The Sky’s The Limit

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Byline: Anna Kuchment

Rents may be higher, but utility bills–and maybe your allergies–are better in a green high-rise.

When David Bach moved into the Solaire, an environmentally sustainable apartment building in New York City, the staff presented him with an assortment of ecofriendly household and bath products, plus a pamphlet of tips for green living. So far, Bach has furnished his two-bedroom only with nontoxic, partially recycled or otherwise sustainable decor. Having long suffered from allergies and winter asthma, Bach says his symptoms have vanished thanks to the building’s advanced air-filtration system. “I used to wake up every morning feeling like I had a cold,” he says. He now takes allergy medicine only when he travels.

The Solaire made a splash in 2003 when it became the first high-rise apartment building to earn gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for features like its photovoltaic panels, on-site water-treatment system and roof covered in soil and local vegetation. Since the Solaire won its certification, 43 residential towers have followed suit, and more than 300 are in the LEED pipeline. The Solaire’s developers have branched out into new projects, completing a rental tower next door that became the first to win a LEED Platinum rating, the highest available. The team, made up of the Albanese Organization and architect Rafael Pelli, of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, is now at work on a third green Battery Park City project, the Visionaire, a luxury condominium with such features as a skylit indoor pool and elevators with brakes that help generate electric power. Their experience makes for a good case study on the business of building green.

It’s getting cheaper to build green: Russell Albanese, president of the Albanese Organization, estimates that the green elements in the Solaire cost him an extra 17 to 20 percent upfront. That’s partly because the design and development team had to spend extra time finding, researching and testing the few sustainable materials and products that were on the market back then. But the past eight years have brought “a tremendous market transformation,” in which contractors are more knowledgeable about LEED requirements and many more green products are available. By 2006, when the Verdesian was completed, Albanese’s investment premium was down to below 15 percent, and with the forthcoming Visionaire it’s down to about 5 percent.

Tenants are paying to go green: Rents at the Solaire run about 8 to 9 percent higher than at nearby non-LEED-certified buildings. Studios start at $2,500, one-bedrooms at $3,500, two-bedrooms at $5,500 and three-bedrooms at $7,500. But that hasn’t slowed demand: not only is the building fully occupied, but there’s usually a waiting list for apartments.

The true monetary value of green is in dispute: Real-estate appraisers are still not certain how much, if any, value LEED certification adds to the long-term value of a property. “It’s entering into our calculus right now,” says Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of Miller Samuel real-estate appraisers in New York City. Builders are going green in an effort to make their projects stand out at a time when the housing market is slowing down and builders need a competitive edge. Miller does see ecofriendly buildings as a long-term trend. Not having the term “green” in your marketing materials, he says, has become a negative, so he expects it to eventually become the standard.

Green buildings don’t have to be ‘luxury’: There are few cities besides New York, with its combination of population density, sophisticated moneyed clients and city tax incentives for green builders, where high-rises like the Solaire could be so successful. But, says Pelli, leaving off expensive equipment like photovoltaic panels (which use sunlight to generate approximately 5 percent of the Solaire’s electricity) and heliostats (giant mirrors used on the neighboring Verdesian to capture and redirect sunlight to a nearby park) would keep costs low while achieving many of the same benefits.

For David Bach, though, his rent premiums have paid off. Not only is his health better, but his utility bills are down and he’s discovered a new purpose in life. In fact, the investment adviser turned best-selling author of personal-finance books was so inspired by his experience at the Solaire that he wrote “Go Green, Live Rich,” due out next month. In his case, the riches come in many different colors.



BETTER LIGHT THAN NEVER: The Solaire, rooftop heliostats, the Visionaire, solar panels


Designs on business: a new exchange aims to market innovation


The 40,000-sq-ft Design Exchange opened in fall 1994, in Toronto, Ontario, and will serve as an teaching center, product launching facility, and exhibition hall for Canadian-designed goods. The building took seven years to build, and cost an estimated $20 million.

