Is Bjarke Ingels' Via West 57 really "sustainable and resilient"?

West 57
© W57

Everybody loves Bjarke Ingels, the hottest starchitect of them all right now; he is young, talented, charming and cranking out buildings everywhere. And yet- I have always been a bit troubled by his work. Perhaps the root of my concern is that before I was a writer at TreeHugger, I was an architect and then a real estate developer in Toronto, Canada, where I learned a few hard lessons about how to put buildings together. And I now look at Bjarke’s work and wonder wow, how does he do this?

Lets have a look at the Via West 57th project, this incredibly dramatic pyramid wrapped around a courtyard, that is just being completed.

sustainabilityW57 sustainability/Screen capture

VIA 57 West markets itself as sustainable:

VIA 57 WEST sets a new paradigm for environmental responsibility. Centered around the four core elements— Water, Air, Earth and Energy— VIA 57 WEST gives back to the environment and provides a home where people not only live well but thrive. An integral part of the VIA 57 WEST DNA, sustainability has been woven throughout the building and each of its residences.

They claim that “materials and construction have been carefully considered for their resiliency and environmental impact.” They also seem to have developed their own "four core elements" philosophy while dropping their original pledge to go for "either a LEED Gold or Platinum rating," So there is no real third-party verification of anything. But do they really understand sustainability and resilience? Sustainability by definition means "capable of being sustained." But the design of this building raises some fundamental questions.

I visited it on a recent visit to New York and have to say, it is stunning. The entry, the courtyard, the way it looks from afar.

model W57Lloyd Alter/ Model of W57/CC BY 2.0

But when I first saw that model of this building in the BIG Copenhagen offices in 2013, I thought, how are they going to build this, how are they going to keep the water out?

model closeupLloyd Alter/ closeup of model/CC BY 2.0

Traditionally, buildings have roofs that shed water, and walls that hold up roofs. Where apartments have balconies, they usually cantilever out and slope to the outside so that water can drain. There are often balconies on top of occupied space but they are always expensive to build, insulate and waterproof and prove the adage that you don’t buy a roof, you rent it. That’s why in most buildings it is on top, where the roofers can get at it, and why one tries to minimize inaccessible roofs. Every private terrace is a problem.

On this building, the entire design is predicated on balconies on top of living spaces. You cannot just have a scupper to drain out because of the slopes, so there has to be a complex internal drainage system. You have to install insulation, membranes, drains, water stops, it is endless, every single balcony has to be built like a shower pan, but with insulation too. This is not easy.

20 Niagara Street© 20 Niagara Street Toronto

I have learned this the hard way. When I built my first condo in Toronto, the penthouse had a balcony that was on top of a unit below. When the window washers threw their lines over the handrails on that balcony, it bent the handrails in, penetrating the membrane, letting in water to the unit below and costing me $16,000 to repair. One silly mistake and there you go.

There is a reason that although I was a strict modernist, I have come to respect and admire traditional detailing and design; Through the course of history architects have learned how to cope with these kinds of issues. It’s why traditional buildings have roof overhangs and cornices; they are all there to keep water off the walls. They are there to provide multiple levels of protection and insurance so that it still keeps the water out even when caulks or membranes fail.

Marine Museum ElsinoreLloyd Alter/ Warping decking on the ramp at Marine Museum, Elsinore/CC BY 2.0

Bjarke doesn’t worry about such things. He reinvents the wheel on almost every job; that’s one reason the big ramp on his Marine Museum in Denmark appears to be held together with duct tape. He is building a new world, a new architecture and it is inspiring, gorgeous and fun, just like he is. But I am not sure that it will wear well, that it is sustainable in the true meaning of the word. I remain concerned that every time you reinvent the wheel, it tends to fall off sooner than you expected.

W57Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I love the work of Bjarke Ingels, and so admire the career he has built in such a short time. But perhaps I have been hit over the head often enough to develop a respect for the tried and true. I am not sure that Bjarke has yet.

Tags: Green Building | New York City


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