At Cornell Tech, Sustainable Design

Written by Briana Warsing. Posted in Volume 37, Issue 4 - October 22, 2016

“What you’re seeing here is about nine months away from opening. And when it opens, it’s gonna be great. That’s Andrew Winters, Senior Director of Capital Projects for Cornell Tech, as he led a group through the Island campus last Sunday as part of Open House New York Weekend, a city-wide tour series that showcases new and innovative spaces.

When the City gifted Cornell with the property to build their campus back in 2013, the goal, according to Winters was to boost New York City’s prominence in the world of tech by graduating computer-savvy entrepreneurs who will stay local and contribute to the City’s economic growth. “Our mission is [to create ties] between industry and academia, we want to have industry right on campus.”

Winters described how the architecture of the campus buildings will serve the school’s philosophy and even informs the open space around the buildings. According to Winters, the goal of the landscape plan is to tie into the Island’s esplanades, which run along both sides of the Island, making a four-mile loop. “Our open space is not a college quad with buildings on all four sides. It’s got buildings on three sides and it opens up to the view and the esplanade.

“We want people on this campus. We want it to feel like it’s part of the public realm. We have a deal with City Planning where the lease actually requires all the seating, lighting, and places to recharge computers and WiFi.” The project’s landscape architect, Jim Horner, also worked on the High Line.

Winters identified three principles which he said have guided the design of the buildings.

“The first is innovation. We are a tech campus, so we support innovation and non-traditional type of spaces, architecture that pushes boundaries. Sustainability is the second principle. Cornell is a world leader in sustainability. And having an inviting campus is the third principle. Every architect was given the same briefing: The ground floor of every building must be transparent, welcoming, and inviting.”

Winter’s tour highlighted various elements of these principles.

The Bridge

The Bridge
The Bridge

The building is called the Bridge because it reflects the Queensborough bridge and has a structural system very similar to the bridge. The cantilever at the back and front of the building literally mirrors the truss structure at the bridge.

The ground floor of the Bridge is transparent; you can look through and see Queens on the other side.

Winters said they didn’t want reflective glass on the ground floor of the buildings. “They [the buildings] need to be inviting. The public needs to feel this is something they can enjoy as well.”

The Passive House

The Passive House
The Passive House

This residential building for graduate students and faculty is the world’s first passive residential structure. Passive is a rigorous, voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building, reducing its ecological footprint, similar to the American Leed standard.

“We had to create a very insulated façade,” said Winters. “Most apartment buildings in New York City are glass. The insulated walls in the Passive House are 12-inches thick. Generally, in New York, the thickness of a wall is equivalent to the thickness of glass.

The windows are also insulated to help with thermal qualities and to keep it quiet. However, to achieve the desired thickness of the wall, the building couldn’t have many windows.

The exposed vent shaft at the top of the building is called “the gills.” Winters said it will be lit at night like a beacon. “Typically you get fresh air from cracks between the unit and wall. You don’t have any of that here. There is very little temperature change, the downside is very little air exchange. We need to bring air into building that way, through the vent shaft, and it goes into every apartment.”

Flood Plain

Flood Plain
Flood Plain

The site is in a flood plain. To prevent flooding, they raised the streets a foot above the flood plain level, reusing the previous structure as landfill.

“We took the hospital that was here, we demolished it,” said Winters. “We crushed it, and we used that material. We would have had to take thousands of truckloads of material [off the Island]. Instead we simply crushed it and used what was here to raise the level of everything.

“The campus is a public open space. There are new trees and a lawn, that’s for anybody’s use. Under the lawn, there are 80 wells. Each one is 400-feet deep and they create geothermal energy for the Bloomberg center. We don’t burn any fossil fuels to heat or cool, or to cook any food in the café in the Bloomberg center. All of the heating and cooling is provided by the geothermal system.

Winters said that, while obvious “green” features like solar panels help start conversations about sustainability, most of the project’s most effective efforts at sustainability – the amount of glass, thickness of the walls, geothermal underground wells, and the electronic systems that run through the buildings and give feedback to the users – most of it is invisible.

The Bloomberg Center

The Bloomberg Center
The Bloomberg Center

The most visually striking buildings on the campus, by most accounts, is the Bloomberg Center. Each of the metal panel tabs in the façade is turned differently to capture the sun.

“The façade looks different to different people,” said Winters. “Some see an old punch card that you may have used on a computer, some see the hanging chads made infamous by the 2000 election in Florida, others see a computer screen with pixels turned on and off. It’s really none of those but it’s closest to the last one. The architect created a photo of the skyline of Manhattan and then they created an algorithm that translated that into a pixilated image.

“You can’t see the actual skyline on the façade, but on a sunny day, when you’re looking at the west façade, you can get some sense that there is an underlying image and that underlying image is of something that is human-made, not a naturalistic image. It’s very vertical, very active. It’s meant to be abstract, it’s meant to catch the light, and make a delightful statement toward Manhattan during sunset. If you see it on the FDR drive during sunset, it’s really beautiful.

The façade on the east side of the building was inspired by a horizontal photo of one of the Gorges in Ithaca, according to Winters. “It’s a very naturalistic image. You see a very different reflective pattern... Our dean, who is an expert in computer vision, said this is a natural image and [the other side of the façade] is a man-made image. When you know it, it really changes your perception of the building.”

The tour also stopped to examine another unusual feature of the Bloomberg Center: its staircase.

“The staircase is grand because we don’t want you in an elevator, we want you on stairs. Over 500 people will be working in that building at a given time, we want collaboration and conversation,” explained Winters. Architects went out of their way, he said, to create stairs that are not just a way to get you from here to there. They designed a staircase that’s big and glass and takes you out of the building. “It provides views, and there are sitting areas in the staircase.”

The Bloomberg Center will have solar panels on the roof, and between it and the Bridge, they will generate enough energy to run the buildings for a year. It is a very dramatic rooftop.

Tags: Cornell Briana Warsing Environment

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