February 25, 2008

Creating a Vision for NYC's 42nd Street

...and what a vision it is! I came across a group called Vision42 via NewPennStation.org (which is another site you should check out, by the way). According to their website:
"Vision42 is a citizens' initiative to re-imagine and upgrade surface transit in midtown Manhattan, with a low-floor light rail line running river-to-river along 42nd Street within a landscaped pedestrian boulevard."
This ambitious $510 million plan would close 42nd Street to car traffic and create two lanes of east/west-running light rail service to replace the current M42 bus service. Many New Yorkers would immediately object -- don't we already have a subway that runs east/west across 42nd Street? Indeed, that would be a valid protest, as the 7 Train has stops along 42nd Street at Grand Central, at Bryant Park (5th Ave & 6th Ave) and at Times Square (intersection of Broadway and 7th Ave). Additionally, there is shuttle subway service on 42nd Street between Grand Central and Times Square.

So why do New Yorkers need a light rail system on 42nd Street? Well, for starters none of the subway lines travel far enough east or west to provide adequate access to the riverfronts of the East River or Hudson River. The proposed light rail system could drop off passengers right at the footstep of ferry terminals and the waterfront. Additionally, the light rail system would provide a quicker, cleaner and more efficient east/west route than the M42 bus currently does (the M42 only travels about 2-3 mph during midday).

New Yorkers will primarily argue that the 7 Train Extension plan is currently underway (I mentioned it here back in May 2007), rendering some of the benefits of the light rail system obsolete. This plan calls for two new subway stations for the 7 Train along the west side of Manhattan -- one at 41st Street and 10th Ave, and another at 34th Street and 11th Ave. Currently, only the 34th St/11th Ave station is funded, and the 41st St/10th Ave station will not likely be built. Comparing the two maps above provides clear evidence of the benefits that the light rail system could provide. With so many more stops serving as access points, the light rail system would be far superior to the 7 Train in terms of ease of use and convenience.

Additionally, paraphrasing from the Vision42 website:
"New York City can finally have a 42nd Street that welcomes pedestrians with space, greenery, and amenities, combined with speedy and efficient river-to-river travel, via a modern, at-grade, low-floor light rail line.

Very little has been done over the past half century to improve our city's environment for either walking or surface transit. Forty-second Street—where half a million pedestrians come every day, and where pedestrians outnumber motorists by at least 5 to 1—is an excellent place to start!

Pairs of light rail stops would occur at each typical 800-foot avenue, resulting in twelve pairs of stops along the length of 42nd Street, plus two pairs at each of the far eastern and western ends along the rivers."
According to Vision42, the benefits of their proposal are many:
  • Pedestrian Space: Pedestrians at street level on 42nd Street outnumber motorists 5-to-1, however, about 60 percent of street space is currently allocated to motor traffic. Vision42 calls this "gross imbalance" "unproductive" due to slow-moving traffic. Their plan would contribute to continued sustainability and livability on the street.
  • Economic Benefits: Vision42 projects $3.5 billion of increased commercial property values along the 42nd Street corridor as a result of improved crosstown accessibility. the corridor will also see an additional economic/fiscal benefit of $1 billion annually.

  • Efficiency & Environmental Benefits: The light rail system will be operational three years after the start of construction, which is very quick for a public transportation project in NYC. The system could utilize fuel cell technology, making it the first of its type, which would result in an extremely clean transportation option.

  • Future Benefits: Adding light rail along 34th Street to create a 42nd/34th Street loop would interface well for ferry service (see map below), while providing service to areas along the waterfronts that are projected to have new high-density development in the future, and which are currently long walks from existing rail transit.

A revised cost estimate was released on February 8, 2008 and is available here... the maximum total project cost is about $510 million in 2007 dollars, although it could be as low as . Vision42 notes that their plan is not entirely new, however. In fact, it builds upon a proposed 1994 plan that called for 42nd Street to be split lengthwise into a vehicular passageway covering the northern half of the street, and a light rail system operating east/west and covering the southern half of the street. While this plan generated support at the time, no action was ever taken to achieve the proposed goals.

As Vision42 notes, the inclusion of vehicular traffic in the 1994 plan did not provide for any improvement for pedestrian walking space. Without cars operating on 42nd Street, the Vision42 planners feel their proposal is far superior to the 1994 plan and will allow for the light rail trains to operate more freely, while providing an improved pedestrian experience. Traffic concerns are actually limited, and were most recently summarized in October 2006 -- they can be found here (full report here).

If this sounds like a plan you approve of or would like to support, Vision42 requests that you sign this petition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which asks the "City of New York to seriously consider the vision42 plan as a dynamic alternative to the continued dysfunctional condition of surface transit and the walking environment on this very central street of our city and region." Please visit the Vision42 website to learn more about this unique plan for a livable 42nd Street.

Architectural Undertones Shine Through in new MoMA Exhibit

A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC titled “Design and the Elastic Mind” seems crammed with architectural undertones and it is an exhibit that I hope to see very soon. According to a NYTimes review by Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Design and the Elastic Mind” is “revolutionary” and “packed with individual works of sublime beauty.”

