Don’t Sniff at Midtown’s “Tissue Paper” Buildings

Before he was an award-winning green starchitect, Bob Fox (COOKFOX) was a simple draftsman for the wave of mid-century curtain wall office construction in Midtown. When he started work in 1966, gas cost a you-read-that-right $0.19/gallon and energy savings couldn’t have been farther from mind while designing these pre-oil crisis buildings. Fifty years later, these “disposable” buildings are still here, even though energy prices and climate disruption have drastically altered the backdrop against which we judge building performance. Our conference, Modern All Over Again, asked: is there life left in these “tissue paper buildings”?

Leading owners are breathing life into these dowdy dinosaurs. Many do it because there’s a clear business benefit. “My job is to lease all these old buildings,” said Glen Weiss (Vornado)—a job he’s been doing since 1986. “You can’t knock them down,” so how do you make them better? “One thing we’ve been really focused on at our company, for many years now, is redeveloping our assets. That has been our bread and butter.” At 330 Madison and one or two projects each year like it, the work is accomplished while the buildings are occupied. It’s complex and “we spent a lot of money, but it pays off” through energy savings of $1 per square foot per year, a huge percentage of total building energy cost. Weiss sees the building industry on a constant cycle of improvement: “There have been a lot of changes over the years, and all for the better.” And it’s not just about energy savings. “We have been tracking environmental health factors every day for 30 years” for occupant health and satisfaction.

330 Madison Avenue Before and After

Markus Schulte (Arup) described a similarly ambitious project at 1271 Avenue of the Americas. The building originally used single-pane glass for both windows and opaque spandrel panels, with exterior air ducting adding additional heat loss. To refresh the building envelope, it’s technically possible to drop a new curtain wall in front of the existing building frame, allowing insulation to be added. While moving the façade outboard of its current location might save energy, it would also make the building effectively larger and thus require City approval as the building is “built out” on its lot. As Schulte drily put it, “City zoning regulations do not lightheartedly allow you to add to existing square footage in your building right now.” His calculations show that improving the solar heat rejection and reducing infiltration may be as important to whole-building energy savings as the insulation, so perhaps this will be worked out. Stay tuned.

1271 Avenue of the Americas

In the middle of last century, developers could toss up the largest building that fits within the zoning envelope, happily heedless of code wind load and energy usage calculations that were still decades in the future. But midtown office construction isn’t the Wild West anymore. There’s a new sensibility, and while many of these buildings will be demolished and replaced, many more will be redeveloped. As Michael Adlerstein from the UN put it to me after the panel, “The future requires learning how to recycle buildings just like we recycle everything else.” These buildings are some of the first to become modern all over again.

See video of the blog on Youtube.

About the author

Cecil Scheib
Cecil Scheib is Chief Program Officer for Urban Green Council.