The latest news on New York architecture.

  • A Vision for a Self-Reliant New York

    Rory Stott reports for Archdaily.

    Bird’s-eye view of Midtown Manhattan’s neighborhood food hubs in New York City (Steady) State.

    “In an era of incompetent nation states and predatory transnationals, we must ratchet up local self-reliance, and the most logical increment of organization (and resistance) is the city.” This is how Michael Sorkin, writing in Aeon Magazine, explains his hypothetical plan to radically change the landscape of New York City, bringing a green landscape and urban farming into the former concrete jungle.

    Street view of Amsterdam Ave. in northern Manhattan featuring a mix of traditional and advanced agricultural growing techniques.

    The plan, called “New York City (Steady) State”, produced over six years by Sorkin’s Terreform Research Group, is not designed simply for aesthetic pleasure; it’s not even an attempt to make the city more sustainable (although sustainability is the key motivation behind the project). The project is in fact a “thought-experiment” to design a version of New York that is completely self reliant, creating its own food, energy and everything else within its own borders.

    Street level view of the interior courtyard space in the Figure Ground Switch.

    The key idea behind the project is to create a sustainable society from the bottom up – rather than relying on government to impose one from the top down – by applying autarky, a political concept which describes a completely closed system. This system resonates well with many established notions of sustainability: ideas such as 'cradle-to-cradle' or 'net zero' often demand closed loops or minimal outside influence.

    New York City (Steady) State, Master Plan B.

    After defining the extents of the study (including only the five boroughs of New York City and creating “an almost completely 'unnatural limit' to constrain the study), the first step was to define how a city as urban as New York might be adapted to provide food for its 8.5 million inhabitants. Using a variety of skyscraper farms, and reclaiming streets and under-utilized city blocks, Terreform has calculated that it would be technically possible to produce 2,500 calories per person, per day. Combining this with a sophisticated distribution network would give each resident access to enough food.

    Exterior rendering of a vertical tower designed specifically for meat production.

    A plan as dramatic as this obviously brings drawbacks: the first iteration of the design was calculated to require 25 nuclear power stations to generate the energy required to produce all this food, a result that was “somewhat at odds with our larger intentions.” However, this is where the project’s intention as a thought experiment comes into play: the radical design is meant to test boundaries, to take on a seemingly impossible task and see what the implications are of meeting it.

    Street view of 147th street in northern Manhattan where dominance has shifted from vehicular circulation to food production and distribution.

    “On the whole, we’re sanguine about the differences between the logics of comparative advantage and the politics of self-realization, and the difficulties of negotiating the territory in between,” explains Sorkin. The truly desirable solution to environmental crisis and social inequality will lie somewhere between our current situation and the designs of Terreform. But without their investigation pushing the boundaries of what is feasibly possible – and showing us just how different our urban environment could be – then our quest for sustainability would be limited, and therefore incomplete.

    New York City streets and blocks with proposed Figure Ground Switch, where the buildings occupy what were streets and the interior blocks are reserved for vertical towers and traditional food production.

    More images of “New York City (Steady) State”.

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  • Deep Energy Retrofits for Existing Buildings

    The Green Lab is partnering with New Buildings Institute on a project called Deep Energy Savings in Existing Buildings, which will provide guidance for owners of smaller commercial buildings to achieve deep energy savings (50 percent and greater) through energy retrofits.

    We know that small and medium buildings matter as a critical (but as yet underserved) market for efficiency gains, representing 95% of all buildings and half of the commercial floorspace.  These buildings require simplified turn-key approaches that deliver deep sets of efficiency solutions requiring little time, knowledge or direct financial investment from the owners. The primary product of this project will be a free, online retrofit tool that will allow building owners to select retrofit strategies that are customized to their building’s size, features, climate and uses for deep energy savings without the need for computer energy modeling that is often cost prohibitive for owners of modestly sized buildings.

    In the first phase of this project, the Green Lab helped New Buildings Institute investigate 11 examples of energy retrofits in existing commercial buildings that, on average, use 50% less energy than the national average – most with an energy use intensity (EUI) of less than 40 kBtu per square foot. The Project Profiles for each building include motivations, technologies and practices, energy performance, financial information, overall project results and quotes from owner and design teams. A Meta Report contains the aggregated results of the case studies plus findings from an initial group of 50 buildings with 30% or more energy savings. This research was made possible by support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA). In the project’s second phase, the Green Lab is describing the market for the online retrofit tool, so that we can target our work to buildings and owners most likely to take advantage of the resource.

    Defining the “smaller buildings retrofit market” is no easy task. We are segmenting the building stock to identify “market clusters” of buildings that are: most in need of energy retrofits; under-served in the current marketplace; culturally and economically valuable or endangered; and that represent a substantial portion of the existing building stock smaller than 50,000 square feet. This is a new approach to market segmentation with emphasis on both smaller buildings and physical characteristics, and we think it will change the way smaller buildings are considered as opportunities in the marketplace by technical experts and financing entities. 

    As part of this work, we co-hosted the Deep Energy Savings in Existing Buildings Summit, bringing more than 80 industry experts together to discuss strategies for delivering deep savings to existing buildings. In the final phase, the Green Lab will be involved in piloting of the retrofit tool once it is complete and is exploring with NBI opportunities for a second phase of this work that will focus on retrofits of multi-family buildings. Look for a chance to help us test the tool in your community. To learn more about Deep Energy Savings in Existing Buildings please go to the New Building Institute webpage or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Project Manager of the Preservation Green Lab.

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