By Ananth Robert Sampathkumar, Partner NDNY Architecture + Design
It was a particularly warm day in July. I had barely parked my Citibike at the docking station at Eighth and Greenwich Avenues, when I felt the incredible heat reflecting off 1 Jackson Square. Completed in 2008, the 11-storey high-end residential condominium sits on a corner lot and features an undulating glass façade that overlooks Jackson Square Park. The structure was designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, a world-renowned firm, best known for their international skyscrapers. The building faces due west and acts like a solar reflector for the mid-day sun, raising the temperature along Greenwich Avenue and the Park by several degrees.
1 Jackson Square is not alone in creating an artificial heat pocket. New York City is dotted with all-glass buildings that contribute to the urban Heat Island Effect—a phenomenon in which buildings and infrastructure soak up the heat and dissipate it slowly to increase the local temperature by several degrees. In 2015, a scientist named Brian Vant Hull led a team at City College of New York to understand how local temperatures varied across Manhattan, based on elevation, building type and other man-made factors. One of the big contributors were glass buildings, which created a ‘Light Box effect’—wherein sunlight is reflected onto the streets, making these areas warmer. In its worst form, all the reflections coalesce into a perfect beam to create a “death ray” so powerful it can cause serious heat related damages. Such was the case at the Las Vegas Vdara Hotel, designed by Rafael Vinoly. Three curved glass buildings were notorious for focusing the midday sun on the pool area, singeing some of their guest’s scalps. The same phenomenon occurred in London, where a 34-storey skyscraper dubbed the Walkie Talkie building, by the same architect, melted part of a car with its precision focused beams.
Recently Mayor Bill de Blasio made an announcement in April 2019 that he will be looking into banning the construction of “the classic glass and steel skyscraper”. The Mayor’s office cited the fact that buildings contributed to nearly 70% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. No legislation has been drafted yet but it is in an interesting proposition. Glass facades are relatively easy to fabricate, as the frames are mostly made of extrusions. The installation is fairly straightforward as well, as they come in modular pieces called ‘unitized sections’ so they can be hung off pre-installed brackets quickly. As a result they tend to be the envelope of choice for fast-track projects. Limiting the amount of glass will not only make architects consider other material options but also make Audubon New York happy. Glass buildings are a major culprit in bird deaths by collisions, with reflective glass being particularly destructive. Per the Audubon’s yearly collision monitoring study, they estimate around 90,000 to 200,000 birds are killed each year in New York this way.
Façades are incredibly complex constructs that have to perform several functions, from providing light, preventing water infiltration and limiting solar heat gain, to being the brand ambassador for the building. Understanding their purpose from the interior as well as the exterior will go a long way in making building facades friendlier for all.