Innovation & Design

Turning the United Nations Green


The delayed renovation of the United Nations buildings in New York will address security, IT infrastructure, and energy-use shortcomings

Critics might argue that many things about the United Nations need rethinking, and that perhaps renovating its headquarters doesn't have to be top priority. Nonetheless, the Capital Master Plan, a proposal to renovate the international organization's monolithic Manhattan home that was first introduced in 1996, is now finally moving ahead.

In December, 2006, the General Assembly approved a $1.9 billion budget to renovate the complex, and at the end of last month, Swedish construction company Skanska (SKSBF) was signed up (for $7 million up-front) to oversee the estimated $1 billion worth of construction, which includes contracts, equipment, and labor costs. Five architectural firms, including Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Helpern Architects, and HLW, will collaborate on the project.

To deal with the vast project on a daily basis, the U.N. General Assembly appointed a 40-person group, led by project manager Michael Adlerstein, who has worked on the renovations of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, to oversee and coordinate all the plans. Not least of his tasks, Adlerstein must negotiate the U.N.'s own tricky internal politics. The renovation project is funded by all of its 192 member states, with the U.S. contributing 22% of the overall cost.

A Fixer, Not a Teardown

The original headquarters—designed by French architect Charles Le Corbusier, along with a panel of multinational architects including Wallace Harrison of the U.S. and Howard Robertson of Britain—opened in 1952. Built for $65 million, the 39-story building now swarms with the delegates from member states and the 4,000 administrative staffers who work within the iconic Secretariat building.

Other buildings nearby include a library, a building for the General Assembly, and the Conference building that hangs over Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. All of the buildings are active year-round, and while a temporary building will be built to house the General Assembly, ripping down the main Secretariat was never, according to officials, an option.

But the half-century-old buildings are in urgent need of a refit. The Secretariat building is leaking air through its glass exterior walls, interior structures are riddled with toxic asbestos (although there's allegedly no immediate health risk as it's embedded in the insulation material, this will prove an issue when interiors are ripped up). The heating and cooling systems are erratic, and the entire IT system is outdated. Security systems are also in need of an update: $166 million of the Capital Master Plan is allocated for blast protection.

Model U.N. of Efficiency

Nonetheless, those looking for signs of radical change will be disappointed. When completed in April, 2014, the U.N. will look as it does today from the outside. Or, as Adlerstein puts it, "Ten years from now, there will be no way to tell that the U.N. was renovated unless you look at the energy bill." The U.N. had an energy bill of just over $15 million in 2006, and officials claim that the new plans aim for a 30% reduction of energy use. And green is a sustaining principle of the whole redesign.

On June 5, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that he would like the new HQ to "become a globally acclaimed model of efficient use of energy and resources." As such, he's earmarked $28 million of the budget to ensure green principles are applied. Proposed initiatives include energy-efficient light fixtures, room sensors that turn off lights if a room isn't occupied, and solar energy systems.

The interior of the Secretariat building will be redesigned with more open space to exploit the natural light that comes through the glass façade. Officials say they are aiming for, at the very least, a LEED Silver rating. LEED is a system run by the U.S. Green Building Council to judge buildings for energy efficiency.

'Nameplate' Project

"For us, [green building] is fairly routine. It's part of our corporate culture," says Steve Pressler, area general manager of Skanska's New York office. "We have LEED-accredited professionals on staff so that we can make sure we use all the appropriate techniques and understand all the designer's intentions." And while Silver is far from Platinum (the LEED system's top rating), the weight afforded to thinking green from the earliest stages is important.

Skanska is eager to start on what it's calling a "nameplate" project. The construction firm is already known for large-scale projects such as the AirTrain railway that goes from JFK Airport to Jamaica, Queens, and the new Giants-Jets stadium at the Meadowlands. But in terms of building its global profile, the U.N. HQ project is a huge coup.

Not an easy one to pull off, of course. Daryl Dulaney, chief executive of Siemens Building Technologies, a Buffalo Grove (Ill.) subsidiary of global giant Siemens (SI), points to the huge challenges of engineering the new infrastructure and coordinating new technologies. For their part, Skanska and Adlerstein are concerned with how to renovate the buildings while the U.N. is in session.

Time to Get Started

The renovation will occur in stages, with builders working from top to bottom, 10 floors at a time. Displaced members of the Secretariat building will be set up in leased office buildings in Manhattan and Queens, while there will also be a temporary building on the campus to house the General Assembly while it continues to operate.

Mostly, it's important that the building renovation not be delayed any longer. Infrastructure problems will only get worse, and the current volatility of the construction market means that material costs are on the rise—and building leases more expensive to procure. U.N. officials anticipate a 7.5% inflation rate for materials and services needed to complete the project and, as Adlerstein says drily, "Time is money." As such, the much-needed renovation might seem somewhat untimely, but Adlerstein insists that this is the right moment for a makeover.


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