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When the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE) moved into its stunning, new, Art Deco headquarters on Bay Street in 1937, the Canadian economy was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. In 1994, as the economy emerges from the ravages of a recession, the grand old building in the heart of Toronto’s financial district is again housing an institution whose mandate is to promote prosperity. But where the exchange of the 1930s helped businesses to exploit Canada’s natural resources, the new Design Exchange, which opened last week, focuses on the benefits of design and innovation. Simply put, good design is the creative process that provides the vital link between a concept and a product that appeals to consumers. Guided by that philosophy, the new 40,000-square-foot nonprofit facility houses resource centres, meeting rooms and exhibition halls. Proponents of design excellence say its ability to add value to products is essential in today’s rapidly changing economy. Says architect Howard Cohen, president of the exchange: “Good design can produce distinctive, salable products and services, lower production costs, increase prestige for Canada–and ultimately create jobs.”

The need for a new edge is clear. According to the annual World Competitiveness Report published in September, Canada has fallen to 14th place among 22 industrialized countries, from fourth in 1989. When the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America are included in the rankings by the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Canada slips to 16th place. One reason Canada seems to be falling behind, says Cohen, is only two per cent of the goods manufactured in Canada are designed in Canada.

The exchange, which took seven years to complete and is valued at $20 million, including more than $6 million invested in the facility by governments, has a mission to improve those numbers. Its full-time and volunteer staff, including graphic artists, museum curators and even a former banker who acts as a liaison with business, will encourage Canadian business to be more innovative by staging exhibitions featuring the best in Canadian and international design, and by offering seminars, lectures and conferences. The facility will also serve as a venue for product launches from new cars to office furniture, and will act as a central resource for designers, businesses and academics. One key way it will do this is by creating and maintaining a multimedia electronic database, the Canadian Design Directory. The directory will be available on-line in the spring of 1995, so that anyone from Vancouver to Halifax can gather information on Canadian design, designers and products since 1945. The electric kettle, the snowmobile and the cordless-electric lawnmower are all Canadian design innovations.

While the exchange was set up to help designers and manufacturers, Cohen says he hopes that it will also bolster consumer demand for better products. To do that, most of the exchange’s exhibitions will be open to the public. The first, Second Nature: Things and Worlds of Our Making, features 14 international and Canadian companies recognized for their effective design work. The self-guided exhibit, which features everything from twinkling Christmas tree lights from Toronto’s Noma Industries Ltd. to recyclable packaging from The Body Shop of London, shows visitors that design is part of their everyday lives.

The exchange itself experienced how difficult the design and development process can be. In 1983, the TSE moved to new larger quarters just a block away. The old building stood empty while politicians, developers and citizens’ groups dickered over possible uses for it, from an urban garden to a banquet hall. In 1989, a small group of designers and academics gained the support of Toronto officials to occupy the historic building, if a deal could be struck with the developer, TD Centre West, which also had plans for the site. Eventually, they all agreed that the developer could build a fifth office tower on its city-block-sized site–literally on top of the old TSE building–in return for giving the building to the city and restoring the original trading floor.

The recession slowed further fund-raising efforts, but proponents of the exchange eventually raised $8 million to complete it. This included $3.8 million from the federal government and $2.5 million from the Ontario government, as well as $1.7 million from the private sector. Fund-raising efforts, however, must continue. Only 40 per cent of the exchange’s estimated annual operating budget of $2.9 million will come from revenues–and none from any level of government, says Cohen.

Still, Canada can now boast the first design promotion and exhibition centre in North America. That puts it in the select ranks of such countries as Singapore, Germany and Sweden. The Design Exchange’s next major challenge will be to convince Canadian business that incorporating design excellence into its products and processes is an investment in its future and not just an added cost.

>>> View more: Scanning the unknown: a new telescope may unlock space’s secrets

Scanning the unknown: a new telescope may unlock space’s secrets

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Scanning the unknown A new telescope may unlock space’s secrets

When he flies to Hawaii, Canadian astronomer Robert Garrison takes a parka and other winter clothing. That is because he spends nearly all of his time in the American state at a joint Canadian-French astronomical observatory located 14,000 feet above sea level at the summit of a chilly, arid mountain. The mountaintop on the island of Hawaii is considered one of the best sites on Earth for studying the universe, said Garrison, a University of Toronto astronomy professor. But even there, the Earth’s atmosphere distorts and blurs light from distant stars and galaxies. Now, space scientists around the world are eagerly awaiting the lunch of a $1.85-billion, American-built telescope that is expected to revolutionize astronomy by operating outside the Earth’s disruptive atmosphere. Said Houston-based astronomer C. Robert O’Dell, who spent 11 years supervising the development of the telescope: “With one sweep, we will make the jump in performance that Galileo did with the first telescope.”

