The New York Times Building in Manhattan, New York, is the best in clever and yet subtle architecture but its designers have bucked the trend and not tried for LEED accreditation, opting instead to build for user comfort. Does this bode well for skyscraper design in the 21st Century?

Clear thinking

Standing 52 storeys high, the New York Times Building is a beacon of refined architectural genius pushing upwards through a glut of ostentatious office towers in New York’s mid-town district.

On first encountering it there seems to be something subtly different that you can’t quite put your finger on. But then the realisation dawns that you can see inside, through the glass façade, into the heart of the one of the world’s most widely-known newspapers. Glance up and down the street and the other vertigo inducing towers present tinted and mirrored facades; their smoked glass reflecting facades mean you never quite know what goes on inside.

They are ‘selfish buildings’ according to architect of the New York Times Building (NYTB), Renzo Piano. Conversely, it is what goes on inside that has driven the way in which he has designed the city’s newest tower. From an aesthetic perspective, Piano wanted to present a see-through building to reflect the neutrality and transparent nature of the reporting at the newspaper. The façade is clad in a low-e glass with a particularly low iron content that transmits 75% of the visible spectrum, making it very clear: shading comes in the form of thousands of delicate ceramic tubes.

More importantly, the overall design of the NYTB revolved around a brief that put user comfort as top priority. This rhetoric sounds like the sort of marketing speak that every building owner/occupier/letting agent spouts in order to attract tenants or employees but at the NYT comfort comes before everything else, even those buzz words to beat all current trends, ‘LEED accreditation’.

Not taking the LEED

“The architect and client didn’t focus on LEED during the design,” says Glenn Hughes, managing director of construction and real estate management for the NYT. “We decided that if we built something that would best suit the needs of our users then the green attributes, energy efficiency and such, would automatically follow.” As a consequence, New York’s newest skyscraper does not have a LEED rating when all around are clamouring for silver and gold as if the world depends upon it.

But is the city’s best looking new tower green? Does it stand up to its rivals such as the recently completed Hearst Building (LEED Gold)? Can you really build an environmentally conscious office block without ticking the boxes of a sustainable design guide? Piano and Co thinks so.

Modelling the office

In order to create the ‘perfect’ working environment the office design was first tested using a full scale model constructed in a car park in Queens. “We built a fully functional 430sqft mock up of the southwest corner of the 19th floor of the new building,” says Hughes. “Then, with the help of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories we equipped it with over 100 sensors to monitor everything from light levels and glare to temperature and ventilation requirements with a full contingent of staff working within it.”

Gardiner & Theobald (G&T) worked as project and cost manager, with architect Gensler Associates for resulting slick, very user friendly interiors of the building. As main representatives from the UK on the project, G&T’s ten years experience working in the States was put to good effect.

Experimentation and computer modelling of the space produced optimum levels of light, heat, humidity, air change requirements, etc that enabled the consultants to write a bespoke specification for the required day lighting and heating/cooling loads. “We worked everything out from the model,” says Hughes, “From how the light levels would change on different floors at different times of the year to the opaqueness required for the internal blinds and number of air changes required per day to ensure the best working environment.

“The modelling made the building feel the way that it does today.” And that is extremely comfortable. Daylight floods into some 1.5 million square feet of Class A office space, of which the newspaper occupies 800,000sqft. A 70 x 40ft sky light supplementing light from the facades in the massive 400 x 200ft news rooms. The internal temperature is constant on a cold winters day but the air feels fresh rather than dry and recycled, as per many an air conditioned office space.

New York Times building, interior. Credit Nic Lehoux
New York Times building, interior. Credit Nic Lehoux

Environmental performance

Everyone working in the building is very happy with their new office. It’s light, airy and comfortable to be in; and the canteen is like a top restaurant, believe me. But what does this equate to in terms of environmental performance? Well, the modelling exercise determined the optimum levels of daylight influx and minimised glare and solar gain through the double skin curtain wall of the low-e glass and the exquisite external brise soliel of 894,000 feet of ceramic rods. In addition, internal automated blinds reduce glare and an advanced dimmable lighting system with movement and light level sensors provide 30% real energy savings.

An under floor air distribution system provides energy efficient air conditioning and heating via a 14” plenum. This includes a free air cooling and purge system that enables 100% outside air ventilation and exhaust to refresh the air in the building. The air is conditioned at 68°F – 10° warmer than conventional systems – and pumped gently up from floor level grills, rather than being powerfully forced down from ceiling level, again saving energy.

Power to the site is supplemented by a 1.4 megawatt gas-burning co-generation plant. This reduces utility costs significantly as it is able to generate 40% of the NYT’s energy requirements, while heat recovered in generation is used to provide hot water for the 275-ton absorption chiller in the summer and perimeter heating hot water in the winter.

Some 90% of the structural steel used contains recycled content and there is even an open-air garden, complete with trees tucked away behind the reception. There are, however, no renewables used on the project, although solar power was muted early on.

Maintaining performance

Considered design can create a building that operates to its maximum efficiency, so reducing the energy requirements considerably. The task now is to ensure that all is maintained to continually optimise energy efficient operation. This is where Hughes and his team come into its own. Using bespoke monitoring equipment, designed by the Berkeley National Lab team, the building manager can monitor light levels throughout the building; glare at the facades; average occupied temperatures in the zone from 4” to 67” above the floor level; and under floor plenum temperatures and air flow strengths.

“We’ve got quite an array of kit to monitor the building’s performance,” says Hughes. “It might look excessive but if it ensures that the building performs to optimum expectations it will pay for itself in no time.

“We are also experimenting with lowering artificial light levels slightly on certain floors to further save energy. You’d be amazed at the amount of savings we can make without people noticing that anything is any different.”

So, the NYTB is a great looking building. It also performs very efficiently, possibly better than many of its LEED rated rivals, but no one is quite sure and the building owner’s aren’t about to try to get a post-construction environmental rating. What matters to them and the people occupying it is that it is taking the leed, sorry lead, in the design of the perfect office environment; the environmental credentials are an added benefit.

Design & Construction Team

  • Owners The New York Times Company Forest City Ratner Companies
  • Lead Design Team Architects Renzo Piano Building Workshop in association with FXFOWLE
  • Project and Cost Managers: Gardiner & Theobald
  • Interiors Architect Gensler
  • Structural Engineer Thornton Tomasetti
  • Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing Engineer Flack + Kurtz
  • Construction Manager (Core & Shell) AMEC Construction Management
  • Landscape Architects H. M. White Site Architects Cornelia H. Oberlander
  • Daylighting Anyhere Software Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Loisos + Ubbelohde