ULI New York Blog

Recap: The Future Is Now – WLI and WHF Tour New Cornell Tech Campus

By: Vivien Wu

Bold. Best views of Manhattan. Chance encounters. Future birthplace of a unicorn. 

These were some of the themes arising from the WLI and WHF tour of Roosevelt Island’s new Cornell Tech Campus. On Thursday, October 12, 2017, the Cornell Tech Campus welcomed nearly 100 attendees from ULI New York’s Women’s Leadership Imitative (WLI) and from Women in Housing and Finance (WHF) to learn about the development, ethos, and programming of the new campus.

Even before I set foot on Roosevelt Island for this tour, I was inspired to do something new and different—take the Roosevelt Island Tramway for the first time. Overcoming my inhibitions and preconceptions, I confirmed my MetroCard monthly pass worked, and for no additional cost and very little wait time I had a much better ride than the subway. Highly recommended and so worth going outside your normal transit habits!

The tour focused on two buildings: The House at Cornell Tech and The Bridge at Cornell Tech. Each building has very unique features that are unexpected for its building type and generated excitement and questions from the attendees.

The House at Cornell Tech is a graduate student and faculty housing building which, at 26 stories and 350 units, is the largest residential Passive House building in the world. Luke Falk of Related and Deborah Moelis of Handel Architects led the tour of The House, which was codeveloped by Related and the Hudson Companies, and designed by Handel. Our tour focused on learning the features of Passive House. Coming from Germany, Passive House is a lesser-known environmental building performance standard than LEED, but is different because it is about meeting the absolute energy requirement of 38 kBtu per square foot per year. In contrast, LEED is a point-system in which a building earns more points for adding more “green” features. Once up and running, Passive House buildings use 60-70% less energy than a typical building.

The façade or building envelope is the most critical part of building energy efficiency performance to decrease needless heat transfer. Mr. Falk and Ms. Moelis highlighted the condenser rooms’ super-efficient HVAC machines from Japan, and the industrial refrigerator-quality condenser room doors, as major features that improve thermal performance. In addition to material features, the process of building this House was held to a stricter construction management process because extremely high quality-control was implemented during construction to install the panel components of the insulating building envelope that eliminates inefficient infiltration and drafts. Ms. Moelis noted that façade durability is increased in Passive House compared to typical construction processes, which means buildings will last longer and incur less damage or material compromise from air pollutants. In addition, Mr. Falk noted that this building is 1/3 more dense than most 80/20 multifamily buildings in New York.

Next, we joined the team behind The Bridge: Katie Bicknell and Emily Tucker of Forest City, Heather McArthur of Weiss/Manfredi, and Jennifer Klein of Cornell Tech. The Bridge is quite different from any typical office or university building: it is not just an engineering school building, and not just co-located businesses or startups. In every aspect from physical design to operations and programming, the building is meant to spearhead commercialization of technology, and bring engineering and technology to bear on industry problems. It has a bow-tie floor plan design which maximizes corners and views, and encourages people to flow towards the middle to mingle. The public spaces such as corridors and stairways also have been designed to allow people to use them as a place to have conversations or coffee, thereby maximizing opportunities for encounters and collaboration.

The building is 230,000 square feet, 100% office and about one-third is leased back to Cornell for its uses. However, the rest of it will be totally for private sector office tenants (and some ground floor retail). Coming from an office leasing background, I was surprised to learn that the Bridge is deliberately bucking several office leasing trends or conventional practices. For example, the leasing team is specifically targeting smaller tenants and would rather pass on a very large square-foot tenant. This is because the Bridge wants to serve smaller companies or innovation labs and does not want one large established company to dominate the building and its resources. Secondly, another unexpected feature is that the most commercially valuable portion of the building was not reserved for leasing but was turned into an amenity floor. This is intended to help smaller companies, which may not have the capital or the square footage to build conference rooms, kitchens, or assembly space, to have access to high-quality meeting and event space nevertheless. All of the tour attendees agreed that the amenity roof was a highlight of the building. From there we could look at unobstructed East Manhattan views and the geothermal field that powers the net-zero Bloomberg Center academic building.

Afterwards, we enjoyed appetizers and drinks at the Riverwalk Bar and Grill. I was glad to connect with members of WHF, and everyone came away from the tour excited about returning to this great new destination. Cornell Tech will soon host community events and opportunities for New York residents to engage with the tech and creative sectors in its world-class space.

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