If it performs according to expectations, the space telescope will allow astronomers to peer farther into the universe than ever before. A mission by the U.S. space shuttle Discovery that would have carried the telescope into space was aborted last week because of a problem in the auxiliary power unit. But scientists say that after the telescope reaches its orbit, probably later this month, they will be able to see seven times farther into the universe than they can from Earth and perhaps examine the very beginnings of time.

American and Canadian astronomers predict that the telescope will help them determine, with reasonable precision, the size, age and potential fate of the universe. They also say that it will lead to dozens of new discoveries and new fields of study. Said John Bahcall, president-elect of the American Astronomical Society: “If we don’t find things we haven’t thought of before, it’s an indication that the Deity was deficient in his imagination when he stocked the universe.”

Named after the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, who in 1929 discovered that the universe is expanding, the telescope was financed 85 percent by the Washington-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration and 15 per cent by the European Space Agency. But hundreds of North American and European astronomers and engineers actually designed and developed the device. Those scientists expect that they will soon be able to explore the very edges of the universe, and perhaps witness the birth of stars and galaxies.

As well, they expect to investigate with uprecedented precision such mysterious phenomena known as quasars, that is thought to be associated with them. And some astronomers will be looking for stars, like the Earth’s own sun, that have planets orbiting them. Said Bruce Gillespie, an astronomer with the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees the operation of the telescope: “We are expanding the horizons of man’s consciousness.”

After nearly 20 years of design and development, the telescope that is scheduled to go into orbit 360 miles above the Earth is huge: 43 1/2 feet long, 14 feet in diameter and 12 tons in weight. The heart of the telescope is an 1,825 lb. mirror, measuring 94 1/2 inches across, which will capture visible and ultraviolet light from stars and a variety of cosmic objects. So precise is it that scientists compare it to a golfer hitting a ball in Maryland and routinely getting a hole-in-one in California. They also say it possesses the accuracy required to aim a laser beam from Washington at a nickel in New York City and hold it on target for 24 hours.

By operating outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the telescope will be able to focus the light into images of unprecedented clarity and precision, said O’Dell. The captured and focused light will undergo analysis by six highly sophisticated onboard instruments. They will also transform the light energy into electronic signals, which will be relayed to a receiving station in New Mexico, said Gillespie. He added that the telescope is designed to process and relay vast amounts of information 24 hours a day. The data will be stored electronically.

The Hubble, designed to operate for 15 years, will be serviced and repaired in orbit by space shuttle astronauts. John Hutchings, an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, was a member of the team that designed the telescope’s $72-million high-resolution spectograph – a device that analyses ultraviolet light from stars, permitting astronomers to determine a star’s mass, chemical composition and velocity. Hutchings said that the telescope has been designed in such a way that the onboard instruments can be removed and replaced as new, more sophisticated equipment becomes available.

Because of the extraordinary capabilities of the telescope, astronomers have been competing intensely for the privilege of using it. Gillespie said that, during the first year of operation, half the available time has been reserved for about 80 American, Canadian and European scientists who worked on the design and development. The remaining time has been allocated on a competitive basis. Gillespie said that teams of scientists from around the world submitted 556 research proposals, but independent juries of astronomers selected only 162 proposals most likely to prove valuable.

Although many of the participating scientists will be exploring vastly different parts of the universe, several will be wrestling with fundamental issues about the size and age of the cosmos. Astronomers currently theorize that the universe is between 10 billion and 20 billion years old. O’Dell said that soon they should be able to provide a more precise answer.