An online portion of the exhibition is available on MoMA’s website here, and it is certainly presented in an interesting manner, albeit overwhelming. The online exhibition encourages viewers to think of each piece of art as connected to the others somehow, using catch-phrases like “algorithm,” “nature,” and “architecture.” Users can actually click on those connection words and they will be directed to related pieces. Each piece is categorized under a label such as “Thinkering,” “People and Objects,” “Design for Debate,” or “Super Nature.” In the website’s introduction, the exhibit is described as follows:
“It focuses on designers' ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and social mores, changes that will demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior, and convert them into objects and systems that people understand and use.”
Later the introduction reads:

“Of particular interest will be the exploration of the relationship between design and science and the approach to scale.”
More and more often these days, we hear similar statements made by architects who design homes, museums, parks, and other spaces – social changes and revolutions in technology are becoming the driving forces behind design trends. Perhaps these changes are simply such large parts of our lives that it is inevitable for them to present themselves throughout our daily life in various facets of design.

One interesting piece from this exhibit is the Mercedes-Benz Bionic Car. Filed under “Super Nature > Biomimicry,” the so-called bionic Benz is actually modeled after a boxfish, a fish chosen for being “angular yet elegant” and “streamlined for easy maneuverability.” Engineers used bionic modeling to create the design for this car, which was introduced as a concept in 2005. The car itself is constructed of hexagonal plates – just like the bony structure of the boxfish – making it very lightweight but rigid and safe.

Similar design features are seen in another piece titled “New City” by Imaginary Forces, by Peter Frankfurt, Greg Lynn and Alex McDowell. It is described by Ouroussoff as “a projected three dimensional display of a virtual world [and] a model of an idealized society where buildings, cities and entire geographic regions all flow seamlessly together. It suggests how the Internet could be used as a testing ground for an emerging utopia.” Designed for the exhibition, this series of pieces is presented as a web-based virtual laboratory focusing on challenges associated with visualization, architecture, design, information, simulation, and experience.

“Contour Crafting,” by Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California, takes a look at a new “mega-scale fabrication process” that utilizes automated construction of large structures. Similar to prefabricated housing, “Contour Crafting” is a process that would create large-scale building blocks for construction projects of various sizes. This unique construction method is automated process that allows components of a home, for example, to be quickly constructed fully complete – with plumbing and electrical utilities embedded in the structure – and architecturally unique. Khoshnevis notes that this process would be “profound for emergency-shelter construction” and “one of the very few feasible approaches for building on the moon or Mars.” Sure, this piece of the exhibit is a bit sci-fi, but the concept behind it is more than relevant with respect to today’s changes in construction techniques – I’ve written here previously about the usefulness of prefabricated homes, and “Contour Crafting” is simply a next step.

Another architectural design in the exhibition is “Emergent Surface,” by Chuck Hoberman, Matthew Davis, Ziggy Drozdowski, and David Wright. “Emergent Surfaces” is a series of connected surfaces that, according to the MoMA website can line up to present themselves with “minimal visual presence,” or alternatively, extend to form a curvilinear wall. The surface could prove useful by providing shelter or by filtering visual and physical communication between building interiors and the outside world. Filed under “People and Objects > Responsive Design,” this transformable design structure certainly hits on the “elastic” portion of this exhibit, since it is not only flexible in its use but also it is also able to physically change forms between a solid facade and seemingly fancy set of louvers.

Yet the exhibition may miss the mark in some of its pieces. Although I have not spent time examining each and every piece, one that sticks out as being somewhat distracting is “Chocolate Nipples” by Ana Mir of Spain. The chocolate replicas are just what you would expect, and they simply seem out of place at an exhibit such as this. According to the online portion of the exhibition, “Ana Mir celebrates the importance of a mental, spiritual, and sensorial dimension in architecture and design. Her objects have a strong physical and erotic quality.” These chocolate nipples are erotic, but to me I just don’t see them celebrating the importance of architecture or design in any way.

Like I said, I am very excited to see this exhibition at MoMA soon. According to Ouroussoff, “'Design and the Elastic Mind' is the most uplifting show MoMA’s architecture and design department has presented since the museum reopened in 2004.” If that doesn’t make you want to check it out, I guess there’s always the recently-opened New Museum, which I hear contains artwork even weirder than anyone I know can handle. At the very least, “Design and the Elastic Mind” will get you thinking about the how we adapt with regard to technology, as well as that elusive relationship between design, science, and scale.

February 13, 2008

Mile-Long Bridge in Dubai is an Architectural Dream

When I say that the Dubai Creek 6th Crossing is an "architectural dream," I don't mean it in the bad way, like "Oh, yeah, the bridge is so ridiculous, it is just an architectural dream." No, no, no. I mean, it is like an architect dreamed this up one night after a bottle of red wine, and now it will actually be built -- THAT kind of dream. A dream project. Just look at it... it looks like something you'd see a Hollywood mega-director create for a film like I-Robot or A.I. using CGI.

