Back to the Future: United Nations Tour

The United Nations Headquarters is now 63 years young, having recently completed a meticulous eight-year, $2 billion renovation. Guided by Assistant Secretary-General Michael Adlerstein, Urban Green members on our sold-out tour got to experience a bit of time travel back to 1952. What’s changed and what’s remained the same over six decades?

I was fascinated by the complex yet elegant original exposed ductwork in the soaring entrance atrium. While common nowadays–think Pompidou Centre–this was 20 years earlier and shocking at the time. Early delegates were also surrounded by eerie, space-age materials like Formica and Naugahyde. Those finishes (including green-and-cream carpet) have been restored throughout the building, although now they feel more “Jetsons” than “Interstellar.”

The building has suffered from some modifications over the years. All the meeting and conference rooms have stunning East River views, with great daylighting opportunities. But shortly after the building’s opening, television cameras were installed. Since TV needed more consistent light, the windows were covered with thick blackout curtains, and now artificial light is the only illumination. Maybe someday cameras will be smart enough to deal with daylighting, and the curtains will be reopened.

Built in the era of cheap energy, little thought was given to energy efficiency, making the project a great candidate for a deep energy retrofit. There’s some irony here: project tech lead was Keith Fitzpatrick (Syska Hennessy), and as it turns out, Syska Hennessy was the engineer of record on the original design. Sometimes we get a second chance, I guess, and in this case, the chance came straight from the top. According to Adlerstein, a run-of-the-mill systems upgrade initiated by prior UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan turned into a deep energy retrofit under current Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who said the UN headquarters should be a "sustainability model for the world.” The design and early post-retrofit data are pointing towards savings upwards of 50%. The Secretary-General has had an impact beyond a new façade (including automated shades) and an improved chiller plant. He’s required warmer office conditions during the summer, suggesting workers take off their wool jackets to give the AC a break.

The façade facelift sharply reduced air infiltration and had an unintended consequence of increasing stack effect in the stairwells and elevator shafts. This led to unopenable doors and probably huge energy loss through rooftop vents. Technically, recent changes to NYC building code to allow closing elevator shaft louvers weren’t required for the UN; as sovereign territory, it doesn’t have to follow Department of Buildings policy! In practice, the UN is a good citizen, allowing voluntary DOB safety inspections, and Fitzpatrick said the venting has since been changed to accommodate the tighter façade. If world peace were only so easy!