Historic Pirelli Building Becomes Hotel Marcel

Becker + Becker shows how old buildings are not relics from the past, but are templates for the future.

end of pirelli building

Pat Krupa/ Becker + Becker

Being an architect, developer, and owner of a building project can be a challenge: There is nobody to answer to but yourself when you are your own client. But when Bruce Redman Becker renovated Marcel Breuer's Armstrong Rubber Company Building (later, more commonly known as the Pirelli Building) in New Haven, Connecticut, he treated the planet as his client. The hotel conversion is going for a whole alphabet of certifications: LEED Platinum, Net Zero, Energy Star, and EnerPhit, the renovation standard for Passivhaus.

Becker tells Treehugger:

"When you are an architect-developer you have only yourself to blame if you cut corners or build a building that is a burden on the environment. I felt an obligation to make a positive contribution across various disciplines in all our work including quality of design, preservation priorities, and increasingly, environmental impacts. I'm frustrated that professionals and civic leaders don't appreciate the urgency. Every car that is bought that uses gasoline, every building that is built which uses fossil fuels makes the problem irreversibly worse. If we have a choice as designers, to make a very simple choice. It is really no different than when you decide to buy a gas car or an electric car, whether you have an electric building or a fossil fuel-based building, it is basically a consumer choice that you make. It's also a good economic choice, in three or four years it's actually cheaper. The question is should not be, why are we doing this, but why isn't everyone else?"

Going Passivhaus

Working on the exterior of the building

Becker + Becker

Becker is being modest. Deciding to go EnerPhit is not a simple either-or choice in a renovation, where the preservationist wants to preserve the exterior which was not designed to be airtight as you have to be for Passivhaus. So you bring in the experts like Steven Winter Associates to figure out how to do it, how to control moisture so that the facade doesn't crumble in freeze-thaw cycles. Kate Doherty and Dylan Martello of SWA write:

"For the enclosure design, it was essential to keep the exterior façade and the building’s appearance intact. Therefore, the insulation, air and vapor barriers for the Passive House-level enclosure will be installed exclusively on the interior of the building. A continuous plane of closed-cell insulation on the interior face of the concrete panels acts as an air barrier and vapor retarder and provides a high R-value for the walls and roof. "
Insulation details

Stephen Winter Associates

"The SWA Enclosures team provided detailing of the continuous thermal breaks (aerogel-containing spray, tape, and insulating blocks) and condensation control for tight spaces around window and door openings in order to maintain the historic fabric while achieving Passive House and LEED goals. Selecting triple-pane windows that most resembled the existing historic windows will aid in airtightness and overall efficiency of the building."
Taping of Windows

Becker + Becker

Quality control is also critical if it is actually going to pass the required blower tests. Becker tells Treehugger:

"A lot of this stuff doesn't fall into any discipline. So I actually had our own architectural staff doing sealing of windows, you have to be obsessive about it. The good thing about this is it's a repetitive system. So if we solve the problem for one window, not that it was an easy problem to solve, because they're like 10 different materials and techniques and systems for each window but then we can replicate it."

The other major aspect of an EnerPhit Passivhaus project is dealing with ventilation. The project is heated and cooled with Mitsubishi VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) heat pumps, with separate fresh air management with Swegon air to air heat exchangers. However, because of COVID-19, the systems are designed to deliver 100% fresh air to the suites and public areas.

There is also carbon dioxide (CO2) detectors in the system because it is considered a good proxy for the virus. Becker says "so we are very much controlling the amount of circulation if the CO2 sensors detect, you know, something above four or 500 parts per million, then the ventilation ramps up so that we make sure everyone has good fresh air."

A big problem in Passivhaus commercial buildings is the kitchen. They use a lot of energy and move a lot of air through the exhaust hoods. One part of the solution is to go all-electric with induction ranges, which almost eliminates exhaust from the hood since there are no products of combustion from gas. The Steven Winters Associates article implied there were some menu changes required to do this, but Becker says it was pretty minor. "If someone wants a steak it's going to be a pan-fried steak," he notes.

When I suggested there wouldn't be much Chinese flash-frying, Becker said he had an electric wok. "There's pretty much something for every type of cooking you need that's electric. It's the same thing," says Becker. "It's similar with cars and trucks and buses, you can find an electric version of anything."

