Bank of America Building: A New Green Standard?

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Ryan Browne / Cook+Fox Architects

The lobby of the Bank of America building in New York, New York.

If you're planning to visit the brand new Bank of America (BOA) building in midtown Manhattan, make sure not to use any Purell before you go. The 8,000 people who work in the crystal-shaped, glass skyscraper at the corner of 42nd St. and Sixth Avenue may not object to the ubiquitous hand sanitizer, but the building itself would. The tower's air circulation system is equipped with sensors to detect what are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and a rapidly evaporating substance like Purell is full of them.

You might well think that an office building should mind its business about what kind of hand cleanser you use, but consider that the VOC detectors can also spot volatiles outgassing from synthetic carpets, cubicle partitions, floor cleansers and much of the rest of the chemical soup that often makes breathing office air such a nasty experience. Consider too that a similar carbon dioxide detector can sample the building's interior atmosphere for CO2 and redirect fresh air to any room or corridor in which too many people are doing too much inhaling and exhaling. That drooping feeling you get midway through a meeting in a crowded conference room may not be caused by boredom, but by too little oxygen circulating in an overpopulated space.

The 55-story BOA building — officially known as 1 Bryant Park — was always going to attract attention even on the crowded Manhattan skyline. At 1,200 ft. tall, it edges out the venerable Chrysler building for the honor of second tallest tower in the city. And its reflective, faceted shape and 255-ft. spire draw eyeballs from almost any angle. But what the building's owners, architect and developers like to talk about most are its green features, a host of innovations that have made the tower the first commercial high-rise to earn a platinum designation from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program — the official best-in-show judges for environmentally friendly architecture.

At a time when fellow corporate giant BP is struggling to scrub oil from the coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico and Bank of America itself is similarly trying to clean the stain of toxic assets and bailout money from its own damaged name, a mega-building that evokes the ideal of a clean, renewable future seems like both good citizenship and very good PR. It didn't hurt that Al Gore, the Yoda of all things green, not only attended 1 Bryant Park's official opening last month but, more significantly, has rented office space there. But how a building is designed to perform is not always the same as how it does perform. Do celebrity tenants and a shiny LEED label really mean as much as they seem, or will an exercise in enormity like the BOA building wind up being more of a feel-good project than a do-good one?

At the new tower's sidewalk level — the only level from which the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers will ever experience it — its mission is clear in ways big and small. Despite its cool, steel-and-glass face, the handles on all of its street-facing doors are made of white oak, something that's impossible not to notice the first time you lay your hand on one, particularly if you're not expecting it.

"You don't just see a building, you touch it," says 1 Bryant Park's chief architect Richard Cook, head of the firm Cook+Fox. "We tried to design this one with what we call biophilic — or love of life — principles in mind."

The landscaped public patio in the tower's northeast corner carries that theme further, even if the official name of the open space, the "Urban Garden Room," perhaps takes it too far. The building's western side is bounded by a breezeway that links 42nd and 43rd Streets, adjacent to the landmarked Henry Miller theater. The theater is part of the building owners' parcel and has been restored — as well as renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theater — and integrated into the skyscraper's larger green grid. It's that grid that is the true test of the building's environmental cred, and by most measures it's an impressive thing.

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