Skyscraper as Role Model -- It's a Green Family Affair


March 7, 2007 — -- Rising fast above Times Square, the new Bank of America Tower will soon be the second-tallest skyscraper in New York, just a few feet short of the Empire State Building.

It also has a shot at being the greenest skyscraper in the world. That's the hope of co-owner Douglas Durst and chief architect, Robert Fox, for their pride and joy.

Almost everything the workers are bolting, soldering, fitting, brushing, laying and pouring into place has been modified in ways the builders hope will earn the coveted "Platinum" rating (best possible) from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The various components include giant windows and glass inner walls that save on lighting bills, rooftop rainwater collectors (yes, even in Manhattan) that will cut down water bills, and even bike racks at entrances to encourage occupants not to drive to work.

"We get one point from the Green Building Council for bike racks," Fox said, adding almost proudly that the tower also has no parking garage.

"If you don't build green, you're building obsolete," Durst said during a tour up through the noise and bustle of construction -- the tower now shoots up past its 28th floor.

Durst estimates that all the environmental factors they're including account for 2 percent to 3 percent of the total $1.2 billion cost of building the tower. He believes the green additions will pay for themselves within two years to four years through saved energy expenses.

Durst says his family company, the Durst Organization, which has been in the Manhattan real estate business since 1915, will have a far superior property to pass on to his descendents.

Co-owner Bank of America will be the building's principal tenant, but The Durst Organization will manage a large percentage of the building's commercial real estate. In addition to saving money through more efficient utilities, the building is being built to environmental codes Durst believes will be in place in future years, eliminating the need for costly modifications.

"It all makes complete financial sense," he said as he explained how concentrating on efficiency saved on utility bills while also being good for the planet.

The tower has special plumbing designed to combine roof-captured rainwater with the "greywater" from the building's washroom sinks, and then with the condensation from the tower's air conditioning and from the steam purchased from the utility company ConEdison.

The resulting effluent will be used to flush the toilets and run evaporation panels that help cool the building, greatly cutting the building's water intake.

"The tower sits on a footprint of two square acres," said Fox, the architect, "and New York gets about four feet of rain a year. Imagine two square acres covered with four feet of water. We'll collect all of that."

The Durst family hopes the tower's supergreen design will serve as a role model for builders everywhere.

"We're learning what 'a green building' means," he said, adding that they'd spent more time and money than usual on the design phase, but insisting it would soon pay off.

Bank of America is also hopeful about the tower's environmental efficiency.

"'I want a building that will attract and retain the best associates!' That's what Bank of America Chairman Ken Lewis told us when he asked us to design the tower," Fox said. "And we worked hard to design a building like that."

On the still-windowless edge of the 25th floor, the recently poured concrete floor has just hardened.

"We have high ceilings -- 9 feet, 6 inches -- and we'll have floor-to-ceiling windows. Everyone gets light."

The tower also will have glass inner walls, so that even people stationed near the core of the building will be able to look outside from their desks and check the weather. The constant sunlight will even help reduce heating bills.

Most skyscrapers have eight-foot ceilings -- and solid inner walls.

"There's a word that explains what we're doing: 'biophilia,'" Fox said.

The term "biophilia" was coined by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson to label an intense interest in and need for nature. Wilson says that humans have biophilia built into their DNA and that contact with nature is necessary for a general sense of well-being.

"People working at their desks will want to look outside, want to know is it raining out, or snowing … or sunny," Fox said of the building, which is scheduled to open in 2008.

The view isn't bad either: From one angle, inhabitants will look out past the Empire State Building, across the East River toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean. Another side offers views south across Manhattan rooftops and the mouth of the Hudson River toward the Statue of Liberty.

Fox and Durst are considering a "daylight dimming system" that would have light meters for each room that turn up ceiling lights only as much as needed.

They hope that such day-bright office surroundings and anti-claustrophobic high ceilings will help retain employees as the Bank of American chairman asked.

"There are studies that show that employees are 10 [percent] to 15 percent more productive if their surroundings are healthy and pleasant," Durst said.

And the benefits won't be limited to the building's occupants.

"We're actually acting as a giant air filter for New York City," said a subtly smiling Durst, his enthusiasm for the project shining through his understated soft-spoken manner.

"We will take in four times as much air as New York codes require, and the air we expel will be much cleaner than what we take in," he said.

The greater volumes of air make it possible to flush more VOCs (volatile organic compounds) out of the air, diminishing the likelihood of "sick building syndrome" sometimes blamed on imperfect air filtration systems.

He says that people working in the Bank of America Tower will breathe air cleaned of 95 percent of its particulate matter instead of the 35 percent typical in office buildings.

"The air ducts will be under the floor," Fox said. "Each office, each room, will have a thermostat to regulate however much air the occupant wants."

This will bring big power savings because air rising from the floor needs to be cooled down only to 65 degrees, rather than the 55 degrees needed for air coming from ducts in the ceiling where it has to get past the room's rising warm air and hot ceiling lights.

"Floor duct air systems were used by the ancient Romans," Fox said, "and they've been using them for 20 years in Europe. It's only just now starting to appear in the U.S."

The tower has three state-of-the-art natural gas fuel cells to create its own electricity, reducing the amount the owners have to buy.

Natural gas emits just half the greenhouse gases per BTU emitted from burning coal. The largest portion of America's electricity is by burning coal.

Between 7 percent and 8 percent of energy is lost in getting it from external power plants to customers, says Durst, so the less power plant electricity a building has to buy, the less greenhouse gas emissions it is probably supporting.

Fox and Durst say they even found a new way to make the building's concrete 10 percent stronger.

They're making the building's concrete with a 45 percent admixture of blast furnace slag: a glassy material left over after the smelting of ore.

Normally, slag piles up as industrial trash.

When they found they could use slag as a substitute for nearly half of the building's concrete, Fox explains, they knew they had discovered yet another green advantage in the fight against global warming:

"Cement manufacturing produces massive greenhouse gas emissions. Something like 8 percent of global CO2 emissions come from cement factories," he said.

Fox and Durst know that this one building cannot by itself make any big difference, but they hope it can help lead the way, inspiring other builders.

The two are hopeful that when the tower opens for business in 2008 it will be "carbon neutral" -- the gold standard that must be met, say scientists, for any building that wants to be part of solution for global warming,

"It's not a simple calculation," Durst said. "We can't be sure yet that we're going to be completely carbon neutral, but we're working on it."

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