August 1, 2010
Democracy Now!’s new offices become the first broadcast facility to achieve LEED Platinum.
Every weekday, Democracy Now! broadcasts a rare and almost forgotten brand of journalism called independent news. The famously progressive program, cohosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, largely subsists on donations, eschewing advertising, corporate underwriting, and government funding in the name of objective coverage. DN! made its own bit of news in May when it renovated its new studio and offices, becoming the first broadcast facility to achieve LEED Platinum, the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest rating.
A few days before 9/11, DN! leased part of a decommissioned firehouse in Lower Manhattan from the Downtown Community Television Center. When DCTV received a grant to build theater and editing rooms, its scrappy news-show tenants had to find a new home. A year-long search ended with the purchase of a 9,000-square-foot floor of a former printing press. Determined to extend its ideology into its physical space, DN! embraced sustainability and turned to some of its millions of listeners for donated materials. “When we began telling people we were going to do this and do it green, they would say, ‘Oh! Well, my daughter makes this stuff out of bottles—let me put you in touch!’” says Karen Ranucci, DN!’s development director and de facto project manager.
Working with Bogdanow Partners Architects, DN! designed a loftlike, no-frills interior that incorporates elements of the space’s industrial past. The floors, scarred after years of wear, were diamond-polished and covered in a zero-VOC epoxy. Layers of paint and plaster were stripped from walls and columns to reveal red brick and steel. To reinforce the factory feel, the reception desk and conference-room doors—fashioned in Brooklyn out of recycled steel—were set on casters so that they can be wheeled aside to create a large, open space for events. During 11 months of construction, roughly 15 percent of the debris ended up in a landfill, with many of the original materials being repurposed. The old exterior single-pane windows (replaced by double-pane, low-emissivity, insulated glass) became the light-filtering walls of interior offices. To reduce electrical-energy usage, daylight was maximized, with lighting fixtures wired to automatic dimmers and sensors.
Perhaps the biggest consideration was how to regulate the temperature needs of a media-production facility. After consulting with the Rocky Mountain Institute, Democracy Now! devoted one-third of its $3.6 million budget to installing a chilled-water HVAC system that creates microclimates, heating and cooling zones according to their specific demands and purposes. Air-conditioning cuts off in the broadcast studio at 10 a.m., after the show wraps, but continues 24/7 in the computer-laden digital-archive room.
The project’s success is due in large measure to the working relationship of Ranucci and Dennis Darcy, the project contractor, who, three months into the project, took the added step of passing the LEED AP exam. “At that point, I realized I could help dictate changes instead of riding the current,” he says. Even so, not every member of the crew was so quick to abandon the longtime practice of buying the most economical, not necessarily the most sustainable, materials. “Vendors tend to pull from wherever is cheapest,” Darcy says. “We had to insist that the Sheetrock have the highest recycled content and that it come from the manufacturer in New Jersey, not the one in Tennessee.” That vigilance is an extension of DN!’s larger mission of bringing hard-won information to the public. “We’re dedicated to the principles,” Ranucci says, “and we want to educate people about them.”