Someone at NYC-based FXFowle Architects actually will see his/her dream come to life as this unbelievable project is constructed over the next four years. Dubai, the city of dreams located in the United Arab Emirates, is known for over-the-top construction projects. In 2012, the Dubai Creek 6th Bridge should be complete and will become yet another landmark for the sprawling city, which is undergoing a level of development that is simply unheard of anywhere else in the world.

Dubai is already home to the world's tallest skyscraper (Burj Dubai), the world's tallest and first and only 7-star hotel (Burj Al Arab), and multiple man-made islands (The Palm Juneirah, The Palm Jebel Ali, and The Palm Deira making up The Palm Islands, as well as The World Islands archipelago). According to the FXFowle website, the mile-long Dubai Creek 6th Bridge will stand 205 m (673 ft.) tall with an arch stretching 667 m (2,188 ft.), making it the "largest and tallest spanning arch bridge in the world."

According to Arabianbusiness.com, at 64 m wide, this bridge will contain 12 lanes of vehicular traffic, a metro rail line (the green line) running down the center of the bridge, and it will carry a pricetag of $816 million. The bridge will link the Bur Dubai area with Deira area of the city, which are separated by the Dubai Creek, and the project also includes a small man-made island in the center of the bridge that will become home to an opera house.

This project is part of a 13-year, $22 billion pulic transportation project in Dubai, which is expected to be complete by 2020. The bridge will become the sixth crossing of the Dubai Creek, joining four other bridges and one tunnel.
This bridge is a true beauty, and projects like this can really only happen in a place like Dubai, where money is no option. Aside from its height and length, which will make it a worldwide landmark by default, I believe that the Dubai Creek 6th Crossing will be an architectural landmark for many years to come based solely on its dream-like design. Congratulations to FXFowle Architects on this creative accomplishment.

January 31, 2008

UPDATE: The Effect of Rising Construction Costs

Coincidentally, The Real Deal just posted an article titled: "Spitzer: state "struggling" with runaway building costs" at about 3:30pm today, only a few hours after I posted about rising construction costs.

The governor addressed the New York Building Congress today at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel and discussed a few of the impacts of rising construction costs. In fact, he called escalating construction spending the state's biggest problem. According to Spitzer, one effect that we already know of is the elimination of expansion plans for The Javits Center, and as I noted, the MTA's capital projects are also in peril due to large growth in building costs primarily related to commodity price increases. Increasingly, Spitzer said, only one bid is submitted for large contracts that city and state goverments have been bidding -- it is nearly impossible to successfully complete construction projects this way.

An MTA spokesman also mentioned that the MTA's panel on construction excellence will report in February its recommendations for new ideas to control costs on its capital projects. Hopefully, as I discussed in my piece earlier today, major decreases in project scale will not be their solution.

January 27, 2008

The Effect of Rising Construction Costs

I don't pretend that I am a breaking news kind of blogger. Rarely, if ever, do I write about something that people are shocked to read. Rather, I tend to comment on what is going on around me based on my observations and based on what I've been hearing and reading. Recently, I've been reading a lot about rising construction costs, and the effect that this is having on development. I'll tell you this: it's a negative effect.

On Saturday the NYTimes had an article in its U.S. News section discussing this very issue, specifically mentioning the impact that rising construction costs are having on state and local budgets. Although I figured that the problem of rising construction costs may be having its largest impact in NYC, in fact it turns out that this problem is showing its face all across the nation.

But I was right in my thinking on one hand, since construction in NYC costs more than construction in other areas. That's a fact. So the effect of rising material costs, for instance, impacts building in NYC more than in other areas of the country. I think it will be interesting to see what impact rising construction costs will have on developers who are trying desperately to begin work on buildings in NYC that hope to qualify under 421a partial tax exemption before changes go into effect on June 30, 2008.

Of course, the NYTimes article primarily focuses on state and local governments dealing with rising costs related to projects in the infrastructure domain more than residential building. Well we sure are seeing a lot of that in NYC also. Scopes of work for projects such as the Second Avenue Subway line and the Fulton Street Transit Center are being re-thought and dramatically cut back to account for these cost increases. According to AMNY, the MTA insists that these capital projects will continue, but simply progress at a slower pace. Unfortunately, I strongly believe that the MTA will potentially be the hardest-hit constructor in coming months and years, simply due to the tremendous scope of their various projects, which include:
Those five project alone are costing the MTA and NYC many billions of dollars to build -- after rising material costs begin to kick in (in fact, they are already starting to kick in, with steel prices that already shot up 91% and concrete prices that increased 25%, reports The Daily News), the rate of construction for these mega-projects will slow down and/or the scope of these projects will be scaled back even more significantly. Perhaps the MTA has simply bitten off more than it can chew?

Clearly, the MTA has accepted this situation and is taking steps to remedy the situation. Its plan for scaling back the Second Avenue Subway line includes removing a third track in the uptown section of the line from the scope of work, which would be used to allow functional trains to bypass stalled trains. Luckily, no subway stations will be removed from the current plans. Similarly, plans for the $750 million Fulton Street Transit Center are being scaled back -- most notably, a large dome planned for the roof of the hub will not be constructed.

