Sustainability Complex

Sustainability Complex: Sophistication & Simplicity in Contemporary Architecture

By: Michelina Docimo

above: Exterior Facade & Courtyard of the General Theological Seminary, NYC Architect: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners. Photo Credit: Fed Charles

Contemporary art is the art of our times. Although time can seem linear, exacting and in some ways predictable, life today can nevertheless feel chaotic and filled with contradictory agendas. Health issues, economic woes, war and global warming seem to headline the news constantly. Artists, sensitive to their surroundings, perceive these sudden shifts as critical matter deserving of attention and often attempt to address them before their importance fades. Occasionally, the realities of today’s world are skillfully combined with the sensitivity of the artistic perspective. Connecticut’s, Sacred Heart University, Gallery of Contemporary Art, addresses this union of aesthetics and technology in its current exhibition, The Art of Sustainable Architecture, in meaningful and dramatic ways.

“Sustainability is a topic of our time,” Sophia Gevas, SHU’s gallery director, says with conviction. “We can no longer ignore the environmental challenges our world is facing. These problems are real and there are real solutions that are both beautiful and quantifiably which can make a difference in our quality of life.”

The exhibition contains hand sketches, plans, photos, and video of four architecture and planning firms making strides in sustainability: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners of New York City; Beinfield Architecture of Norwalk, CT;Centerbrook Architects and Planners of Centerbrook, CT and Faesy-Smith Architects of Wilton, CT. The selected projects encompass all types of architecture styles and uses–from living space, to educational, worship, and recreational projects. The common thread is brilliant sustainability.

“Architects are most proud of their finished works, but I wanted to include their hand drawings to show how an idea is born and fleshed out. Everyday we see, live in, and walk through the finished product. The thinking that goes on behind the design is just as impressive,” says Gevas. “When we have a group of local school children come in, view the works, and participate in an analysis, it is important to help them understand where to start – with an idea. Something connects with the brain-to-hand-to-paper movement that can lead to brilliance.”

The hand sketches show site analysis, sun angle studies, an inventory of deciduous and evergreen trees, slope of the land, and locations of bodies of water. Sustainable design is a discovery process that engages the architect to think about resources that already exist on the site, how the space is used, and imagine solutions that are resourceful, functional, and beautiful.

Beinfield Architecture PC, for example, has designed three kinetically-moving, musical sculptures for the proposed renovations of the Stepping Stones Children’s Museum in Norwalk, CT. Elements of sun, water, and wind energies are illustrated through whimsical sight and delightful sound, teaching children how these natural resources are harnessed and converted into power, where society can live more harmoniously with nature in a built environment. The Stepping Stones project is scheduled to be completed in December 2010 and attain LEED Gold status.

Follies Kinetic Sculpture Design for the Stepping Stones Children's Museum, Norwalk, CTArchitect: Beinfield Architecture PC

Fountain, Exterior Courtyard, Lock Building, Beinfield Architects. photo: R. Benson

Before U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) program existed and became the organizational protocol system of qualifying sustainability standards, there were movements by architects and designers to design with the environment in mind. Another of Beinfield’s projects, the Lock Building of South Norwalk (an historic lock factory constructed in 1856) was condemned and destined to be replaced with a parking garage. Built in response to the industrial revolution, then abandoned after the lock factory closed its doors, it was then converted into studio spaces and inhabited by local artists. As artists moved in, so did chic cafés and boutiques. But, the building remained in derelict conditions, an eyesore within sight of profitable, waterfront development. Saved from the wrecking ball by public action the building was later purchased by a private buyer. The Beinfield architectural group was then contracted to redesign the existing building. Lofts were converted into office spaces, but the original brick walls and some of the original factory furnaces and other equipment were restored in place to become sculptural forms that enhanced the assigned conference room areas. Beinfield used existing copper pipes and smokestacks to create water fountains in the exterior courtyard.

“Artists are pioneers in neighborhoods needing attention,” says Bruce Beinfield. “Real estate developers often follow artists’ migratory paths to scout areas for their risky business ventures. The Lock Building is an example of this. As technology evolves, it alters the way we can live and use space and, in turn, changes the appearance of the New England industrial cityscape.” Over the course of its history, this building has had three distinctive uses. New materials and technology allows us to re-purpose older spaces to accommodate changing lifestyles and activities within a space.

