Copyright © 2024 Charles Lauster Architect, P.C.



by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on February 13, 2014




By Charles Lauster                                                                                                                           February 2014 

CLAblogA challenge facing Bill de Blasio is how to best to make a major impact on providing affordable housing with the city’s meager funding options.  One possible route would be to rebuild the New York City Housing Authority into the greatest public housing agency in the country. It was great once. In a nation that is increasingly turning its back on public housing, it could be again. No matter what city housing policy he chooses, the city will have to fund the maintenance of its public housing stock. It can do this in the lackadaisical manner of the past decade or it can make its public housing a model to be followed by building owners throughout the city.

There are two aspects to this challenge – the managerial and the technical. As an snow-storm-360x461organization, NYCHA been has allowed to drift into dysfunction. Repairs have not been made to apartments. Purchasing has been uncoordinated. Building modernization has not gone well.  The leadership has been more focused on financial deals than on running the operation. The residents are in near rebellion over their perception of being ignored.  The new commissioner, Shola Olatoye, will have her hands full. If, however, she is recognized as leading a major strategy for rebuilding affordable housing in New York, her hand to reorganize and reform NYCHA would be immeasurably strengthened. She will need serious mayoral backing to reshape the NYCHA bureaucracy into an operation capable getting its money’s worth from the funding that it has. If she succeeds, it will be a triumph in itself.

The technical challenges are of a different sort. Since 1935 when its first buildings came on line in Lower East Side, NYCHA has built simple, un-insulated masonry enclosed structures. In the last 19 years NYCHA has spent about $6 billion in refurbishing its 2,600 buildings and 178,800 apartments. That comes to about $1,800 per apartment per year.  Most of this work, not surprisingly, is consistent with the technology with which these buildings were originally built. Separate contracts are let to do specific tasks. Leaking brick walls get repointed. Aging elevators get modernized. A roofer comes in.

An alternative approach would be to take an entire building and renovate it for the twenty first century.  Temporarily housing the residents elsewhere, the building’s exterior walls would be insulated and it’s plumbing and heating system replaced. The elevator would be modernized and its electrical system upgraded to current codes. While the layout of rooms would be much the same, the finished building would be performing to the highest standards. Even only a few buildings are done a year, a rate well within its budget, such comprehensive rebuilding would demonstrate to its residents and the city at large NYCHA’s determination to confront affordability and sustainability.

As hundreds of buildings get this treatment over the years, the construction industry in the city will develop a skill sets to remake the non-publically owned housing stock. NYCHA could be the laboratory for sustainable energy retro-fits on a citywide scale. NYCHA will be spending money. Can it build for the future instead of merely trying to catch up with the backlog from the past?


A New Mayor/ A New Era for Child Care

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on October 24, 2013




CLAblogBy Charles Lauster                                                                                                                     October 2013

Bill de Blasio is making universal pre-kindergarten classes a major component of his campaign for mayor. As public policy, pre-K education is a great help in boosting children’s education and in assisting working parents. A universal program was passed by the City Council in 1998 but it was inadequately funded. Tens of thousand of children could not be accommodated.

One of the cost issues in dealing with children four years old and younger is the facility itself. Children younger than four are really in child care for which the city has comprehensive requirements. These include toilet rooms for small children only, an adult toilet room, a pantry or kitchen, square footage minimums for classroom space and more. The result is that a “classroom” for children is much more expensive, on a square foot basis, than a regular school classroom.

CDBChildCareWebThen there is the issue of active play. While a good portion of the day is taken up with teaching, kids need to burn off energy in play. This is the biggest problem in New York City facilities. Real play requires real space. Space to run, jump and climb on things. The classrooms are full of instructional items; vigorous play in there is asking for trouble. Yet a nice, big space could be another classroom serving yet more children. Since the financial feasibility of a center is tied to the number of kids served, classrooms almost always take precedence over indoor play space. Outdoor play space, the best solution for active exercise, is very difficult find. Moving the children to a playground or park near the center is a complex undertaking. Try getting thirty three year olds out of the building, across the street and down the block to a park; it is a big deal. To make matters worse, many of the spaces in New York that might work as a center are no where near outdoor space appropriate for young children. Some buildings have roof space that can be made into successful play grounds but again the cost is significant.

In figuring out the funding of true, universal pre-K, the new administration is going to have to confront the funding of more facilities for children two and up to four years old. Considering the crowded conditions in most schools and the inadvisability of mixing young children with regular school age children the city’s schools are probably not part of the solution.

