Building Sustainability at Ground Zero: A Talk with Bruce Fowle

Bruce Fowle believes design should be socially and environmentally responsible. As co-founder and senior principal of Fox & Fowle Architects, he has been instrumental in the construction of numerous sustainable structures, including the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square—the first green skyscraper in the U.S. Along with his firm, which is based in Manhattan, […]

Bruce Fowle believes design should be socially and environmentally responsible. As co-founder and senior principal of Fox & Fowle Architects, he has been instrumental in the construction of numerous sustainable structures, including the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square—the first green skyscraper in the U.S. Along with his firm, which is based in Manhattan, he developed the first green guidelines for residential high-rises (standards that covered such issues as improving indoor air quality, maximizing energy efficiency, and reducing environmental impact throughout all phases of site planning, construction, and maintenance) and is currently creating sustainability programs for several regional transportation systems and institutions.

Fowle has held leadership positions at several industry organizations, including at the AIA – New York chapter. Currently, he serves on the executive board of New York New Visions (NYNV), a coalition of design professionals that advises the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) on post-9/11 redevelopment efforts.

MetropolisMag editor Julie Taraska spoke with Fowle about Ground Zero’s environmental opportunities: the chance to readdress the site’s density, to explore renewable power sources, and to utilize green roofs. The discussion occurred in January 2004, days before the LMDC released its Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) for the WTC Memorial and Redevelopment Plan.

Which questions about sustainability do you believe have been addressed at Ground Zero?
We [at NYNV] understand that the LMDC has been working on environmental guidelines [the DGEIS] that we expect will address everything that they’ve been describing to us…energy conservation, water management, site conservation, solar orientation, daylight, and so on.

At this point, I don’t know how specific the LMDC’s green guidelines will be about the memorial. But the kinds of concerns we have about the memorial relate to things like the type of vegetation: hopefully, they’ll use native plants that don’t require a lot of maintenance and will naturally survive in the environment. The proposed memorial is full of waterfalls, but we don’t know where that water is coming from. Is it recycled? Will it be part of a collection system?

In my opinion, a good thing about the scheme the Memorial Committee selected [“Reflecting Absence”] is that it offers the opportunity to create a landscaped public plaza as well as a memorial. The memorial is not something that is in-your-face—it’s something you go over to, look down or go into, and experience by choice.

Do you feel that because sustainability wasn’t discussed from the onset of the WTC rebuilding efforts, opportunities were lost?
I think it is fair to say that there wasn’t serious consideration for the environment in the selected master plan. The plan is mostly about poetry—sculpture—it doesn’t address, for example, the impact of putting five towers to the north and to the east of an open space. It’s great for the open space, but you’re casting shadows on all of the buildings to the north and east. Big, big shadows. That certainly wasn’t considered.

Then there is the issue of density. We [at NYNV] have been saying from Day 1 that the WTC shouldn’t be rebuilt with the full 11 million sq. ft. that they had before. It’s just too much bulk. And that affects everything, from crowding in the street to light and air, interior environmental quality and mass transit.

Compared to the rest of Manhattan, the WTC site was ultra-dense. Was it this way because of plaza bonuses?
No. Because the land is owned by the Port Authority and is independent of N.Y.C. zoning rules—which is a matter of contention—the developers could build anything they wanted.

If you take the original site [the WTC towers and its surrounding 16 acres] and look at the FAR—floor-to-area ratio—the average was about 14. But if you use conventional N.Y. zoning analysis, you have a proposed FAR of 28-35 on the built blocks. In the densest areas of N.Y., the average FAR in a block is less than 15. So you are talking about large building bulks. Will the streets be places people will want to be? What about wind turbulence? I’m not sure the public understands this.

The LMDC’s argument is that you can’t look at it that way, you have to look at it in the overall 16 acres; and because there’s an open park there, it compensates for the density. That doesn’t compensate when you’re walking down the street. That’s like saying all of the buildings next to Central Park can take all the FAR off Central Park, so you could build huge buildings up and down Fifth Ave. and Central Park West.

Let’s talk about the Freedom Tower for a moment. There has been criticism about the wind turbines that have been proposed for the top of the building: that they won’t work, and that they will produce a ridiculous amount of vibrations. How feasible are the turbines? Could they actually produce 20% of the building’s electricity?
We have researched wind turbines in the past, and it has always brought up the vibration issue, the safety issue, and the bird mortality issue. The WTC is right in the flyaway of migrating birds, and the original WTC was the worst violator in terms of the amount of birds that were killed flying into the buildings at night. They’d either hit it directly or, if it was foggy, get confused and exhaust themselves. So maintenance crews would come out at 5 o’clock in the morning to clean the dead birds off the plaza.

There is some technology being developed for wind turbines that they claim doesn’t have vibration or safety problems. Historically, the problem has been in very high wind, the turbines tend to go out of control and self-destruct.

Wind generation is expensive for the amount of power it produces. We are anxious to see how much power they expect to produce with it, and whether it would justify the cost as well as the additional building mass. To put all that money, material, and bulk into wind to produce a limited amount of power is not necessarily the best thing—the [environmental] efforts have to be holistic.

Is there any possibility of green roofs on the buildings? In the current site plan, all of the roofs are slanted.
The way the buildings are shaped now, no. However, to me, the Freedom Tower design is enough of a departure from the original spiraling relationship [of the buildings in the site plan] that I think the slope-top form of the other tower might have to be reconsidered.

LMDC has to be more realistic about the fact that there will be different architects doing each building, and they might do different things. If they’ve broken the master plan form for the Freedom Tower, they could break it for the others. It seems to me if they reconsider and loosen up the shape of the other towers they would enhance the opportunity to make them more environmentally responsible.

In your experience, how common is it to break the master plan?
The rule of thumb of master plans is that they should be upgraded every five years. Needs change, market expectations change. In 20 years, when most of these building might be built, who knows what a perfect office building will be? What will be a marketable office building?

It seems to me that each of these buildings has to be extraordinary in order to, first of all, attract tenants. If you don’t allow individual expression to create a building that is truly wonderful, people won’t want to be there. And if in 20 years we are building buildings that were conceived in 2003, what is the likelihood of them being state-of-the-art?

Is that another reason why green issues should be looked at? As you mentioned, there is currently a groundswell of interest in sustainable building. If the WTC structures are conceived in 2003 then built 10 or 15 years later, won’t they seem like anachronisms if they don’t take into account the environment?
Yes. That’s a great point. Part of the evaluation of the site plan must be to test its adaptability for the future. We have to face the reality of the development world…you know, these buildings are financial enterprises and they have to effectively deal with the market. It is very difficult in an urban setting to change the orientation of buildings for their optimum relationship to the sun. But certainly, sustainable decisions [can be made] about green roofs and landscape levels.

Are there other green opportunities at Ground Zero, aside from what you have mentioned?
Aside from reducing the density? And getting rid of this insatiable desire to build the world’s tallest building?

I think, as I’ve said before, [the LMDC and those working on the buildings] just have to step back, take a general look at the master plan from an environmental point of view, hire some experts, and decide what they can do within the constraints of where they are now.

To me, the primary considerations, assuming the landscaping will take care of itself, is surface treatment: the question of how you utilize the tops of these buildings and what you do to relieve that density, because that will have a great impact on the present site.

Not that I’m against density: the more density that you provide in a controlled urban environment that doesn’t end up as sprawl across the countryside, that’s good density. I’m interested in creating density that is livable and habitable.

Recent Programs