Exterior Courtyard of the Lock Building, Norwalk, CT Architect: Beinfield Architecture PC. Photo Credit: Robert Benson

Technological innovation is also critical in the search for new ways to create energy. Both Beyer Blinder Belle and Faesy-Smith Architects exhibit projects in which innovative technologies were employed to analyze the application of geothermal and solar energy, resulting in smaller carbon footprints for both urban and residential environments. However, all the architects in the exhibit stress the importance of a super-insulated building envelope to make these technologies more functional and cost effective.

Beyer Blinder Belle, a firm renowned for its historic preservation of sites like the Empire State Building, the Beacon Theater, and Grand Central Station, emphasizes both sustainability and aesthetics as the core of their mission to curate the restoration of iconic buildings of important social value. Architect, Maxwell Pau, explains the specific issue of historical preservation in retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy efficient: “Every project’s focus it to provide people with an environment of beauty and comfort, of contemporary relevance and timeless endurance. We look first at a building’s current condition and uses. Then we think, how can we make this better, not only for the singular structure and its occupants, but for society as a whole and for those that will use the existing building long after we are not here.”

One of Beyer Blinder Belle’s projects on exhibit, the General Theological Seminary, in Chelsea, NY, is a 260,000 square foot building that spans an entire city block. A new geothermal heating and cooling system will reduce the building’s carbon emissions by more than 14,000 tons. The 850-ton geothermal system is one of the largest geothermal projects in the Northeast. Three years of engineering studies were necessary in determining optimal well locations and system size. Immediate energy solutions included improving the insulation factor and integrity of the gothic windows.

Exterior of Historical Wilton Home, Wilton, CT. Architect: Faesy-Smith. photo:Pam Ronleau

Faesy-Smith Architects took a similar approach when retrofitting historical homes on a smaller scale. Projects on display include the Weston Historical Society’s Archival and Exhibition Space, a private residence in a historical Wilton neighborhood, and a new house construction in Southern Vermont located in a historical neighborhood. “The median house age is 35 years, built in the early 1970s before energy codes. This leaves tremendous opportunity to bring the existing housing stock to higher standards,” says architect, Thomas Smith. “Just as agencies monitor conservation of wetlands and other native forests, energy conservation can be enforced without compromising unique design.”

Michel Pariseau of Centerbrook Architects and Planners believes that the most sustainable action we can take is to build a structure that will last. “Of course, we should use technology in our designs, but even the most technical solutions won’t endure human indifference.” Centerbrook designed the Wolf Law School of the University of Colorado, Boulder, in an “L” form. Constructed of local sandstone and limestone façade with a red terracotta roof, the building’s long, narrow form take advantage of Colorado’s sunny days for light and warmth. Simply by orientation, daylighting, and window placement, Centerbrook was able to reduce heating and electricity needs by 40%. “The shape, not technology, was involved in making this building sustainable and comfortable.”

Paper Airplane Metal Awning for Shade, Centerbrook Studio,Architect: Centerbrook Architects & Planners. photo: Jeff Goldberg

Energy efficiency, material selection, community interaction, and aesthetic relevance are a few factors taken into consideration when creating sustainable spaces. “The complexity of being green requires a collaborative approach,” says Gevas. There is more than one right answer when aesthetics come into play. The Art of Sustainable Architecture is an introduction to sustainable imagination, the possibilities that exist in facing and responding to some of the most difficult issues of our times.

by: Michelina Docimo, Contributing Writer

This article first appeared in Artes Magazine:

The Art of Sustainable Architecture runs through March 4, 2010.

Sacred Heart University: The Gallery of Contemporary Art, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06825

Gallery Hours: Monday – Thursday, 12 – 5 pm & Sunday, 12 – 4 pm, Telephone: (203) 365-7650

Beyer Blinder Belle, 41 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10003, Telephone: (212) 777-7800

Beinfield Architecture PC, 1 Marshall Street, Norwalk, CT 06854, Telephone: (203) 838-5789

Centerbrook Architects and Planners, 67 Main Street, Centerbrook, CT 06409, Telephone: (860) 767-0175

Faesy-Smith Architects, 523 Danbury Road, Wilton, CT 06897, Telephone: (203) 834-2724


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