The House at Cornell Tech Deserves to Be Put on Such a Visible Pedestal

CC BY 2.0. Looking down from the House at Cornell Tech/ Lloyd Alter

This is the future of building, and it works. Get used to it.

There is an old joke about the Tour Montparnasse in Paris: "Where is the best view in Paris? Answer: from the top of the Tour Montparnasse — it's the only place you can't see it." Two years ago people were talking about the House at Cornell Tech like that; what was then the world's largest Passivhaus residential building was on a prominent site, and architectural critics were not impressed. They thought it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Just one of many thumbs

Just one of many thumbs/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0Two years later, this building has the best views in New York City, and it is now just one thumb in a mittful of new buildings on a University campus that feels weirdly out of place. You see New York all around you, but are in what feels like a very suburban university campus composed of the Bloomberg school building, a conference centre, a hotel and a sort of corporate rental thing. It is even hard to find, with no signage from the cable car or the subway, sort of hidden around the back. The student residence is right at home in this weirdness.

closeup of skin of The House at Cornell Tech

closeup of skin of The House at Cornell Tech/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When you get close to the building, it is much, much better than the critics gave it credit for. Architects (and the people who look at architecture) are used to seeing a lot of glass on buildings, and are having some trouble adjusting to the new normal, which is limiting the amount of glass and its inherent heat loss and heat gain. The very best glass is still worse than a crappy wall. In Ontario, Canada, where I live, they changed the building codes to limit the amount of glass and, as I noted earlier, architects can't cope.

On Roosevelt Island, when you get up close, you can see that architects have coped rather nicely. The windows are in a grey band that is not flat, but has sloping panels that add shadow and depth.

Bedroom window

Bedroom window is plenty big!/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

If you go inside, you find that the windows are more than large enough to provide lots of light and wonderful views. The spaces are far easier to furnish than a building with floor to ceiling windows, you do not need any more glass than this.

Also, when you go inside, you find a really comfortable building with very high quality housing. While we were touring, the East River was begrimed with swarms of Sea-Doos and personal watercraft, the loud gnats of the sea. In the Passivhaus building with the windows closed, you could not hear them at all.

Lobby with lots of glass

Lobby with lots of glass/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This was still a building on a budget, but the public spaces may have had an economy of means, but there is a generosity of the ends. The ground floor spaces are very comfortable and have lots of glass, while the lounges on the top floor are probably among the nicest in town. Super-wealthy condo buyers would kill for these views.

View from the roof

View from the roof/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is something wonderful about this, that the billion dollar views are going to... students! Foreigners! Some are even Canadians!

This was the first Passivhaus building designed by Handel Architects, and they were very cautious, very careful. With Passivhaus you can't just design it to a certain standard, it has to be tested. So there was a bit of overkill, as our guide noted; they put in belts, suspenders and more belts to ensure that the wall didn't leak and that it hit all the numbers. It is really hard, and the fact that they succeeded, and that it looks as good as it does, is actually pretty amazing. It makes a real difference, too; as Handel notes on their site, this is a different kind of building, a healthier, greener building, that didn't cost a whole lot more than a conventional building.

Purified fresh air is ducted into each bedroom and living room, providing superior indoor air quality. Use of low VOC-paint, which limits off-gassing and also improves indoor air quality, is used throughout the building, among many other elements. Compared to conventional construction, the building is projected to save 882 tons of CO2 per year, equal to planting 5,300 new trees.

When The House at Cornell Tech first popped up on front of the bridge, it was unusual to see a building that wasn't mostly glass. Critics felt that it didn't live up to the significance of the site. But even the Mayor of New York is saying now that “we are going to introduce legislation to ban the glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming; they have no place in our city or on our Earth anymore.”

cladding the hotel next door

Cladding the hotel next door/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Everyone is just going to have to get used to it: the sexy glass curtain wall is doomed. There will be high-end expensive buildings with vacuum glass and other new glazing tech, but the vast majority of buildings will be very much like the house at Cornell Tech. If the complaint is that it was such a high-profile site, I respond that I cannot think of a better place to put a Passivhaus, the most energy-efficient buildings on the planet. They deserve to be on a pedestal.