Many of the city’s public housing projects have wonderful child care facilities with directly accessed playgrounds. Those centers are obviously already full.  Yet they do represent a good model for a new generation of centers if the funds to build them can be found. The infrastructure aspect of the pre-K program is vital if the universality goal is to be realized. Construction on that scale encourages a creative reconsideration of design for young children. There may be land use regulation changes that could promote play space. There may be changes in the Department of Health rules that make more indoor play space possible. The Department of Buildings and the Fire Department might take a new look on restrictions on siting facilities for children. If a large number of new slots (an odd word for a child) are to be created and a large amount of money spent, this may be the time for a fresh approach to child care facilities in New York City.


East Midtown Zoning: A Plan Half Done

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on September 27, 2013


East Midtown Zoning: A Plan Half Done

CLAblogBy Charles Lauster                                                                                                                     August 2013

The City Planning Commission proposal to reinvigorate east midtown’s aging commercial real estate is only half of a potentially effective plan. It solves for the creation of more modern office space where there is little existing developable space available but it does little to ensure that the space will be successful. There is no urbanity in this scheme. From Gramercy Park to Central Park to the Highline, thriving real estate development has combined increased density with public amenity. The second half of the plan has to answer the question of what can be done in an area of Manhattan uniquely lacking in such amenities to make a serious increase in commercial density tolerable?

240px-Walter_Gropius_photo_MetLife_Building_fassade_New_York_USA_2005-10-03First some background. The East Midtown Rezoning recognizes that much of the office space east of Madison Avenue, south of the 57th Street and north of 39th street is over 70 years old and unsuitable for modern Class A use. For instance, the ceilings are too low (think ducts, lighting and cabling) and there are too many columns for open plan offices and flexibility. The Commission proposes that owners of lots over 25,000 square feet be permitted to buy from the city additional build-able square footage that substantially exceeds the current zoning limit. In other words, owners of older, large buildings would be allowed to tear them down and build much taller buildings that meet modern needs.

Needless to say the idea is meeting a lot of resistance. Many say there is too much density already and the area’s infrastructure is inadequate. Let’s examine those charges. Pedestrian counts on the east and west sides of midtown are similar and among the highest in Manhattan. Times Square over on the west side, however, has the highest counts in the city. It is certainly true that the 4,5, and 6 subway lines are packed but the Second Avenue line will open in the next few years. Opponents also complain of lost light and air. That complaint is harder to justify; the potential sites for taller buildings in the district are already occupied by tall buildings. No existing open space will be lost because East Midtown does not really have any public open space. The median strip in Park Avenue is about the best the district has to offer. That is the problem. In midtown east of 5th Avenue there are no major parks, no major squares, nothing to interrupt the march of the grid. While it has many fine buildings, its urban fabric is featureless. One finds it hard to form a mental map of the east side because of the spatial uniformity of the district.

The similarly dense Midtown West is full of memorable open spaces. There is Bryant Park to the south and Central Park to the north. Times Square and Rockefeller Center are at the center. Finally, Broadway blows off the grid altogether. All these interventions into the grid create mental markers that provide locations with identities. Much as Kevin Lynch, a revered urban planner at M.I.T., described the elements in the mental maps people form of their surroundings, Midtown West provides a lively “language of city patterns.” Midtown East is comparatively mute.

Midtown East does have one great public space but it is indoors — Grand Central Terminal. Interestingly, the Planning Commission proposal sets its focus for higher structures around the fabled station. In many ways this makes sense. It is a transit hub and 42nd Street is the most used east/west corridor in midtown. If any place can handle increased density it is the area around Grand Central. Unfortunately there is a problem with this location. The MetLife Building, even without increased building height around it, is a black hole of urban energy. It interrupts the grid not as an enlivening, Lynchian marker but more like an overturned bus. At the sidewalk level it is an obstacle course with heavy security.

The point is not whether MetLife is an attractive building. It is in the wrong place if the buildings immediately around it are to be greatly increased in size. One of the magical aspects of the grid is its capacity to accommodate many very large buildings without overpowering the cityscape. Consider the contrast between the Financial District and midtown in terms of physical and visual movement. Compared to the dim maze downtown, the uptown grid promotes spatial orientation and more light to the street. That movement stops at the MetLife Building. By being off the grid it crowds and blocks people, space and light. Its off-grid stance amid a cluster of new, tall, on-grid buildings will create an anomaly in midtown — downtown type canyons. Narrow Vanderbilt Avenue will become Exchange Place.

A step to answering this problem would be to take down the MetLife Building and replace it with a park between the old New York Central Building and what is left of Grand Central. Park Avenue, which never had a park, would finally have one, the ramps around the station defining it. The new, substantially taller buildings around Grand Central would occupy their customary places in the Manhattan grid more comfortably. The vista along 44th Street would be open east/west and the New York Central Building would regain its majesty on Park Avenue. The public open space gained by removing the MetLife Building, would begin to offset the perceived burden of more building bulk in the neighborhood. That, in fact, would be the deal: more open public space on the ground for more commercial space in the sky. The revenue from the sale of increased square footage could be dedicated to the purchase of parkland.

