Cornell built a super-high-tech school in New York City that could revolutionize building design

Nestled between Manhattan and Queens on New York’s Roosevelt Island, a new approach to building design has come to life.

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Cornell Tech, a two-million-square foot campus aimed at serving students studying computer science, business, and entrepreneurship, is open for the 2016-2017 academic year.

The buildings will remain in construction until approximately 2043, at which point some 2,000 students and hundreds of faculty and staff will live in energy-efficient buildings designed to heat and cool their inhabitants naturally.

Here’s what the school is like up close.

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Cornell Tech’s main dorm, the tall building pictured in the background below, is the tallest and largest “passive” house in the world, meaning it uses little energy to heat and cool the interior.
Iwan Baan

cornell tech
Passive houses can use 70 to 90% less energy than traditionally built structures. The dorm will abide by a strict set of energy efficiency requirements established by Germany’s Passive House Institute.
Bebeto Matthews/AP Images

The building is the largest energy-efficient dorm in the world.

The interior walls are covered in tape-sealed “jackets” that prevent outside air from coming in. Each window has triple-pane glass that was assembled in Italy and shipped to New York.

Pipes run around the ceiling, continuously emitting heat or AC into the room. Unlike traditional central heating and AC systems, which shut on and off to adjust the temperature, the pipes keep the inside temperature consistent and adjust in real time to save energy.

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The other buildings in the campus also employ a passive design, including The Bridge. It’s a co-working space for tech companies and researchers, who can collaborate to bring products to market more quickly.
Matthew Carbone

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The campus also includes a 196-room hotel and a learning center, where students can move between individual work and team-based projects. The building was designed to produce more energy than it uses over time.
Bebeto Matthews/AP Images

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Steelblue and Forest City Ratner Companies designed the interior and helped picked startups and more mature companies to fill the space. All will do work involving technology in some capacity.
Iwan Baan

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Similar to the exterior, where there are no walls, gates, or barriers, inside the buildings students and faculty enjoy an open-plan design that encourages airflow throughout.
Matthew Carbone

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The views of Manhattan are a nice perk, too.
Iwan Baan

cornell tech
All told, the campus has received $683 million in funding from New York City, Michael Bloomberg, Charles Finney, and Irwin and Joan Jacobs.
Bebeto Matthews/AP Images

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Now that the campus is up and running, researchers will have even more data to analyze on the long-term cost-effectiveness of passive buildings.
Iwan Baan

cornell tech

cornell tech campus

It doesn’t hurt that the 12-acre campus adds a splash of green to the world’s most famous concrete jungle.

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Harvard’s “HouseZero”

AN UNASSUMING WOOD HOUSE at 20 Sumner Road, built in 1924, is now the site of a renovation that may provide a blueprint for concrete steps to bring sustainability to home renovation. Harvard’s Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC) is an initiative of the Graduate School of Design focusing on sustainable development.

Instead of following the traditional processes of construction, it focuses on developing new construction methods for existing structures that emphasize efficiency, sustainability, and lifetime performance.

This summer, the CGBC started transforming its headquarters into “HouseZero,” a retrofitted building that aims to produce more energy than it consumes. Achieving multiple sustainability goals in a retrofit—including entirely natural lighting, ventilation, and zero emissions—could provide a repeatable checklist, the CGBC hopes, for similar retrofits of small-scale, residential buildings throughout the United States.

Because the house sits in a Cambridge historic district, the renovation cannot alter its external appearance, says Ali Malkawi, professor of architectural technology and founding director of the CGBC. While limiting, this constraint also allows the project to break new ground in sustainable construction: “people have done a building that is 100 percent [naturally] ventilated, or a building that is 100 percent naturally lit, or close to zero [energy consumption], or zero carbon,” he says. “To our knowledge, no one has reached all these goals at once in a retrofit.”

A common standard for green construction has been developed by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), though that standard has been criticized for prioritizing reduced environmental costs over the health of the people using the building. Malkawi, however, says the CGBC is not seeking any kind of independent certification because they plan to exceed those standards’ criteria.

A green building, he says, should be “a sustainable building, which means it has the lowest impact on its surrounding environment as possible. It might have a positive effect on its environment—the surrounding as well as the global.” He adds that it should be “healthy for its occupants” and encourage productivity and creativity. This approach, as well as the goals for being beyond net zero energy consumption with 100 percent natural light and ventilation, guides the renovation.


The planned changes, shown here, will allow the house to be naturally lit and ventilated. Courtesy of Snøhetta

To reduce overall energy consumption, HouseZero is expected to regulate its own temperature and light. The windows will open and close automatically to adjust temperature and provide ventilation. Ventilation will also be created by convection when the sun shines on the house’s chimney, creating negative pressure at the top of the chimney: air will move up from the basement to compensate for that pressure difference.

When the weather is uncomfortably hot or cold, the house will tap into the ground’s temperature, which is more stable. Water will be circulated under the house until it reaches ground temperature, which is warmer than the air during the winter, and cooler than the air during the summer, and that water will in turn heat or cool floor slabs. The CGBC is also adding concrete to the stairs and floors—thermal masses which will make the internal air temperature more resistant to change.

In a press release, the CGBC said that “property owners spend more than $230 billion annually heating, cooling and powering [the nation’s] 113.6 million homes,” making up 40 percent of the country’s energy consumption. Green buildings can reduce that demand for energy, and also provide business benefits: retrofits like that being undertaken at the CGBC offices can reduce operating costs by 53 percent and energy consumption by 45 percent.

Studies have also suggested they have health benefits, and can alleviate “asthma, respiratory allergies, depression, and stress.” Separately, Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has found that taking steps to make buildings healthier for people can promote workplace productivity.

The renovation is expected to be completed in December, and Malkawi says there are plans for a second phase to expand the building underground while maintaining its energy efficiency, though this will depend on further funding. In the meantime, the CGBC will study the impact of each individual component in HouseZero, from the smart windows to the added concrete, and release data about the costs and benefits.

Though windows that automatically open and close seem straight out of a sci-fi movie, the hope is that homeowners will be able to install some of the elements of HouseZero in their own homes.