Audubon’s Living Building

From basement composting to rooftop skylighting,
this recycled Manhattan building is a whole-system success

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 14
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Though loaded with environmentally conscious and energy efficient designs, the nine-story Audubon House in Lower Manhattan is no experiment. The improvements made to the 19th century structure are cost-effective, readily available, and, in many cases, cheaper than conventional refurbishing techniques. The benefits include cleaner indoor air, softer lighting, lower energy bills, and more open work spaces.

It’s been more than six months since the National Audubon Society moved its headquarters into what has been called one of the most environmentally friendly office buildings in the world. And while it will be a full year before the people who retrofitted the 102-year-old New York City building know for sure how well it’s performing, Audubon staffers already know at least part of the answer.

"The air in here is so fresh," said Tom Exton, Audubon’s corporate relations director. "We have as close to a toxic-free environment as you can get. I can’t emphasize enough how fresh the air is."

People who used to feel tired and suffer from headaches after a day at work now say they don’t, Tom said. "We’re thinking of bottling the air," staffer Dave McGowan added.

Tom and Dave are among the 145 staffers whose workplace – the nine-story "Audubon House" in Manhattan’s East Village – has become a prime example of a design philosophy that elevates environmental and worker-health considerations on a par with a building’s structural and operational soundness.

One of Audubon’s first decisions was to retrofit an old building instead of spending an estimated $33 million on a new headquarters. The organization bought the Schermerhorn Building in 1989 for $10 million. Audubon then asked the Croxton Collaborative, a New York City architectural firm, to apply as many energy efficient and environmental technologies as could pay for themselves in three to five years. Total cost of the renovation was $14 million.

Because the architects, engineers, and other design professionals worked as a team, they were able to break loose from predictable design patterns and come up with imaginative solutions. Lighting experts talked with builders about positioning walls and windows. Chemists talked with furnishing suppliers to minimize chemical out-gassing. Air quality experts talked to architects about installing air intakes on the roof instead of at street level. A full-time researcher investigated new and old technologies for designers to consider.

With all this input, the process took longer, but "all these things have a payback and a financial benefit for the client," said Lauren Reiter, Croxton’s project architect.

Here is a partial list of the innovations at Audubon House:

  • Separate chutes on every floor carry plastic, glass, aluminum, organic material, and different types of paper to a recycling center in the building’s sub-basement. In the future, the in-house compost will nourish a rooftop conservatory. Audubon’s goal is to recycle 79 percent of all products coming into the building, including 42 tons of paper a year. Audubon also wants 80 percent of all the products it purchases to contain recycled content.

  • Countertops are made of recycled plastic, ceramic floors from recycled glass, drywall from recycled newsprint, insulation from a component of sea water, and wood from non-endangered sources.

  • Air is conditioned with a high-efficiency, gas-burning heater/chiller; faucets conserve water; pumps, fans, and motors are "smart"; windows are thermal resistant; and internal stairwells discourage unnecessary elevator use.

  • To help prevent sick-building syndrome, indoor air is changed 6.2 times an hour (six times New York’s standard); wall coverings and furniture give off few or no chemicals; undyed wool carpets contain neither formaldehyde nor CFCs; carpet padding is made entirely of recycled paper; and 80 percent of the particulates are filtered from the air.

  • Lighting energy is saved by using high-efficiency fluorescents, clerestory windows, motion sensors, pendant light fixtures, low work-station walls, a skylight, an east-west office design, compact-fluorescent task lights, full-range dimming linked to the amount of daylight, and highly reflective surfaces. Filing cabinets are positioned near windows.

During the 20-month-long refurbishing project, all the demolition material that could be salvaged was sent off to recyclers. Concrete, masonry, wood, steel, iron, glass – even the scrap metal from the old boiler was hauled off; a small amount of the salvaged material was used on site. Many of the other building materials contain recycled material.

Despite the Audubon House’s revolutionary design, its principles are not hard to duplicate. All components are available off the shelf.

"We want this building not to be a solitary symbol of energy efficiency and indoor air quality," Tom said. Audubon was interested in measures that others could replicate, he said. "The building is, in effect, an educational tool."

The work cost $142 per square foot, compared to the $120 to $130 a square foot to renovate a typical Manhattan office building using conventional technology, according to Croxton.

Audubon hopes to save $100,000 a year in energy costs by using 60 percent less energy than a conventional building of similar size – 98,000 square feet. CFCs have been virtually eliminated, and greenhouse and acid-rain gases are expected to be cut by 60-80 percent.

Croxton designer Kirsten Childs said the building is "performing as planned," though she won’t be able to back up that assessment with actual data until mid-November, the first anniversary of the building’s re-opening.

But workers are already giving the building high marks. "There’s always daylight flooding into your office," Dave McGowan said. "The layout is very open."

Despite a few minor adjustments – like walking the distance of a city block to get to copy machines located near recycling chutes – the building’s design is fostering a more congenial work environment. Staffers talk face to face instead of over the phone. Offices have glass walls. "The open work area to a certain extent breaks down the imagined walls and inhibitions people have," Tom said.

Interest in the building has been "staggering," Kirsten says. Croxton, which previously applied similar though less extensive improvements to the National Resources Defense Council’s New York City headquarters, has plans for other projects that embrace the same philosophy.

"There is a built-in resistance to doing work this way. It takes more time and more effort," Randall Croxton, the firm’s chief architect, was quoted recently as saying. "But anyone could go out tomorrow morning and use the technology we have."