Both of those changes shouldn't have a notable impact on the functionality of either project. The Second Avenue Subway will still be constructed with the same number of stations as planned, providing much-needed relief for east side commuters. The Fulton Street Transit Center is still progressing and the finished product will undoubtedly revolutionize underground transport in lower Manhattan by linking twelve subway lines (2, 3, 4, 5, J, M, Z, A, C, E, R, and W) and the PATH train. But what about the future? If costs continue to rise, will these projects be scaled back further? At what cost are New Yorkers willing to endure years of construction only to face the reality of completed projects that do not live up to expectations?

Second Avenue Sagas writes, "Clearly, the MTA needs to find a balance between building a functional transit system under budget and constructing something that looks nice." His article focused on the addition of porcelain and granite tiles at the 59th St./Columbus Circle subway station, which is currently undergoing the final stages of renovations. "How do you balance form, function and visual appeal?" he asks. His question is a valid one. People will never be happy with construction projects that only provide functionality and no sense of form or visual appeal.

I have another question to ask, which doesn't quite apply to the MTA's projects: How do you balance form, function, visual appeal AND environmental-consciousness? Will rising construction costs play a role in the development of green buildings? Creating a building in any city that meets LEED standards adds to the cost of construction -- period. If the cost to construct a building now rises X% due to a massive surge material costs, will developers be able to afford the improvements that help to keep the building in the "green" category, and will they be able to spend money to achieve LEED certification?

I truly think that only time will tell. It is so difficult to predict the potential impact that rising costs will have, especially since nobody knows where the ceiling is -- that is, nobody knows just how much these costs will increase or how high they'll go. In a year, I could be writing an article identical to this one, describing yet another year of rising construction costs. Then again, I could be writing about enormous scope increases for various projects due to decreases in costs. I admit, that is unlikely to happen, but anything is possible.

As an engineer, I can live with construction projects that are cost worthy due to their functionality, so cutbacks like those at the planned Fulton Street Transit Center and the planned Second Avenue Subway line aren't too worrisome to me. However, if the same issues are plaguing projects a few months or a year from now, then I will have a serious problem -- because at that point, serious scope decreases will occur that will impact the functionality of those projects. Already, we know that the MTA's 7 Line Extension project will have one less station than originally planned. I would be a very unhappy New Yorker if I hear in a few months that the Fulton Street Transit Center will connect fewer subway lines than the current plan calls for, or if the Second Avenue Subway line will not end up with stations at sites that are currently in the plan.

But I won't get worked up over hypotheticals like that just yet. Plans aren't being scrapped just yet, and let's be honest... do we really need all that retail space at the Fulton Street Hub? For now, I'll keep an eye on things and you can sleep well tonight knowing I'm watching over NYC construction like a hawk. I'll be sure to let you know if there are any developments -- no pun intended -- with regard to increasing construction costs and the effect that will have on projects in this area.

January 8, 2008

Pre-Fab Homes as Art

There has been a good deal of buzz recently about pre-fabricated/modular homes -- specifically, people are talking about pre-fabs as art as well as some pretty cool design advancements. Let's back up a bit first. Some of you may not know what a pre-fabricated home is... Wikipedia has a nice definition here. They sound sort of... to put it nicely... lame, right? Still don't get it? Try this site, which will give you a glimpse of what is possible with pre-fab.

I didn't think much about pre-fabricated homes until my college roommate, who actually studied architecture, showed me a project he was working on to design his own modular home. He gave me a brief lesson of what modular/pre-fab housing is, but I came away from his tutorial with a lot more respect for the concept of pre-fabricated homes. He explained that there is currently a revolution occurring in this industry, especially in the modernist genre. Before I learned about pre-fab from him, frankly, I figure pre-fab homes were only for people living in trailer parks.

But what makes pre-fab homes so interesting to me [now] is how versatile they are and more importantly, how inexpensive they are. These homes, many of which utilize very cool designs, can be combined to create truly incredible houses for a fraction of the cost and footprint of a traditional home. I had just never realized that those long, narrow homes I had always seen being transported on highways by "WIDE LOAD" trailers could become such beautiful residences. Take The Dwell Home, designed by Resolution: 4 Architecture for example -- this pre-fab is certainly a place I would be happy living in.

Like I said, pre-fabricated homes are relatively inexpensive, quick to build, and require minimal land. That makes them perfect for individuals who would like to own a nice home with a great design, but simply cannot afford one. These days, architects and designers are pushing the limits with regard to the traditional idea of pre-fab. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC has decided to showcase this revolution in pre-fabricated home design beginning July 20 in an exhibition titled Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling in the vacant lot next to the museum.

The NYTimes wrote about the exhibit earlier this month. In that article Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the museum, said that this exhibition really begins this month, because an important part of this exhibit is the process of creating these homes. In February, foundations will be laid in the lot, and from then until July the projects will be built. In June, the houses will arrive on site -- so off-site assembly, along with delivery of the homes, is an important part of this exhibition. Mr. Bergdoll is quotes in the NYTimes saying, "Once the house is here, it becomes a static event. What we're really celebrating is how it came into being."

