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Low-Impact Building Makes Big Impact in Favor of the Environment

November 15, 2012

Walk into the new home of CUNY Law in Long Island City, and you might not immediately be able to tell that this curved, glass-and-steel building is about as environmentally friendly as they come. One hint: What appears to be natural bristle floor-mat material mounted on the wall behind the guards at the front desk.

“You have to be present with it for a while before you realize:
‘Wow, that’s a CUNY sign!’ It’s subtle,” says Dean Michelle Anderson with a smile. “And very cool.”

A lot of the building is like that. Organic, sustainable materials and design that don’t scream “eco-friendly” and “green,” but rest assured, the Law School’s building at 2 Court Square is LEED Gold certified. That’s one level higher than the Silver certification that CUNY’s central office now requires all new campus buildings to have.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocate, calls LEED certification “the best way for you to demonstrate that your building project is truly ‘green.'”

The entrance of CUNY Law, a LEED Gold certified building.

The entrance of CUNY Law, a LEED Gold certified building.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a framework developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C., to help independently verify that a building is “designed and built using strategies aimed at achieving high performance in key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.”

“It’s an incredibly attractive element,” says Anderson of the building’s environmental certification, as much for students who come to the Law School to pursue careers in environmental justice as it is for CUNY Law as a buyer of an already built, sustainable facility.

Buying an existing building meant that CUNY Law could move in much faster and recycle and reuse floors of furniture. What furniture the Law School didn’t need, it donated to other CUNY campuses.

CUNY Law could also move ahead on tailoring floors to fit its needs, turning this former corporate training facility into a warm, inviting education space, reflecting its public interest mission and commitment to environmental responsibility. To maintain the LEED Gold certification during renovations, the school turned to the architectural firm that originally designed the building: Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF).

KPF played up the transparency of the building and the presence of bountiful natural daylight that reaches deep into each floor. Lights turn on and off automatically, depending on need, aided by motion sensors.

Hana Kassem, a KPF director and LEED accredited professional, also wanted to bring an element of nature into the space. If you look closely at the hallway once you enter the building, for example, you’ll notice a gentle, undulating blue pattern in the terrazzo floor.

“The floor is designed to look like a river. Seating along the inside glass wall is designed to look like a riverbank of shale,” Anderson notes. “But it’s made of felt. The patterns of light and dark felt on the facing wall are designed to mimic the dappled light when you walk through a forest.”

The Law School also commissioned artwork for the firstfloor atrium from two Vermont artists. It brings a bit of the Green Mountain State to Queens, including an installation complete with hundreds of maple saplings.

Beyond inspired design, what does an environmentally green building mean for CUNY Law?

It means knowing that students will be learning in a place that offsets its carbon footprint with the purchase of 100 percent clean wind power.

It means knowing that builders fought the negative impact of logging on the environment by ensuring that more than half the wood used in construction was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. They also used post-consumer recycled content for about 90 percent of the building’s structural steel, or 4,590 tons. More than 90 percent of construction waste was recycled and diverted from landfills. Carpeting used in the building was made from 50 percent recycled content.

In addition, builders made sure to minimize the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in chemicals, paint, adhesives, and wood preservatives. VOCs can hurt air quality.

Water use and reuse is an important element of LEED certification, and the building has a water tank that can divert 969,000 gallons of rainwater a year for use throughout the building. That reduces demand on the city’s water supply and protects the area from flooding. Collected rain and recycled water can also be used for irrigation in landscaping.

Transportation is the second-biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, behind electricity generation. So the LEED certification takes into account the building’s lack of a parking lot, providing a reminder for people to find ways to travel to school other than via fossil fuel–burning cars: subway, bus, commuter railway, or bicycle (there are bike racks across the street and more near the Law School entrance area).

The building also has in place a rigorous recycling program, with daily pickups for mixed paper and cardboard in blue recycling bins. There’s also a pickup area for electronics, including computers, and each pantry has a recycling center nearby.

The building’s structure and renovations and the school’s green practices make for a more environmentally in-tune home for CUNY Law, after more than a decade of searching.

“The commitment to environmental sustainability is an expression of our own public interest mission,” Anderson says. “It makes the work that we do coherent with the space in which we live and work.”

— Paul Lin

More from CUNY Law Magazine Fall 2012 »


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