Designing Light and Air

When the Bank Of America Tower opens in midtown Manhattan later this year, it will be a beacon of green. Its design is likely to earn the highest LEED rating—platinum—from the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the most sustainable skyscraper in the country. The building's developer, the Durst Organization and Bank of America, favored green principles in the design. Architect Rick Cook, of Cook+Fox, talked to NEWSWEEK about the innovative features of the 55-story glass-and-steel office tower—and about why concern about the environment is central to his practice.

NEWSWEEK: What got you so involved in green design?
Cook: It was actually our twin 6-year-old boys who were the conversion experience. My wife and I adopted our boys from Cambodia, and we think of our family as global citizens. In the U.S., we're using five times the world's resources, given our population, and if rapidly urbanizing countries such as China continue to increase their consumption of resources, it's a completely nonsustainable pattern.

What makes the Bank of America Tower sustainable?
It will save about half the energy that most buildings its size would use. But the real story is in terms of health, productivity and light—what we like to call "biophilia," a term coined by E. O. Wilson. People feel better when they feel connected to nature. So we've created naturally lit environments, and fresh air of as high a quality as possible, with underfloor air-delivery systems so people can control the air at their workstations.

Can you open the windows?
In New York City, there is a very high degree of particulates in the air: we filter out 95 percent of particulates, so the cleanest way to bring in fresh air is to deliver filtered air.

What about saving water?
One thing we're having is waterless urinals. I did the math—and that one gesture saves 3 million gallons of water a year. That's the equivalent of 22 million of those little water bottles which, if you laid them end to end, would stretch from New York to San Diego.

Nowadays, it seems " green " is being used as a marketing tool for new development.
We call it "greenwashing," the way some people use it as a sales tool without any integrity behind it. And that bothers me. But it's been amazing to watch so many people get interested in the real issues. When we first presented the design of this building in 2003, the No. 1 question we were asked was how much more does a building like this cost? Now the No. 1 question from audiences is, what can I do in my own life to live more sustainably? The world has changed very rapidly, with the U.N. climate-change report and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

But your building did cost more to build?
Payback period is how most people calculate it. The big factor in the Bank of America Tower is the cogeneration plant, which has the capacity to produce about two thirds of the building's annual energy requirements on-site, at almost three times the efficiency of using power from the grid. That was the most expensive technology, but the payback period, in reduced energy costs, is less than four years.

Daylight is a different factor: it costs energy, and we have floor-to-ceiling glass. There's solar-heat gain, and thermal loss in the winter. But from what we know about health and productivity, people do much better in a day-lit environment. So that's an example where you decide to spend energy to make a better place.

Isn ' t it important that the tower is close to so many subway lines?
People say, what's so green about a 2 million-square-foot skyscraper in Manhattan? The answer is that it is more green than 2 million square feet in the suburbs, because of mass transit. A subway car at rush hour gets the equivalent of 540 passenger miles per gallon. In an urban workplace, by our calculation, people use one twentieth of the energy, on average, using mass transit compared with people who drive to work.

Are architecture students today learning green design?
In the first wave, I think there was a lot of resistance in the good schools, seeing it as a kind of tree-hugger mentality. But what I see now is huge interest in the younger generation driving a change.

Aren ' t some other countries much more conscious of green building than the United States?
Yes. For example, green roofs are fairly novel here—our office in New York has one of the few. But in Frankfurt, Germany, there are green roofs everywhere. The Europeans have been way out ahead, partly out of necessity—fuel costs were way high-er there—and partly culturally, because there's an idea about stewardship and investing for multigenerations. America is much more obsessed with the now. But I think we're changing very, very quickly.

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