Envisioning Green: A high-rise apartment building in lower Manhattan tests the boundaries of urban sustainability by using a five-point guideline system to set realistic goals.
A 35-story apartment building in lower Manhattan isn’t the most obvious place for sustainable architecture. But the Visionaire, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli isn’t on normal terrain—it’s in Battery Park City, a rare example of thoroughly executed American planning. Due to that planning process, a seemingly typical apartment building became a testing ground for urban green architecture.
Based on what you have seen and read about this project, how would you grade it? Use the stars below to indicate your assessment, five stars being the highest rating.
Battery Park City, a 92-acre parcel on Manhattan’s southwest corner, was created from landfill between 1972 and 1976. In 1979, a Cooper-Eckstut master plan was enacted, calling for a combined residential and commercial space, with an emphasis on parks and retail space woven between the two. A major element of the district is the 1988 World Financial Center, designed by Cesar Pelli, FAIA. A collection of four large office towers, the design attempted to bring the out-scaled World Trade Center into a cohesive context and helped to define Battery Park City as a important commercial district.
In the late 1990s, the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), used a short lull in the site’s frenetic construction schedule to develop a set of building guidelines to promote sustainability. Working within the guidelines, Pelli’s firm (now Pelli Clarke Pelli) would come to define Battery Park City’s next era as well, designing three major residential towers over the course of six years—the Solaire (2003, the first project done according to the guidelines), the Verdesian (2006), and now the Visionaire.
The guidelines are divided into five sections: energy efficiency; enhanced indoor-environment quality; conserving materials and resources; education, oper-ations, and maintenance; and water conservation and site management. Susan Kaplan, director of sustainability for the BPCA, emphasizes that they are meant to be realistic goals, integral to the construction process, not subsidized wishful thinking. (Of course, the prices the area commands make up-front investments considerably easier—the Visionaire’s units start at $690,000 for a studio and go as high as $6.2 million for the top-floor penthouse.)
Pelli Clarke Pelli project lead Craig Copeland, AIA, continually refers to the building’s shape and exterior cladding as the primary victories over code constraints. Instead of the basic box massing suggested in the master plan, they designed a smooth arc, which gleams obliquely against the linearity of the neighborhood. By meeting with the BPCA early and often, they were able to convince them that the tower would be in keeping with the surroundings, despite its striking shape.
The exterior of the building is also notable for its curtainwall—a combination of low-emissivity glass and a terracotta rainscreen. This strategy differed from the standard brick block construction in the district, where 30 percent of the exterior is mandated opaque by code. The faceted detailing of the terracotta rainscreen resonated with the aesthetic context of the district, but served a functional purpose as well, allowing the facade to achieve a thermal break between interior and exterior, facilitating more efficient heating and cooling.
Interior climate strategies were another key component of the building’s sustainable program. The goal of delivering fresh, filtered air to every room was met by a central air-distribution system in each unit, using an energy-efficient four-pipe fan-coil system that passes air over pipes filled with heated or cooled water. Environmental consultant Atelier Ten created computer models of the apartments to develop ventilation strategies.
Water conservation was also integral to the Visionaire’s sustainable efforts. All building fixtures reduce use of potable water, and a blackwater treatment system means that all toilet water in the building is recycled, treated wastewater. Stormwater collection reserves irrigate the green roofs, which cover 70 percent of the roof surface of the building. Additionally, a natural gas-powered microturbine on the structure’s roof harnesses its own waste energy to heat water.
The building saves an estimated 42 percent in energy costs against a base-line average. This is largely the result of efficient building systems and the building envelope. But the goal was achieved through exhaustive attention to detail: Atelier Ten’s John An explains how the team examined the insulation around each pipe—a seemingly small detail which added up to a strategy of thoroughness. Small steps like that one, he says, led to the overall success of the project.
At the same time, a few measures in the building can be read as more superficial. The building’s crown of photovoltaics was designed to be more of a “sign” of sustainability than actually functional—blue PVs, less efficient than their black counterparts, were chosen so they could be seen more clearly from the ground. The PVs were modeled to supply about 5 percent of peak electrical demand, but in practice the number is probably lower according to most involved. Along those lines, details like the bamboo fascia around unit doors and the “sustainable furnishings” in some of the shared spaces also attempt to trumpet the structure’s green credentials. Such concessions to style over substance feel as if they could only occur in these lofty, well-financed Manhattan realms.
But, ultimately, a bamboo fascia is better than an endangered tropical wood one. And the details, even if they are occasionally heavy-handed, speak to an impressive culture that developed—every person at every level seemed cognizant of how their small decisions would affect the totality of the building’s goals. John An was so impressed with the process that he bought a unit in the building and, after a few months, is quite pleased with his decision. “Any new building goes through a break-in period,” he says, “but it’s been a great place to live.”