NEW YORK — ONCE known mostly for its devotion to birds, the National Audubon Society is broadening its environmental leadership. The organization's new $24-million head- quarters in New York, dedicated Dec. 3, was built as an environmental model for architects, planners, and designers around the world.
Nearly every product that went into renovating the 101-year-old terra-cotta building was examined in terms of its impact on the world. "We wanted to prove that you could indeed create a structure that is far more efficient than current codes could require and show that [environmental] sustainability is achievable at far greater than today's norm," says Peter Berle, the president of the society.
Although Audubon made all its decisions for environmental reasons, the building also had to make economic sense. "Every decision had to stand up to three criteria," explains Christie Williams, Audubon's headquarters project manager. "It had to be good for the environment, you had to be able to buy the material commercially, and it had to be cost-effective."
Audubon and Croxton Collaborative, the project architectural firm, performed an environmental analysis of everything that went into the structure. Questions asked included:
* How was the product made?
* Where did the raw materials come from?
* What would happen to the material when it was ready to be replaced?
"We looked at the building from a cradle-to-grave standpoint, which we think is a real change in methodology," Mr. Williams says.
Sometimes the environmental search was difficult. For example, the reception desk is made of mahogany. Because tropical ecosystems where the trees grow are dwindling, Audubon wanted to be sure the wood came from companies that use "sustainable" harvesting methods. In other words, trees are cut at basically the same rate that they grow.
Kirsten Childs, director of interior design at Croxton, says she found some companies that claimed the wood they were selling came from "sustainable yield forest." But the companies would not say all the mahogany they sold was garnered by that method. "We had a great deal of difficulty getting the wood and making sure it was [actually] used [to make the furniture]," says Ms. Childs.
Audubon also wanted to restrict the purchase of items made with chemicals or anything that might harm the atmosphere, like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). So it is using a natural-gas, heat-transfer system for its air-conditioning system, instead of freon.
There are trade-offs in forsaking CFCs. For example, Audubon does not get spectacular insulation results with its alternative, which is made from sea water and magnesium silicate. The insulation is installed as a thick liquid, which dries to a solid about 3-1/2 inches thick. It gives an R-14 (R is a measurement of thermal resistance) heating value, which insulation specialists say is not spectacular. The fiberglass insulation in the roof is about a foot thick. It gives an R-36 heating value - again reaso nable but not great protection.
Audubon also wanted to be sure that most of the substances in the building could be recycled or would be biodegradable. Instead of petroleum-based padding under the undyed wool carpet, Audubon used a recyclable jute and animal-hair mat held together by recycled paper.
At the same time, the building is full of recycled products. Uncarpeted areas are covered with tiles composed of 60 percent recycled glass from light-bulb factories or from smashed windshield glass. The outside surface of the gypsum wallboard is 100 percent recycled paper. In lieu of plywood for the subfloors, the building uses Homasote, which is made from used newspapers.
Audubon has taken recycling still one step further. Each floor has four chutes that drop to the basement level. Each chute leads to a bin for recyclables - plastics, aluminum, glass, and white and colored paper - and had to be wired into a fire-protection system to prevent fire from spreading between floors. The system cost $200,000. "It's somewhat experimental and ambitious," acknowledges Williams. The goal is to recycle 80 percent of everything that comes into the building.
Although any pay back on the recycling system is questionable, Audubon expects to get its money back on most of its other purchases. "Everything had to have a pay back within three to five years," says Childs.
For example, the double-paned thermal-glass windows have a sheet of polymer that floats between the glass layers. The polymer filters out the ultraviolet rays, which produce heat, but lets in the light. Thus, in the summer, the building keeps out the heat. In the winter, it retains the heat. The windows have a heat-retaining equivalency of a brick wall. The building's energy performance is projected to save Audubon $100,000 per year in energy costs.
In designing the building, Audubon was concerned not only with the world's environment, but also with the internal environment. The internal air is changed six times per hour. New York permits as little as one change per hour. The air intake is on the roof of the nine-story building to use the freshest air.
The latex paint used to cover the walls has no volatile organic compounds that help the paint dry but leave fumes. Audubon tried to avoid using interior-grade plywood, which is manufactured with fume-causing urea formaldehyde. When no other substitute for the plywood was available, the wood was sealed off from the public.
The building's lights are geared toward both saving energy and improving the background lighting. The work spaces are designed with an "open office" concept to make the most use of natural light. Some lights have sensors in them that read the incoming natural light. On gloomier days, the lights provide more candlepower. Individual offices have occupancy sensors that turn the lights off if there is no sign of movement after six minutes.
The changes in lighting are expected to reduce electricity use to 20 percent of the normal usage for a building of this size.
Audubon is hoping that others are inspired by its example. Early press stories have already resulted in calls from the Rouse Corporation (a large real estate developer), Wall Mart, and Home Box Office. Audubon and Croxton are meeting with the environmental director of the American Institute of Architects to coordinate the spread of their new building concept in universities. Audubon is planning a technical guide for professional builders and a documentary about the building. But the building will only be
considered a success, Williams says "when the next generation exceeds the standards we've set."