Over the next 12 months, about two dozen Canadian astronomers are expected to take part in research projects using the Hubble. Hutchings, for one, said that he has about 10 projects planned, including a study of quasars. James Hesser, a fellow astronomer at the Victoria observatory, said that he plans to lead a 15-member Canadian-American research team studying star clusters – groups of several hundred to one million stars that orbit around the centre of a galaxy. John Caldwell, an astronomer at Toronto’s York University, said that he will examine a star in an obscure constellation called Pictor. A gigantic dust ring that is larger than the Earth’s solar system orbits the star. Added Caldwell: “Planets may be condensing out of the dust.”

The advent of space-based astronomy will not make earthbound observation of the universe obsolete. Indeed, the world’s largest telescope, a 393-inch, $112-million giant, will begin operating next year on the same Hawaiian mountaintop as the Canada-France observatory. Gillespie said that discoveries made through the Hubble may sometimes lead to follow-up studies using earthbound observatories. Alternatively, astronomers who reach the limits of cosmic discovery on Earth will be able to continue their work using the Hubble. For many astronomers, the combined power of the Hubble telescope and everlarger earthbound observatories promises to revolutionize mankind’s ability to explore our universe.

>>> View more: Global warning

Global warning

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There is no building so hideous that it is beyond the powers of any modern architect worth his salt to design something even worse. This important truth of the science of aesthetics was borne out recently when I visited Paris and went for the first time to the Musee du Quai Branly, on the banks of the Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Until then, I had not thought it possible to build a museum more ugly than the Centre Pompidou; but I was greatly mistaken. Moreover, it did not even need a British architect to do it: the French have found one all of their own.

The vast but nevertheless claustrophobic museum is devoted to what might once have been called primitive art. Certainly the word primitive is preferable to (as well as more honest than) the words inscribed near the entrance to the museum: Monsieur Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic, wanted the Museum of the Quai Branly to do justice to the arts and peoples of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, by recognising their essential part at the heart of the universal patrimony, and thereby contribute to the development of necessary dialogue between civilisations and cultures.

Am I alone in finding this gratingly condescending? What it really means is ‘Left bank to cannibals! Left bank to cannibals! We think your carvings are not bad for people like you, who know nothing of tarte tatin.’ Nor am I sure that the inheritors of the ancient and exquisite civilisations of east, south, central and south-east Asia will altogether appreciate being lumped together with the cannibals of Melanesia and head-hunters of Borneo. How parochial can you get!

The Musee du Quai Branly manages the difficult feat of being at the same time hugely expensive and looking very cheap. Clad in horrible metal plates painted the colour of an old tramp steamer, its facade is interrupted, for no obvious reason, with large protruding metal boxes of bright primary colours. A long window reveals an enormous photograph of a tropical forest: the purest kitsch.

Only 18 months after its opening, it already looks dirty and dilapidated: indeed, it looks designed specifically to become so. On entering it, I noticed a large space to the left of the walkway that ascends to the galleries in which there was a pile of what appeared to be rubbish.

One never knows these days: a pile of rubbish could also be a priceless exhibit. But no, this was no exhibit: part of the ceiling above had fallen in, revealing gaping holes and the gimcrack nature of the whole construction.

What has gone wrong, that such a hideous and dysfunctional monstrosity could even be imagined, let alone constructed? The name of the architect, by strange coincidence, gives a clue: Jean Nouvel.

The demon of novelty as a virtue in itself has taken possession of our souls. And this is because we feel the need to mark the world whether we have any talent or not. Thus a building such as Musee du Quai Branly is to the elite what graffiti is to the ego-inflamed adolescent of the banlieues.

Notes from underground

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THE most recent culture-war slappy fight involved transportation: Do you know anyone who drives a pickup truck, the vehicle of those who labor in the earth, the chosen people of God? Upstate of course is full of pickups, though my archetype of the country vehicle is the Volkswagen that Doug bought for $400, customized, then drove until it fell apart (its last incarnation was as a lumber wagon). But this for another time. In the city, the vehicle of choice is the subway, which is called the train.

Talk about old technology. With great fanfare and not a little mockery, the transit system opened a new short spur on the Upper East Side. The extension had only been on the drawing board for a century. How did all the other lines get built? There are 236 miles of routes, running from the North American mainland to the barrier reef of Long Island. What made it happen? Cheap labor? No safety standards? Will to power? Something produced a great spurt, on which the city has coasted ever since.

