Cornell Tech Makes History with 26-Story Green Residence

Written by Dana Agmon. Posted in Volume 36, Issue 18 - June 25, 2016

Arianna Sacks Rosenberg, a senior project manager at Hudson Companies Inc., is making her dream come true; she is leading a green building project. Rosenberg is at the pinnacle of the fastest growing industry in the world, the green building sector. Although led by and practiced more widely in Europe, the demand for energy-efficient, green-standard-driven construction in the United States has been rising, with $287 billion projected for 2017.

In line with Cornell Tech’s core mission of innovation, a team of developers, engineers, architects, and contractors have been cooperating for over two years on building the tallest Passive House in the world. The 270-foot residential high-rise is part of the 12-acre campus being built on the south end of Roosevelt Island. The building is predicted to save 60 to 70 percent in energy use compared with traditionally constructed buildings. It will save 882 tons of CO2 annually, as well.

The Passive House
The Passive House

The Passive House (PH and Passivhaus in German) is a set of standards for an energy-efficient building that originated some 30 years ago in Europe by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Fiest. It involves a complex and detailed system for encasing a building and insulating it, either during construction or as part of a renovation, to save on energy use for indoor temperature control. The newly addressed 1 East Loop Road will be home to the 26-story residential PH building being built to require ultra-low energy for space heating and cooling.

Luke Falk, Assistant Vice President at Related Companies, explained, “PH is an approach to building with distinct details on quality of material and construction.” After outlining the strict BTU equations and standards required to gain a PH Certificate, he acknowledged that this energy-efficient building system and its successful implementation is “truly in the details.”

Lois Arena, Mechanical Engineer from Steve Winter Associates, and Deborah Moelis, lead Architect from Handel Architects, articulate why the details were so important. According to Arena and Moelis, the building is constructed with a wall-panel system that has 11 inches of insulation and incorporates German-Italian made-to-standard windows. The panels are then outfitted with foam, thermal breaks and spacers to air seal the building for better quality control. To further air- proof, an “inner jacket” is placed in installed post panels. Additionally, each unit has a fresh air vent as well as a variable flow (VRF) heating and cooling system.

The VRF system runs the perimeter of each floor regulating the temperature. It’s able to heat and cool simultaneously. Falk called it a “cruise control” system rather than a “stop-and-start” one like traditional A/C units. In addition to being much more energy-efficient, the VRF system is also more easily regulated and controlled as well as quieter. But this detailing was only one of many phases, tests, and certification the team had to manage.

Aleks Yelizarov of Monadnock Construction and his team took PH workshops and courses as well as a PH test to become the lead contractor and be qualified to apply and receive the PH Certificate for their building upon completion. They are one of the first construction teams in the United States to do so, and Rosenberg hopes this will pave the way for more durable and sustainable construction nation-wide.

Naturally, the new standards are challenging, but it seems that the team is ready for the hurdles and ready, as well, to make history. It will certainly be a grand contribution to the City’s mission of sustainability. Critics make the argument that the cost of PH construction is too high to be large-scale, especially in affordable housing. But, while some parts of the construction, like the walls and windows, are more expensive, other systems are not, and the operating costs are significantly lower. In fact, the reduced energy demand should translate to reduced utility bills for the residents.

Cornell Tech is leading the charge with their grounds largely planned for sustainability and energy-efficiency to include a net-zero academic building that produces as much energy as it consumes, sloped terrains, a utility center, and solar roofs.

The Cornell Tech mission statement begins with, “Cornell Tech is a revolutionary model for graduate education that fuses technology with business and creative thinking.” The Passive House fits right in.

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