From Boho to Depot: A young firm revamps the lower floors of a landmark building into a green supply store.
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With its typical city brick facade and sandstone base, the five-story edifice at 222 Bowery in Manhattan is easy to overlook. But the landmark building has a history of use that reflects the gritty—and quirky—character of its Bowery neighborhood. Over 125 years, it has served as NYC’s first branch of the YMCA, an X-ray equipment manufacturer, a restaurant supply store, a meditation center for Tibetan Buddhists, and an enclave for freethinking artists and writers, including William S. Burroughs. In fact, some still live and work there today—poet and resident John Giorno was a main advocate for landmarking the building. In early 2009, the LEED-Platinum-certified Green Depot moved in, an appropriate tenant considering the building’s progressive pedigree.
The Green Depot was created in 2005 “as a one-stop shop for green building materials,” according to Sarah Beatty, LEED AP, the president and founder of the company. “So we wanted the flagship store to exemplify the spirit of what green building can and should be,” she says. The first consumer-focused store had to reflect the essence of the hyper-green brand and also educate the customer on sustainable building. When the design firm Mapos was commissioned for the project, the challenge was to achieve the branding goals of the client, while respecting the cultural and historical significance of the site. Not to mention that it was the firm’s first LEED project and the owner specified an ambitious Platinum target.
The client chose to renovate as a testament to the company ethos of reuse, and chose the site for its colorful history. Luckily, Mapos’s office was just around the corner, so the firm’s co-founders, Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena, were able to fully participate in every step, including an intense photo study during the demolition process to determine what materials could be salvaged. “As architects, the first step is to reuse and recycle as much as possible,” Mulvena explains. Almost 90 percent of the existing interior elements were reused, but not without stripping away decades of accumulated finishes and other urban dross. The firm worked with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to remove signage, paint, graffiti, and steel trusses from the corroded storefront, revealing the original Queen Ann-style facade.
For the interior, Mapos worked to incorporate elements that were site-specific for a customized style that Mulvena calls a “raw, warehouse aesthetic.” The old YMCA gymnasium floor was one of the gems revealed during the demolition process, along with an existing concrete and tile floor in one of the bathrooms. Structural treasures in the basement included a filled-in swimming pool and the old gym locker room, which now respectively serve as the storage room and manager’s office, both with original tiling still intact.
Beyond resource reuse, “a central issue for Green Depot was to help the customers understand what it means to be green and how to lead a more sustainable lifestyle,” explains Brice. Upon entering, for example, mobile samples of wall sections show off their material composition. “We took a cue from the artist Gordon Matta-Clark to take slices as if they were cut out of buildings, showcasing how the materials are actually put together in real form,” says Brice.
Flexibility and scalability were crucial for the fixtures, most of which are composed of oriented strand board (OSB) and colorful, low-VOC laminate for a “pop of color” on the surface edges. A hanging contraption designed to showcase carpets currently features window options; slats of FSC-certified two-by-fours create wall surfaces to hang anything from floor and tile samples to cabinetry; and the modular floor fixtures are constantly moved around.
One customer favorite is the light booth where people can actually test paint chips or flooring samples with different bulbs. The lighting of the store itself was designed to be more than 50 percent better than ASHRAE standards. Dozens of recycled-paper fixtures hover above the sales floor in the shape of the store logo with custom LED spotlights dangling elsewhere. In addition to lighting, the store has also reduced water and HVAC energy consumption. Split system chillers are mounted on the roof, but the older systems for the rest of the building posed a real challenge for the MEP engineer. Methodically determining which pipes were active or dead, and then threading a duct through the “spider web” of metal built up over the decades was like “mechanical yoga,” says Brice. Initially, the team hoped to use waste heat from an old furnace for the water, but realized the effort would not be rewarded with LEED credits (having already maxed out on innovation points). They were disappointed that bureaucratic limitations forced them to bring in new units.
“The complexities of being in a very old co-op make some parts of this project nearly impossible to plug into a typical LEED spreadsheet,” says Mulvena. But it also provided creative inspiration. All in all, the store is a great success story for the firm’s first LEED project, and a testament that a landmark structure can incorporate modern design while still honoring the past.