An article at Greenbuildingsnyc.com mentions the focus this exhibition will have on on sustainable design in an article on its site titles "Green Meets Prefab in Midtown." As Greenbuildingsnyc.com notes, Richard Horden's Micro Compact Home, or "m-ch" is of particular interest -- this design has been in production in Europe for more than 2 years. His company, Micro Compact Home Ltd. has designed these miniature 2.6 square meter-footprint dwellings as:
"...an answer to an increasing demand for short stay living for students, business people, sports and leisure use and for weekenders... Living in an m-ch means focusing on the essential - less is more."

In November 2005, Horden built a small village at Technical University in Munich called the 02 Student Village, which was designed to live 6 students alongside Professor Horden. As described on the Micro Compact Home website,
"Each 2.65m cube features high technology, including broadband and standard internet links a plasma screen and high quality kitchen and bathroom appliances... The 02 student village of micro-compact homes at the Technical University of Munich has proved so successful that all six students living there have extended their stay for the full academic year."
Very impressive! This project serves as a testament to the potential that pre-fabricated homes hold for us in the future. Years from now, it is possible that everyone may live in some type of pre-fab home.

Also this month, at the Consumer Electronics Show, television manufacturer Olevia showcased a very interesting concept. Inhabitat wrote earlier this month about the exhibit, which demonstrated how Olevia products can be a part of a green living situation. Olevia displayed its flat-panel low-energy televisions in pre-fab homes designed by Los Angeles-based Logical Homes, which can be delivered in pieces that come in a single shipping container. The homes can be constructed in just a few days -- think of the tremendous use this could prove in a place like New Orleans, where new homes cannot be built quickly enough! Of course, pre-fabs like these would need to be constructed a few feet above ground on stilts to account for the potential of flooding, but the concept remains the same. Inhabitat writes a lot about pre-fabricated homes and I would encourage you to check out their site. Also, they have a good list of their top-10 pre-fabs here with plenty of photos.

And finally, I just had to mention this Oregon pre-fab studio that I came across on Inhabitat that really blew me away. It's not particularly large, and its design isn't particularly great. But the Watershed studio by FLOAT architectural research and design is another pre-fab that serves multiple purposes. Besides having a limited impact on its surroundings in a beautiful Oregon wetlands location, the 100 sqft Watershed home provides one writer with a small space to experience the ecological restoration and wildlife of that area. From the FLOAT website:
"The writing studio is designed to reveal the ecological complexity of the site to visitors and in this way it is successful: Small tunnels under the studio bring rare reptiles and amphibians into view through the floor-level window. The water collection basin that doubles as the front step draws in birds and deer. At midday, the silhouettes of these animals project from the water onto the interior ceiling. Windows on the west and north sides frame different bird habitats—the tops of fence row trees and the patch of sky at a hilltop updraft. The roof diaphragm amplifies rain sounds and the collection basin is a measure of past rainfall."
It's simply brilliant. And of course, coinciding with today's focus on sustainable design and minimal ecological impact, the studio has an "ultra-light" footprint and is completely recyclable so that when the project is finished, the materials can be reused. Imagine truly being in touch with nature -- besides camping, this studio is the best way to do so that I have ever heard of. Of course, there is no major electricity or plumbing way out there, so it's not a full home that one could live in full-time, but maybe someday I'll build one of these for myself as a weekend vacation spot where I could go to relax and think. Hey, I can dream, right?

Pre-fabricated construction is certainly experiencing a revolution these days. Between pre-fab as art, modernist pre-fab designs, pre-fab ultra-light footprints and even pre-fabricated villages, it is clear that we will be seeing more and more in the way of pre-fabricated living. And no, we don't all have to move into trailer parks.

January 3, 2008

Tower of Tomorrow

After a month-long hiatus, I am back with a vengeance. Okay... maybe I don't have a vengeance, but as my high school football coach used to say, now I'm "cooking with gas." Did you think I was gone for good? That's crazy-talk. I've got a bunch of posts lined up and although I've been busy at work, I am determined to continue with The Marshall Plan. I started writing here ONE YEAR AGO. It's hard to imagine... happy anniversary to me! Hurray! Okay, enough gloating, it's time to get started.

I came across an article about a very cool building design today on a website that's new to me called Inhabitat, which seems to focus on "green" architecture and construction. The building is titled the Tower of Tomorrow, because the design calls for this project to produce its very own power -- talk about sustainable design! Inhabitat links from Fortune, which actually has an 11-page article about this building, complete with renderings and lots of details. You really have to check it out.

This building was designed by William McDonough, founder and principal of William McDonough & Partners, who notes that the tower "actually imitates nature" and "is like a tree." McDonough, born in Tokyo in 1951, is no stranger to green architecture/design -- in 1977 he was the first person to design a solar-powered home, which was located in Ireland. Fortune Magazine calls him the "father of green design," and Inhabitat even calls McDonough's newest design a "treescraper." Some of the design aspects in this Tower of Tomorrow that contribute to the idea of sustainable design and art imitating nature include:

  • Curved forms (which increase structural structural stability, maximize enclosed space, reduce construction material needs, and diffuse the impact of wind via aerodynamics -- hey, I studied aerodynamics!)

