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The Center of Excellence sits on a brownfield site planted with local florae.


Center of Excellence

Toshiko Mori
Syracuse, New York

The Center of the Universe: A Toshiko Mori Architect-designed center for environmental systems testing helps green the Rust Belt.

By Asad Syrkett
November 2011

The clamorous convergence of elevated highways I-81 and I-690, in the upstate city of Syracuse, New York, would be rather unremarkable were it not for the glass-fronted building nestled in the nook the interchange creates. This angular structure is the new Toshiko Mori Architect (TMA)-designed building for the ambitiously named Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems (CoE), established in 2002. Much of Mori's work plays with contrasts in materiality: immense concrete and lightweight glass make equal appearances in her studio's commercial, residential, and institutional work. In this way, the CoE—which functions as both a test lab and a kind of green showroom hosting educational sessions and guided tours—is no different. What sets it apart from other Mori works is its careful integration of myriad sustainable bells and whistles and its clever reuse and renewal of a brownfield site.


Location Syracuse, New York (Lake Ontario watershed)

Gross area 55,000 ft2

Cost $27 million

Completed September 2010

Annual purchased energy use (based on simulation) 58 kBtu/ft2 (657 MJ/m2), 54% reduction from base case

Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 12 lbs. CO2/ft2 (57 kg CO2/m2)

Program Offices, laboratories, classrooms


Glass St. Gobaine Eklite; PPG; Solera (spandrels)

Carpet InterfaceFLOR

Raised floor system Tate Flooring

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Center of Excellence
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"Syracuse is the center of the universe," declares Ed Bogucz, facilities director at the CoE, referring hyperbolically to the city's relative proximity—about 250 miles—to many of North America's major eastern metropolitan areas, including Toronto and New York City. The Erie Canal once ran through the heart of the city to Lake Erie, where it terminated after transporting manufactured goods and other cargo through New York State. This section of the canal route, which ran to the immediate north of the CoE, has since been paved over and repurposed as Canal Street, named in honor of the historic waterway that once flowed there.

The site of the 55,000-square-foot, $27 million CoE was once home to another piece of Syracuse history—the L.C. Smith typewriter factory. But the rapid ascendance of the word processor in the 1980s saw the equally precipitous decline of the typewriter, and thus, L.C. Smith manufacturing in Syracuse. When the company moved, it left Syracuse its industrial legacy and a plot of enormously contaminated land. "It basically had been a dumping ground for the industrial facilities," says TMA project architect Josh Uhl. "We started off with a map, trying to plot out the extent of the contamination with the hope that we were minimizing the footprint [on] polluted soils. It turns out it was even more extensive than any of us even realized." Along with asbestos, deposits of chromium and petroleum were found in the soil. Much of the building is cantilevered off the ground, Uhl explains, in part to stay up and away from tainted sections of the site, while accommodating the CoE's packed program.

"Packed," though, only begins to describe the CoE's program and the numerous sustainable strategies it employs. The building houses offices, meeting rooms, and, true to its name, several spaces for testing indoor air quality and heating/cooling systems. These tests aim to monitor the way HVAC systems affect occupants' comfort and productivity in offices and other interior spaces. Exterior air quality and atmospheric conditions are also measured. "We've got instruments at different heights measuring wind speed and [exterior] temperature and humidity," Bogucz explains, pointing to a cellular tower-like device on the eastern end of the site, visible beyond the local flowers and grasses at the site's western edge. These meadow-like patches were teeming with bees and other insects on a recent visit. The grass pitched and bowed in a not-so-gentle breeze. "The idea is to let this be a habitat," says Bogucz, emphasizing the need for "real green" on the site. More "real green" appears on the massive ground level to third-level, ramp-roof hybrid, which is planted with spongy sedum and mosses that slow run-off and provide rainwater retention.

The entrance to the CoE is tucked to the north of this swooping structure, beneath the prominent cantilevered mass, and leads to an open, day-lit foyer. Brightly colored didactic panels line the walls as though in a children's museum. In fact, many areas have this effect, having been installed with museum-like glass panes that allow views into adjacent operations rooms. An 8,000-gallon tank that collects roof melt and rainwater and provides all water for the building's low-flow toilets and exterior irrigation is, for example, visible through an entry-level viewing glass. Exploratory research, also conducted at the CoE, is supported by the collaboration of public, private, and academic enterprises. Fostering this sort of cooperative research is part and parcel of the CoE mission, says Bogucz. He also cites Syracuse's extreme seasonal temperatures—below zero degrees in the winter and as warm as the high nineties in the summer—as boons for environmental-systems testing. "If it works in Syracuse, it'll work anywhere."

Public access and education is another crucial component of the CoE program, and the second-floor conference room and public gathering spaces facilitate talks and tours on sustainability. The second level also houses a mechanical equipment room that is occasionally opened for educational tours. "This is a Swiss watch of plumbing," says Bogucz, referring to the organized chaos of pipes for the building's hydronic heating and cooling systems. "We've got ground-source heat pumps that circulate water out to the ground and bring it back." A display case houses two conduits: water in and water out. Both are equipped with thermometers. "Somebody had this terrific idea," Bogucz explained, "that we should let tour groups touch the pipes, so they can feel the seven-degree temperature difference." Museum-style installations—about Syracuse's history, and paying homage to Willis Carrier, founder of the storied, formerly Syracuse-based air-handling company—line the public areas on the second floor. Up on the third floor, offices occupy the southern end of the building, with sweeping views to downtown Syracuse. Rows of sunlight-bathed, undivided desks line the floor, sitting below radiant heating and cooling panels, explains Arup's project manager and associate mechanical engineer David Dubrow. "We have displacement ventilation from an under-floor plenum and high-level return to a central shaft riser, which takes the air back to the outdoor unit on the first level," Dubrow explains. Corridors provide a barrier between the glassed-in offices and the outer facade. "The corridor provides additional buffer space. It's another strategy for reducing energy consumption," says Bogucz. And the corridors provide a kind of viewing platform from which to survey construction and other development in downtown Syracuse.

The sustainable building movement in the city can thank Mark Robbins, dean of Syracuse University's School of Architecture, for some of the momentum it has gathered in recent years. Since 2004, Robbins has been working with members of the Syracuse community, including Bogucz and other CoE staff, on a series of initiatives aimed at revitalizing decaying inner-city neighborhoods. "We need to broaden the bandwidth of the kinds of architecture and types of urban fabric that people see as worth saving," Robbins said. Though it is a separate enterprise, the CoE is a crucial part of the renewal effort, giving a face to the task of greening this Rust Belt city. Can the strategies the building uses rise above novelty and be applicable elsewhere? "Hello! Why does it take Michael Bloomberg for us to figure this out?" Toshiko Mori joked when asked about the New York City mayor's initiative to lower citywide solar-heat gain by painting the tops of its buildings white, deflecting the sun's rays. The CoE also makes use of this tactic. Coming down from the roof, Bogucz breathed a conclusive sigh. Then he offered a final word about the CoE's function as an interactive tool for learning: "We're like the Y. People come here, work out, and go back refreshed and ready to work harder."

Asad Syrkett is a New York Citybased writer and editorial assistant at Architectural Record.

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