Taking down a building of this size, 58 stores in over 800 feet, is well within the capabilities on the New York construction industry. An objection might be that we would be taking down a Class A building when we are trying to increase the amount of Class A space. But is MetLife really Class A? Some very old space is Class A. 30 Rockefeller Plaza, for instance, is 80 years old but with the very best cachet. The MetLife Building is 50 years old, an awkward age. While it is superbly sited for access to Grand Central (after all it landed on top of it) there is nothing up-to-date in its spaces, systems or functional options. It is merely a well-maintained, older building attached to a world famous train station.

MetLife has 3,077,671 square feet. The Commission’s proposal is to replace 10 million square feet of out-of-date space and add another 4.5 million additional square feet. In total they are proposing 14.5 million square feet in new construction. Turning MetLife into a park would reduce the district’s office space of all sorts slightly but not reduce the new space at all. If the loss of 3 million square feet of fifty year old space is a problem, the eastern border of East Midtown, which moves between Second and Third Avenues, could be tweaked to pick up a few more sites or the new buildings could go higher.

To complete its plan for more modern commercial space in east midtown, the city should provide a level of urbanity, of memorable public space, to offset the increased density. The revenue from the sale of building rights will be inadequate for a subway or most serious infrastructure but it might go a long way with parks. East Midtown, in any case, should be in better balance with West Midtown in terms of parks. It will be competing with Hudson Yards for tenants and that district will have a variety of outdoor spaces and the Hudson River, Lynchian markers galore. If the city wants to increase the density around Grand Central, it needs a similar level of urban amenity. The equivalent of a Highline but lower, a park on the roof of a railroad, a park on Park Avenue.


LEED vs Green

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on October 21, 2009


LEED vs Green

CLAblogBy Peter Kincl

What, exactly, does it mean to be Green? And why does it matter? Consider these statistics: buildings consume about 40% of all energy in the United States. Of that, 84% is used in heating, cooling, hot water, electricity, lighting, etc. Only 12% is embedded in construction. 16% if you add maintenance and renovation. That’s it, 16%, which includes manufacturing all the materials used and then transporting them to the building site. Now I’m not claiming this 16% is an insignificant number – it isn’t. But compared to the 84%, it is. If we want to make a significant reduction in energy use, we need to tackle the 84%.

For the foreseeable future energy conservation will be the single most important aspect of being Green. Water conservation is important, but water shortage problems, although serious in some parts of the west, are, right now, not as potentially devastating as the economic and political disruptions that could be precipitated by declining oil and global warming. Besides, buildings account for only 11% of all water usage, so the potential to make a significant difference is small. Similarly, recycling, renewable resources and conservation matter, but energy shortage and carbon dioxide emissions are much more pressing problems.

Which brings me to LEED and why I believe that in some ways it is more a problem, in terms of making a real Green difference, than a solution. Too many LEED buildings either save no energy or actually use more. This, although maybe on the face of it astonishing, should come as no surprise. It is entirely possible for a building to acquire enough points to become LEED certified without doing anything to limit energy use. LEED is a collection of points which a project accumulates for satisfying certain conditions, and the vast majority of these are unrelated to energy use.

For example, I am amazed that an all glass building can even qualify for LEED certification, let alone actually get it. A basic knowledge of thermal conductivity, thermal bridging and solar heat gain is sufficient to understand why an all glass building can never be energy efficient. And yet it seems quite clear (given how many of these things keep going up) that this is not common knowledge, not even, it seems, amongst building professionals. Either that, or it is knowledge being willfully ignored for the sake of marketing and/or aesthetics. Either way, it is the equivalent of building big gas guzzling SUVs. There is no way to call an all glass building Green. And yet the USGBC doesn’t seem to mind. The certificates keep coming.

There are alternatives to LEED, real alternatives that actually make a real difference. All of them have one important thing in common: a metric. In other words, they have a goal that can be measured. The measuring can be done in Btus used or carbon emissions or whatever units, but the goal has to be measurable and verifiable. Put simply, what, at the end of the day, is the utility bill?

One such alternative is the Passive House concept. The point of Passive House is to construct a building that uses only 4.7 kBtu/sq.ft./yr. for heating and cooling, and it keeps primary energy use equal to or less than 38 kBtu/sq.ft./yr. To one unfamiliar with the jargon, these numbers mean absolutely nothing. But the numbers are important because they are numbers, and because, if one is familiar with such numbers, they are incredibly low (up to ten times more efficient than an average building). To achieve such an ultra-low energy performance is admittedly not simple, but it is very much doable. There is an up-front price premium (which can be offset in the long run with savings on energy consumption). But as we build more and more super-efficient buildings, the industry will become familiar with the construction methods required, and products, such as super insulated windows, will hopefully be made in the USA and their price will come down (the windows, and pretty much all high efficiency Passive House components, are currently German).

