high rise residential

World’s Tallest Passive House Breaks Ground on Roosevelt Island

  • New York Times, June 12, 2015
  • An apartment tower on Roosevelt Island that began construction this month will be the tallest passive-house high-rise in the world when it is completed in 2017, according to the Passive House Institute in Germany. And at about 270,000 square feet, it will also be the largest, said David Kramer, a principal with Hudson Companies, which is developing the building in partnership with Cornell Tech, the applied sciences campus of Cornell University, and the Related Companies.

    The tower will rise 270 feet, contain 350 units and house about 530 graduate students, faculty and staff on a new 12-acre campus for Cornell Tech, which has been operating out of temporary facilities in the Google building in Chelsea since 2012. And because the building will conform to rigorous standards set by the German organization, its energy consumption should be 60 percent to 70 percent less than that of conventional high-rises, the developers said.

    “Sustainability in terms of campus design is just hugely important to Cornell,” said Jennifer Klein, an assistant director for strategic capital partnerships at Cornell Tech. “The idea for our residential tower was we take that mission even further, and we really do set the bar for this energy-efficient type of development throughout New York City.”

    At 26 stories, the building will surpass what is currently the world’s tallest passive-house building, the 20-story Raiffeisenhaus Wien 2 office tower in Vienna, completed in 2012. Moreover, said Ken Levenson, the president of NY Passive House, a nonprofit advocacy group, it “is a clear signal that in today’s era of climate change, it’s not enough to simply build tallest. To lead the market, your tall building will need to be a passive house.”

    That means the building is able to maintain a comfortable interior climate without active heating or cooling systems, through the use of, among other things, an airtight envelope and a ventilator system that exchanges indoor and outdoor air. In climates like that of New York, however, standards allow small heating and cooling systems.

    Making the Roosevelt Island tower airtight — creating what is essentially a giant thermos — was one of the biggest challenges, said Blake Middleton, the principal in charge and partner at Handel Architects, the building’s designer.

    For the exterior, the architects chose a prefabricated metal panel system and triple-glazed windows. Walls will be about 15 inches thick, and the windows will be built into them at the factory. “The reason we chose a panelized system was both for speed of construction,” he said, “and also to cut down on the number of joints that would be required to be all very carefully sealed by the builder on a floor-by-floor basis.”

    Because of the constraints of the roughly $115 million budget, designers rejected the sort of expensive double-walled glass systems often seen in European passive-house buildings. “Cornell’s objective was to make this affordable for its students,” Mr. Middleton said. “And the amount of glass is fairly contained as a consequence of that overriding concern.”

    The tower will have micro units of about 350 square feet as well as one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for students, who will pay below market rate, Ms. Klein said.

    The apartments will not have floor-to-ceiling glass, but their windows will be large enough to offer striking views of the city, Mr. Middleton said. And in the two-story lobby, there will be a fair amount of south-facing glass.

    According to passive house advocates, such buildings are quieter than traditional spaces, thanks to heavily insulated walls, and they also have cleaner air because of ventilation filters, which may help alleviate allergy and asthmatic symptoms.

    But perhaps more important, passive buildings typically use less than a quarter of the energy of buildings that are conventionally powered. Residents in Cornell’s tower will become aware of this as they begin paying their own energy bills, a conscious decision on the part of the university to direct attention toward conservation. “We’re really trying to focus on not just changing design,” Ms. Klein said, “but changing people’s behavior and thinking about this.”

    The tower will be certified by the Passive House Institute after it is completed, assuming it meets the standards. And once that happens, Mr. Middleton said, “we expect to be able to find ways to take this on the road and convince other developers and institutions that this is a viable and economic and strong model for building a sustainable building.”

    The rest of the campus, to be built in the next two decades, for about $2 billion (New York City provided $100 million of the funding, in addition to the land), will be just as environmentally innovative, Ms. Klein said. The first academic building, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, a Pritzker Prize winner, is under construction as part of the first phase of development, which will cost about $800 million. The campus will open in 2017.

    The academic building will be among the largest net-zero structures in the country, meaning it will generate enough renewable energy to meet or exceed its annual energy demand. A geothermal system that harnesses the heat retained in the earth to create energy will reduce the building’s reliance on natural gas, Ms. Klein said. Solar panels are also part of the equation.

    “We have a standard of LEED silver,” she added, referring to the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system. “Yet our buildings for the most part are achieving much higher than that.”


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