  • Treetops (instead of rooftops, ground cover on the building's roof helps to regulate temperature, protect waterproof coatings, and absorb/clean storm water)

  • Atriums (a series of three-story atriums lines the western facade of the building, while the northern facade consists of clear glass covered with positively-charged moss -- the atrium plants clean interior air, and the mosses actually absorb particulates in the air)

  • Water treatment (greenhouse gardens cleanse the building's water, recycling it for drinking or non-potable usage)

  • Design for location (the building's shape and orientation are specifically designed for its site, allowing for maximum sunlight capture from the park at the southern elevation and maximum sunlight exposure at street level)

  • Solar power (all that extra sunlight hitting the building due to the park located to the south can be collected by 100,000 sqft of photovoltaic panels lining the building's southern elevation)

  • Building skin (layered materials form the exterior structure of this tower and each layer serves a purpose, whether it be weatherization, insulation, or transparency)

  • Energy-saving workspaces (air is distributed underneath the floor rather than overhead, and devices monitor the presence of humans and adjust light/heat accordingly)

  • Recyclable materials ("cradle-to-cradle" -- a new concept whereby construction materials and building furnishings can be returned to the earth or reused)

  • Recycling energy (a heat-and-power plant will operate at 90% efficiency to provide energy that the solar panels cannot, and underground wells work with a system that circulates heat-absorbing liquid)

Is this building just a concept? Yes. But it is 100% possible to construct using these ideas. In fact, the Bank of America Tower is currently under construction on the northwest corner of Bryant Park in NYC and will utilize a handful of these ideas when it opens in 2009 -- the BofA Tower will be the first high-rise building to be certified LEEDS Platinum. Some of those ideas are currently utilized in buildings like the Hearst Building and the New York Times Building in NYC, both of which have received LEEDS certification. For more on LEEDS certification, check out the United States Green Building Council's website.

Of course, the Tower of Tomorrow would far surpass the BofA Tower, Hearst Building, or NYTimes Building in terms of "green" design. However, architects and building owners must ask themselves, at what cost does sustainable and environmentally-friendly design become inefficient? If, for example, the design features that would make the Tower of Tomorrow such a "green" building cost an extra $200 million (that's just a shot-in-the-dark guess value of mine by the way), would the money be better spent if it were invested in research for alternative energies? Perhaps, but it is difficult to say for sure. The first thought that comes to mind with regard to that question is the simple fact that alternative energy research would not yield results for many years, possibly decades (and maybe never), while sinking the cost into construction of a building would yield results in just a few years.

Regardless, McDonough set the bar very high for his peers with this most recent design, and that is what today's development climate needs most -- a challenge. In this video McDonough discusses his thought process behind the Tower of Tomorrow. "Design is the first signal of human intention, and it leaves behind a legacy," he says. "Our goal is very simple. It is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, soil, water and power -- economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed. Period."

McDonough also says he draws inspiration from his children. "What kind of world do we want to leave them? Do we want to leave them a tragic world, or a world full of hope?" Bow tie aside, McDonough definitely challenges the common citizen to perform at a higher level on a day-to-day basis, and to have fun while doing so. His design for the Tower of Tomorrow provides evidence that he is challenging himself to think towards the future, and in doing so he has created a stunning, beautiful concept of what skyscrapers in our world might look like not long from now.

November 28, 2007

Washington D.C.'s Newest Museum... Newseum

The title above may just be the best I have ever come up for a post here... okay, probably not, but I still like it, because it sounds borderline witty. However, the beautiful new museum in Washington D.C. that I walked past on Sunday is actually called Newseum because it's all about the news. That's right... a museum dedicated to "five centuries of news history," according to its website.

The 643,000 sq ft building, which is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth Street NW, caught my eye because it is quite large, shiny, and brand-spanking new... its doors have not opened yet and interior finish work is still being completed. I felt like a child amazed at a large shiny object, but when the seven-floor Newseum (a 250,000 sq ft chunk of the building... the rest is for a 24,000 sq ft multi-level conference center, a three-level Wolfgang Puck restaurant, offices and 140,000 sq ft of apartments spanning 12 floors) opens soon, it will surely impress all of its visitors.

The first aspect of the museum that caught my eye as I walked past was the massive 74-foot Tennessee marble wall engraved with the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which of course mandates freedom of the press in America. The rest of the front of the museum is an enormous wall of glass, which is also quite impressive. The view is even more impressive due to a tremendous atrium (The New York Times--Ochs-Sulzburger Family Great Hall of News) that lies behind it, providing 90 feet of vertical space for Newseum to present the latest news on a gigantic 880 sq ft hi-def video screen and a Times Square-esque news ticker.

A large, wraparound terrace that overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue will provide stunning views. Nearly everything I saw was either made of glass or clad in shiny aluminum/stainless steel. Lines and edges were really crisp everywhere I looked, which reminded me of The New York Times Building in Manhattan. In fact, a lot of the design elements resembled those of Renzo Piano's NYTimes Building... no ceramic tubes stacked outside the facade, of course, but the huge amount of glass panels and stainless steel/aluminum surely made me think back to NYC.