In peak hours the trains can be almost Japanese in density, and in willed ignorance of one’s surroundings. Everyone stands at attention (the seats have been filled long ago). Hands angle for poles or overhead grab bars. The tall can reach up and gain a little stability by pressing a palm flat against the ceiling. If a gentleman swivels up to yield his seat to a pregnant woman, it is as astonishing as the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Crowding is irksome but normal. As long as we feel the roll and rattle and glimpse the staccato of passing tunnel lights, we’re on schedule, we’re making progress, we’re riding the hay wain together. Normal but alarming are the stops.–? After three beats we think: Accident? Hijacking by criminal masterminds? Jihad? What fans alarm are the announcements designed to allay it, either because they refer opaquely to “an incident” for which this train is being held, or because they refer in static-ese only to KHKHKXL.

In the watches of the night the train is almost empty, which brews its own weirdness. Years ago I took a crosstown hop. Across from me sat a woman whose blouse was open. Across and down sat a man, obviously not an acquaintance, eyeing her. She giggled; she was high as a kite. This would not close well. Another time my wife and I were returning from a pre-hipster outer borough when a posse got on, jumping up and down as loudly as they could, and shouting “This is t’F*** Train.” Youth must have its day. We looked straight ahead until they departed.

Managing the trains and the stations they serve is a constant struggle against disorder. In the Seventies and Eighties the struggle had gone the way of Canute. Trains and platforms were infested with beggars and panhandling musicians. A nun sat at the bottom of one of the escalators descending into the bowels of Grand Central Station. The diocese had said several times in my life that there are no mendicant nuns in New York. Tell that to Sister Tip-Me. The clergy of the new religion of social justice barged through the cars, announcing that they were accepting donations of food for the homeless. What a great welfare system–half-eaten turkey wraps, available for distribution, oh, maybe four hours after they were collected. You could, of course, also give them money. Blind men rattling cups flourished their canes like vergers’ wands (also “blind” men: a friend of mine once pretended to be one for a day). My standing to complain could be questioned since I met my wife in a singing group that performed, in the larger stations and on the harbor ferries, the music of Guillaume Dufay and cover bands (Josquin, William Byrd, etc.). But our conductor had gone to the powers that be for a permit, and we never solicited or accepted donations.

Beginning in the Nineties, the culture of the city and of the trains changed. No more googly graffiti in cars or on station walls. The only paint you saw was regulation. Beggars and punks got moved along or taken in. The only in-train musicians now are black male a cappella quartets that sing doo-wop or old soul. They drop a tune, then move to the next car, like table-hopping violinists in the posh restaurants of Forties movies. Other music comes from the trains themselves. On certain lines they sing (this is relative, not perfect pitch) C-up to B-flat-A, the first three notes of “There’s a Place for Us,” rudely followed by B natural. From Bernstein to Webern, or Bach: The four notes are, in German notation, an anagram of the BACH theme, C-B(=B-flat)-A-H(=B-natural).

Between rush hour and spooky hour, you can relax and look around. Ads: lots for foot problems and skin care. Nontraditional degrees, more legit one hopes than those once offered by the 45th president. The strange tongues of government announcements: Bernstein wrote a musical about a white-Puerto Rican romance, now it would have to be Company with Chinese-, Russian-, Korean-, and Kreyol-speaking characters. I pray they never install video ads, and pray on my knees that they never allow political ads. My last prayer will probably be granted: The city is a one-party state, why bother? People still do read analog books on the train-and not just schoolwork, by the look of it. Rarely a newspaper though, not even the commuter giveaways.

Strangely, in all my years underground, I have hardly run into anyone I know. Last spring, a man with a Caribbean accent recognized me from TV and asked my esti-ma-tion of the Trump situ-a-tion. He had to get off before I could answer. Good thing: What did I know? And just the other day, I was rolling uptown to a breakfast meeting when I caught, across a crowded train, the eye of a colleague. Almost missed him. I was in the zone.

>>> View more: Test Designers Seek Help of Students, One at a Time