctoroff, had been New York’s 2012 Olympic Committee chair and had designated the Jets stadium as the main 2012 Olympic venue.

The City Planning Commission embraced the stadium and the Olympic bid in projecting for development. Instead of the usual east/west orientation for development, the planners elected to develop north/south along a new Hudson Boulevard between 10th and 11th Avenues. This strategy would allow for large commercial buildings in proximity to the convention center and new hotels serving both. The city even reached an understanding with the MTA to expand the #7 subway line to 11th avenue and down to 34th Street to handle the thousands of new workers on Hudson Boulevard. Everything seemed in alignment. Then everything fell apart.

The death of the Olympics and the stadium came in May and June 2005. The International Olympic Committee selected London as the 2012 Olympic city. Part of reason was the controversy over the Jets stadium. The stadium itself was stopped a month later when the three members of the New York State Public Authority Board voted on the use of state property for the stadium. The Board must vote unanimously and one member, Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, voted no.

The collapse was not over. With the stadium gone, the Convention Center had to recast its expansion. This was made more difficult because of the post 9/11 security screening that has to be done for the trucks marshalling for shows. There is simply not enough room to make the marshalling work efficiently. The Pataki administration, in its last year, tried to keep the big expansion alive but even the talents of architect Richard Rogers could not overcome the mounting costs and the inadequate space. Late last year Governor Spitzer indicated that the expansion will be minimal and most of the work will be to stabilize the leaking building.

Lastly, the #7 expansion is in doubt. Rising costs may necessitate eliminating one of the two stations, the north station at 11th Avenue and 41st Street. The expansion is to be paid for by the city, not the MTA, and the city says it cannot afford the station. This loss would be a severe blow to the many new residents on far West 42nd Street and the eventual workers and residents on the west side.

So, how bad is it? Maybe not so bad at all. The fiasco with the Jets stadium alerted the MTA to the spectacular value of its property. The MTA would have made a fraction from the Jets of what it can command now. In fact, the MTA needs to determine if leasing is a better approach than selling development rights. A growing income stream for ninety-nine years may be far richer than the sales value today.

The stadium itself would have been a nightmare on game days and the Jets got a much cheaper stadium in New Jersey. The fact that the Giants and Jets share the stadium is a welcome efficiency. While Governor Spitzer has not revealed his ultimate plans, there is the hope that a new, more affordable and much larger convention center could be built outside of Manhattan, in Queens or even in New Jersey. In recent years New York has crossed a threshold. The metropolitan area is the critical zone, not the island of Manhattan. Today people do come to New York to visit Queens and Brooklyn. The Boroughs and northwest New Jersey are great assets for those uses that are too big for Manhattan. Better transportation is the key to making the metropolitan area thrive.

With the Javits moved, the five blocks it now occupies could be opened to residential uses and access to the riverfront. This means that the neighborhood of Hells Kitchen South could survive. Commercial development on Hudson Boulevard would have eventually expanded back toward Ninth Avenue squeezing the residential uses out.

In fact, he hoped for commercial development is happening, but not on Hudson Boulevard. Five developers are competing to develop the West and East Hudson Yards. Interestingly, all of the schemes are oriented east/west along 34th Street. Hudson Boulevard is now a remnant of dashed schemes. The development over the yards is the engine pulling development forward, in the classic New York east/west mode. The money saved by abandoning Hudson Boulevard acquisitions could go toward the #7 extension. It could save the station, without which the expansion is useless. In fact, the #7 could extend down to 14th Street, serving the west side of Chelsea and connecting with young workers coming to work on the westside from Williamsburg and east.

After decades during which the city’s planning skills atrophied, New York is entering a new era of exciting, large-scale developments. The Hells Kitchen experience was no Westway. That 1980’s disaster left the city divided and fearful of change. Today community groups, developers and city officials are learning how to work together and get something done. The High Line is a great example. The Jets, Javits and Hudson Boulevard taught the city a great deal. No harm was done. Now it is time to get it right.


Cohen Residence

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on June 21, 2004


Institutional   Commercial   Planning   Residential

Cohen Residence
Cambridge, MA 1980-2004

The Cohens are old friends. CLA has been progressively renovating their house since they bought it 25 years ago. The 1890s Queen Anne exterior was worn but standing; the interior, student housing for a long period, was a wreck. The first floor became a single space with kitchen, dining, and living areas surrounding a central, four sided fireplace.

Five years later, an addition to the third floor in the rear was constructed. What had been an attic space was raised up to become a playroom and guest suite. This project was followed by the removal of the existing clapboard, windows and roofing and their replacement with new. The original Queen Anne details were all maintained.

The last campaign was in 2004 when the kitchen was touched up with new appliances and some new materials and the master bath redone. Twenty four years later, the basic design still holds up but the periodic tweaking keeps it all looking fresh.

United Nations

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on August 22, 2003


Institutional   Commercial   Planning   Residential


United Nations
New York City 2001-2003

The United Nations began a major renovation program in 2001. CLA was asked to create the first set of digital drawings of the entire New York campus. Working from the original drawing for all of the UN buildings and from extensive on site measurements, the CLA team produced the master set in use today.

As part of the renovation program, CLA, working with the Renato Sarno Group, oversaw the restoration and upgrade of the entire General Assembly ceiling. The work entailed new lighting, sprinklers, and acoustic treatment of this historic landmark.

CLA was also part of the team that restored the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium in the UN Library building, another Modern Movement architectural landmark.