When Newseum opens, visitors will likely be overwhelmed with the vast amount of information available, but they will revel at the method in which it is presented. The museum will house fourteen main exhibition galleries of news, including galleries devoted to (i.e. sponsored by) The News Corporation, Time Warner World News, ABC News, and NBC News, as well as permanent galleries featuring 9/11-related journalism, the Berlin Wall, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photography. The Berlin Wall exhibit will even feature an actual three-story tower that was used to guard the wall. Talk about realism! Newseum also decided to include a gallery that will serve as a tribute to journalists who have died in their pursuit of the news.

Additionally, Newseum will contain two fully-functional broadcast studios and fifteen theaters. Yes. That's right. Fifteen of them. The largest of the theaters, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater, will have seating for 535 visitors, while the others will offer visitors a multitude of viewing experiences. One of the most fascinating of these is the Big Screen Theater, which will contain a 90-foot long video news wall -- this reminds me of the video news wall that can be found in InterActiveCorp's new headquarters in lower Manhattan...

Other than the views I mentioned earlier, I wasn't able to see much of this awesome museum but building architect Polshek Partnership Architects did a terrific job from what I saw (see photo to right, borrowed from flickr but essentially the same thing I saw). Site work around the building appears to be nearly complete, and some construction machinery was visible inside the lobby/atrium space. There is plenty to explore on Newseum's website, including a virtual tour of the building's galleries and theatre spaces, as well as a tour of the exhibits. Newseum Executive Director Joe Urschel said was quoted on the museum's website:
"The visitor will come away with a better understanding of news and the important role it plays in all of our lives. The new Newseum will be educational, inspirational and a whole lot of fun."
This museum will surely be a wonder to explore and should provide an excellent opportunity for anyone to learn about the past five centuries of news media. I may even have to take another trip back to Washington D.C. after this fascinating place opens. Newseum is set for a delayed opening due to the complex technology being installed (video news walls, theatres and studios are considered complex, I guess), but if I had to estimate, I'd say Newseum will likely open in early 2008, possibly in March of April.

November 26, 2007

Praise for Renzo Piano's New York Times Building

Great review in the NYTimes last week of the NYTimes Building... by a NYTimes employee! Okay, I suppose that fact doesn't warrant an exclamation point, but the truth is that nobody can really provide a better review than a writer who actually works in the building... also, I was pleased that I used the phrase NYTimes three times in one sentence. I actually spent some time in the NYTimes Building as it was constructed, which was a great experience. My consulting firm acquired a smaller firm that represented a foreign supplier that was subcontracted to provide a construction element for the NYTimes Building -- this entitled me to the option of tagging along on site visits whenever I had the chance. Walking throughout the building while it was still being completed was not only one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had, it also provided me the opportunity to learn about the construction firsthand.

Anyway, I was really impressed with Renzo Piano's building from the first moment I walked into the lobby, which at the time of my first visit was more of a giant open space than an actual lobby. Still, making the short trip to the construction site sporadically to check in on progress was more than worthwhile, specifically because doing so gave me the chance to see the building come together piece by piece, floor by floor. Each time I stopped by for a visit, the NYTimes building was closer to completion and today I am amazed that a beautiful NYC landmark building stands where I stood just twelve months ago.

The review, by NYTimes architecture writer Nicolai Ouroussoff, goes into great detail of what works and what doesn't in the fascinating building, which utilizes some truly cutting-edge technology. The review also contains a great photo slideshow that depicts some of the building's elements that Ouroussoff discusses, as well as an interactive feature containing really cool 360-degree views of various areas along with audio commentary. Just like me, Ouroussoff starts off by writing that he is simply "enchanted" by the 52-story NYTimes Building. Located on 8th Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, Renzo Piano's design provides a much-needed visual uplift from the dreary Port Authority Bus Terminal situated across the street.

Ouroussoff's two main criticisms include the tower's crown and ceramic rod facade/screen, but he also mentions the concerns of his coworkers, which include an abundance of empty space in the newsroom and the sterile look/feel of the glass offices. Regarding the screen of ceramic rods adorning the building's facade, he writes:

"...despite the architect’s best efforts, the screens look flat and lifeless in the skyline. The uniformity of the bars gives them a slightly menacing air, and the problem is compounded by the battleship gray of the tower’s steel frame. Their dull finish deprives the facades of an enlivening play of light and shadow."

Similar rods line the facade of Piano's 22-floor Debis Tower in Berlin, Germany also (pictures available here). I was never and still am not a huge fan of the look that the ceramic rods provide, however, I do understand their purpose and the decision-making process behind their inclusion in the project. The exterior ceramic rods work with the building's large glass window panes and photosensor-controlled interior blinds to improve efficiency in a variety of areas. Designed with help from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the thin ceramic tubes actually help reduce the building's cooling (energy) loads, while the automated roller-shades help manage potential glare problems, and maximize the opportunity for daylight and views -- this is called 'daylighting.' You probably wouldn't be able to tell, but the glass walls themselves are actually made of low-iron, water-white, double-pane spectrally selective glass. In fact, LBNL ran a nine-month study to perfect this system specifically for The New York Times.

