Object Lesson

Although we’d prefer not to make a habit out of it, writing about a space three years after its opening can provide some interesting insights. Telling the “post-occupancy” story always feels more real. Why? All architecture is eventually about what its owners and tenants (and facilities managers) do to it. After punch lists and ribbon cuttings, buildings take on lives of their own despite the best-laid plans of architects and designers.

Bank of America’s gorgeous light-filled trading floor, in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) New York office, offers an intriguing case study (and cautionary tale) on the evolution of green design and the critical importance of the end user. The project—begun almost seven years ago, while LEED was still in its infancy—includes many of the design moves now commonplace in sustainable buildings: a high-performance facade, copious amounts of natural light, and sophisticated dimming and shading controls.

Originally the firm was hired by NationsBank (which merged with Bank of America and took its name) to insert a three-story trading facility into the Hearst Tower, an Art Deco building designed by Atlanta-based Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates. SOM had pioneered the modern trading floor—first for the New York Stock Exchange and later for Merrill Lynch and UBS in Stamford, Connecticut—but in some ways the Charlotte project represented the culmination of its thinking.

“Our client here was interested in understanding the idea of putting all the traders in one open environment,” says Mustafa K. Abadan, an SOM partner. The space was conceived as a recruiting tool to lure traders to Charlotte. Curiously (given the bank’s ardent embrace of green design five years later) the client didn’t specifically request a sustainable trading floor. The green moves here were a reflection of SOM’s best practices, circa 2000–2001, and a nearly due-north building orientation. “The moment I saw that,” Abadan says, “I knew we had the opportunity to do something spectacular.”

Indeed the trading floor, perched atop the parking garage of the Hearst Tower, has become a local icon: the 100-by-55-foot north-facing Pilkington glass curtain wall glows at night like a giant video screen. A huge steel truss—which curves out a vast area of column-free space capable of housing up to 1,000 traders—forms a kind of peaked roof, creating a twenty-first-century Temple of Money in the banking capital of the New South.

On one bright fall morning the trading floor emanates a quiet, purposeful buzz. There’s a remarkably serene quality about the space, despite the inherently stressful nature of the work. Traders peer at large monitors—two and three of them at a time—while placing their multimillion-dollar bets. And while the dimming controls should be responding to the perfect weather outside, they’re not: all of the artificial lights are on, even ones that are located near windows. This is clearly a subversion of design intent, a circumvention of a sophisticated automatic dimming system—designed by Stephen Margulies of Cosentini Lighting—perhaps by a facilities manager in response to complaints from staff. “Someone could have changed programming,” Margulies concedes. “That is possible. The job is a couple of years old.”

This is no criticism of SOM or Cosentini, who did a lot of things very right (before designers began counting LEED points). But it does underscore one of green building’s major vulnerabilities: the user. Sustainable architecture is a long interconnected chain, with the last link often being a crucial (and anonymous) facilities manager. This disconnect between design intent (how a building is supposed to work on opening day) and reality (how it is ultimately used) is an age-old story, and one that’s likely to be compounded as buildings become more complicated.

Ironically, the developer for the new Bank of America building in New York, a state-of-the-art green high-rise currently under construction, may offer a way forward. “The Durst Organization understood early on that you need to get buy-in from the people who are going to be living in the building,” says Rick Cook of Cook + Fox, the architects responsible for the tower. “So we actually went on facilitated retreats years ago. These included all of the people who were going to manage and operate the building. Because all of the great technologies in the world aren’t going to work unless the people who live in the building operate them properly.”

Given the way buildings are used and abused, it’s safe to assume that the Charlotte experience is no isolated event. Consequently some sort of user education should become mandatory for LEED certification. “Right now it’s something that can be achieved through innovation points,” says Linda Sorrento of the U.S. Green Building Council. “But we’re looking at incorporating it into the ratings system.” With the increasing complexity of building systems and the relative ease with which they can be overridden, this is probably long overdue.

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