Going Net-Zero and DC

solar panels on parking

Becker + Becker

A hotel uses a lot of electricity, so getting net-zero is another challenge. The project has solar panels on the roof and covering the parking which is expected to produce 558,000 kilowatt-hours per year, which it puts back into the grid or its own 1 megawatt-hour battery system. When Phase II is complete it will produce 2.6 million kilowatt-hours per year.

But what was really exciting to this Treehugger was the use of a Power Over Internet (PoE) system, supplying energy to lighting, controls, blinds, everything over direct current, something we have been talking about for years. Becker notes that PoE saves a lot of energy lost through all the transformers; the output of the solar panels is DC, the LED lighting is all DC, so it actually saves money. The wiring is cheaper and smaller and the controls are much more sophisticated. The guest can control everything in the room, from the lighting to the window blinds.

Becker says, "It's actually simpler to install, less expensive to buy." It is also easier to troubleshoot. "If a guest calls down because they can't get their sconces bright enough," says Becker. "You can you can just change it."

Marcel Breuer and the Hotel Conversion

Before the renovation

via Becker + Becker

According to New Haven Modern: "The Armstrong building is one of major New Haven buildings by Marcel Breuer. Originally set like sculpture on a large green space, it illustrates the principal characteristics of Breuer’s style: separations of functionally different elements and a clear articulation of each." It is a classic that was almost lost completely after the property was bought by IKEA. Preservationists have not forgiven the company for demolishing the research wing for their parking lot. Becker + Becker has rescued and restored the iconic tower, converting the upper floors to rooms and the base into public spaces.

After renovation

Dutch East Design

Treehugger has covered other hotels in mid-century buildings such as Eero Saarinen's TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in New York, where they actually built new wings for the rooms and used the terminal for public space. With the Hotel Marcel, named after the architect, the interior designers, Dutch East Design had to figure out how retro mid-century to go. They have hit a balance: You are not walking into the 1960s but there are Breuer touches, the use of tubular steel, and some Breuer chairs in the suites. Becker says: "It's been a lot of fun to be able to start with this masterpiece by Marcel Breuer and then find a way to reinvent it to be super sustainable." They had the benefit of the Breuer archives at the University of Syracuse.

"Every single drawing that was in the original package, you know, we have poured over to appreciate, and this is something we've done collectively with Dutch East Design, the design that we just come out of this is really an organic outcome of what Breuer started."
Interior public spaces

Dutch East Design

They are restoring the executive offices and board rooms, But the renovated parts are updated and softened. The exterior is a brutalist classic, but as Becker explains:

"Modern architecture isn't always comfortable, For this to be successful. It has to have a certain warm touch to it. The building is controversial; the concrete might scare some people away. And they don't always appreciate it. But once you get inside, you'll see this warmth, I think will be really inviting. It doesn't ever stray far from the Bauhaus origins, though; there is a purpose to everything."

Don't Forget the Embodied Carbon!

Exterior detail of concrete

Pat Krupa via Becker + Becker

There are some points in that LEED Platinum application for saving an existing building and all that embodied carbon that would go off to the dump had this building not been saved. In fact, Becker says that probably 90% of the mass of the building is original and only 10% new materials.

This is such a critical point about renovation and restoration. When I was president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, I tried to make the case that heritage restoration was green and old buildings "were not relics from the past, but were templates for the future."

Becker has provided the ultimate demonstration of a template for the future. He has taken what was an abandoned and obsolete building by an important architect and has given it a new purpose. He has done it to absolutely the highest standard so that it burns no fossil fuels and generates as much energy as it uses. He has made it a healthy building with 100% fresh filtered air in every room, which every new building should have, let alone every renovation. He has taken some risks, but as he tells Treehugger:

"We'll spend five years on one project, and they don't always turn out to be economic successes. But if it would be an environmental success, then I still consider that to be time well spent. What would be devastating to me is if we took the risk as a developer, architect, and lost our shirt, and we ended up building a building that was awful for the next few generations, that would be a totally wasted effort."
Top of building

via Becker + Becker

This is no wasted effort. It demonstrated how older buildings should be treated with respect and imagination, how they should never be demolished or replaced if they can be repurposed and reused.

But most importantly, in a world where every ounce of carbon matters, Becker demonstrated how to do a project with 90% less upfront carbon emissions and zero operating emissions, which is what every building should be.