So even though the ceramic rods are not the best look for the building's facade, at least they serve a purpose. Although the building's other negative design feature -- its crown -- also serves a purpose, the benefits are not nearly as great as those provided by the ceramic tube/daylighting system. Renzo Piano decided to hide the mechanical equipment located on the NYTimes Building's roof by extending the screen of ceramic tubes six stories past the roof of the 52nd floor. According to Ouroussoff, the effect was supposed to "create the impression that the tower is dissolving into the sky... yet the effect is ragged and unfinished. Rather than gathering momentum as it rises, the tower seems to fizzle." In my opinion, he is absolutely correct in that assessment. One design feature that still keeps me on the edge between love and hate is the NYTimes Building's large spire, which actually tapers from over seven feet in diameter at its base and at its peak, almost seems to pierce the sky. It seems out of place here, but it also works well with the building's sharp lines and definitely adds to the "dissolving into the sky" effect that Piano worked to create.

On the other hand, praise for the NYTimes Building far outweighs the criticisms. The lobby is large, beautiful and bright, creating a welcoming environment to the building's tenants. As Ouroussoff describes it:

"The lobby is encased entirely in glass, and its transparency plays delightfully against the muscular steel beams and spandrels that support the soaring tower. People entering the building from Eighth Avenue can glance past rows of elevator banks all the way to the fairy tale atrium garden and beyond, to the plush red interior of TheTimesCenter auditorium. From the auditorium, you gaze back through the trees to the majestic lobby space. In effect, the lobby itself is a continuous public performance."

Again, I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, the lobby and atrium -- an atrium that contains beautiful birch trees unseen anywhere else New York City -- may just be my favorite aspects of the building. He also describes a few other great aspects of this landmark building, namely the internal staircases, an impressive cafeteria and a double-height skylight well on the third and fourth floors where the newsroom is located.

The bright red staircases that connect each floor are quite unique... rarely do newly-constructed buildings in NYC contain staircases other than those used for emergency escape, which are often located adjacent to elevator shafts or tucked away out of sight. Renzo Piano designed these staircases to be visible, architecturally pleasing, and convenient enough for employees to quickly and easily move from floor to floor without the use of elevators (and electrical energy). In the event of fire, metal barriers extend out across the open space created by the staircases to effectively prevent fire and smoke from easily moving between floors, which eerily reminded me of The Titanic. Despite my imagination, the staircases really are a useful design feature rarely seen in new buildings these days.

An expansive, colorful, double-height cafeteria is situated on the 14th floor of the NYTimes Building, and just like the lobby it enhances the building's transparency. Circular, as opposed to rectangular, tables dot the cafeteria floor and a narrow, suspended balcony hangs overhead. The enormous glass walls provide employees with breathtaking lunchtime views of Manhattan in all directions. The tall ceilings also allow for a tremendous amount of light to bathe diners, which surely enhances any meal. The idea of bringing light into the building also comes into play in the building's double-height newsroom, which has its very own skylight (and of course those trusty red staircases).

Ouroussoff concludes his review by writing:

"Depending on your point of view, the Times Building can thus be read as a poignant expression of nostalgia or a reassertion of the paper’s highest values as it faces an uncertain future. Or, more likely, a bit of both."

I disagree with him here, because to me this building contains very little of anything nostalgic, nor do I feel any nostalgia when I am there. I do understand that The New York Times building will be a New York City landmark for decades to come, if not longer, and regardless of the future of the company itself this building is as great a symbol of success as any, and it clearly indicates that this company has an eye on the future. After all, it utilizes some of the newest construction technology and a design that will challenge other architects to create something better. And that holds true for anyone's point of view.


As more of my colleagues, friends and family have begun reading The Marshall Plan, I have asked them for feedback and suggestions about how I can improve this very space where I come to write, think, and lay my creative energy onto paper/computer/the internet/your screen. After all, there is no reason why this blog cannot become anything I want it to -- or anything that my readers would like to see -- by making a few adjustments. So based on recommendations, opinions and the ideas of those close to me, I have decided that for now, I will try to focus The Marshall Plan on that which I know... after all, we are better equipped to discuss or write about topics that we truly know, understand or love.

In my case, I know construction. All my life I have found myself consumed by construction and architecture... I currently work as a construction consultant and working in NYC in a field of work that I truly enjoy has been a dream come true. As construction junkie of sorts, having the chance to look out at some of the incredible views I have seen of landmark buildings and our world-famous skyline has certainly helped me enjoy working and living here in NYC. That being said, I will start focusing The Marshall Plan more on construction, architecture and development. In fact, I've already begun to do this (if you scroll down at the last few posts, you'll notice that they all seem to follow the trend), so I'm not really releasing any 'news' per se. But get ready for a lot more posts discussing everything related to building 'stuff' -- 'stuff' of course meaning anything at all. So, with that in mind....