I would suggest that being Green means a credible and quantifiable drop in energy use. It means a real reduction in carbon emissions. It means, in the building industry, dealing in a serious way with the 84%. It does not mean papering over inaction by awarding relatively inconsequential points. Olympic inspired ratings don’t mean anything. A significant carbon footprint reduction does.


Light At Grade

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on October 19, 2009


Light At Grade

CLAblogThe current show of the photographs by Robert Frank at the Metropolitan in New York is provocative on many levels. One is how dark and dreary New York and most other cities looked at the sidewalk level in the 1950s and 60s. Recent viewings of The French Connection (1972) and Seven Ups (1973), with its 13 minute car chase through the streets of Manhattan and past my subway stop, show an equally dim first story. Admittedly, Frank had a somber viewpoint (no one smiles) and the cop movies were celebrating gritty. Still the 9th Avenue and West 96th Streets shown in the Seven Ups is not even remotely like the ones we have today.

Personally, I remember those streets. In the early seventies I used to marvel at how old and closed in the shops on upper Broadway were. Some actually sold lace. Others, I don’t know what they sold. Shop windows were often very fly blown. There was retail but not much selling. Naturally the midtown shopping avenues were glittering but outside those relatively limited areas the retail bulb dimmed way down. Retail and commerce on cross town streets were even more withdrawn, even mysterious, to the outsider.

Something changed and it probably happened in the 1980s. Retail activity south of 96th Street started to grow in intensity. A local avenue like Columbus suddenly became hot. Rents increased, old shops disappeared and new ones took over. The change was so abrupt that many feared for the city. Commercial rent control was proposed by the Borough President. It never went anywhere. Protecting mom and pop lace shops in the mid-80s didn’t seem convincing.

With the greater retail vigor came expanded shop windows and more lighting. Stores were reaching out to the passersby. The parochial shops of the closed neighborhoods were replaced by stores that would take anybody’s money. Yes, the mallification of Manhattan was worrisome but it seemed that New York suddenly had more neighborhoods of interest to explore.

Today the avenues and retail cross streets teem with life and light. Retail has been hard hit by the recession but it is finding its way to struggle back. Some stores are empty but they come back surprisingly fast. So what happened? An explosion in U.S. consumer spending that began in the 80s is partly the answer. The other is New York’s expanding population. Increased density and sheer numbers supported more stores, restaurants and entertainment. Competition spurred the hard sell and, often, excitement and light in the street.

Robert Frank and the cop films saw a low energy city outside its famed core. That was then this is now. Try to get through the evening crowds on Ninth Avenue today.


Greenwich South — A Neighborhood Rejoins the City

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on September 30, 2009


Greenwich South — A Neighborhood Rejoins the City

CLAblogThis month the Downtown Alliance revealed a conceptual plan for reestablishing Greenwich Street in the World Trade Center site, thus reconnecting Battery Park and the West Side up to the Meat Packing District. The twin towers plaza interrupted Greenwich Street for over thirty years, isolating the blocks south of it. The focus of the study is on those blocks which they call Greenwich South. (The Alliance’s excellent web site packs a lot of history and urban planning ideas into a well organized package.)

The basic notion is that Greenwich Street string together the Meat Packing District, the West Village, Hudson Square, Tribeca, Greenwich South and Battery Park into a continuous Lower West Side. Moreover, new east/west connections would bring Battery Park City into the 24/7 life of a revitalized Greenwich South. By facilitating easy connections between areas of urban vitality and Downtown, normal incremental development should spread in underused areas . This is not a bold construction proposal but rather a simple planning move that lets the process that succeeded so well north of the WTC site flow to the south. Architecture Research Office, which organized the study, did propose some stunning structures but it is the simple street restoration that makes the planning work.

While the agonizingly slow return of the WTC site has been a trial, there are benefits to getting perspective on how west side development is unfolding. In 2001 the nature of the Meat Packing District and the fate of the High Line were not at all clear. Indeed, Tribeca was viewed with doom and gloom. Most of the planning impulses then were in response to the destruction and not on how to use the Lower West Side as leverage to enliven Downtown.

These last eight years have shown that almost all neighborhoods in Manhattan are experiencing more intense use and more energy. Most of this change has been block by block advancement of mixed uses. Greenwich South’s attachment to the Lower West Side will promote similar development. It has taken a long time, but a piece of the city is being fit back into place.


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.


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.


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.