The Capital Master Plan: Showcasing Sustainability In The Renovation UN HQ in NY

The United Nations is currently engaged in a five-year project to renovate its headquarters in New York.  This so-called Capital Master Plan (CMP) is a massive undertaking. How the CMP team went about raising and running the USD 1.9 billion budget, and winning the approval of member countries in the General Asssembly, is a case study in itself. The overall aim is to upgrade the 17 acre (nearly 70,000 square metre) complex and its seven buildings to the highest environmental standards by 2013, while preserving and restoring the original and iconic modernist design features.  “We are going to establish a model for what other older buildings should be doing,” says Michael Adlerstein, assistant UN secretary-general  and executive director of the CMP.

The work will affect the entire site - the Secretariat Building, the Conference Building, the General Assembly Building, the South Annex Building, the Library, the existing North Lawn Building and the basements. It has been quite a challenge to devise arrangements for tackling each in succession, and relocating staff to  nearby facilities so that operations are kept running as the work progresses.

The UN headquarters  has been in intensive use for  60 years, but has never had a major refurbishment. So the CMP does now need to tackle a string of  safety issues, including the removal of asbestos, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) refrigerants and other hazardous materials. But its aspirations go well beyond eliminating these pressing problems, to embrace the prospect of creating a real showcase of sustainability.  The project will incorporate many new technologies to improve environmental performance, in areas such as energy consumption, emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), water consumption and waste management, and  include demonstrations of several cutting edge sustainable technologies for education and outreach pur poses. It will also maximize the use of recycled materials in the construction phase. The renovation project is working to the standards of the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification system, and the CMP team will be looking for Gold LEED certification for the buildings when the work is done.

An improved double-glazed building envelope will greatly reduced heat and energy losses, and there will be substantial improvements to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. A daylight harvesting system will respond automatically to natural light levels, backed by motion sensors to control the complex's new high-efficiency lamps. Overall energy consumption should be 50% lower than before, and there will be photovoltaic panels incorporated in the roof of several  buildings to  contribute to power generation too. A rainwater harvesting system and low-flow toilets and lavatories will help reduce fresh water consumption by 40%. Taken together, the CMP's comprehensive measures aim to cut GHG emissions by 45%, and should deliver cost savings estimated at USD 4 to 5 million per year. At the same time the project is raising staff awareness, while creating a much improved working environment in the process.

The UN surely needed to upgrade the environmental performance – and safety standards - of its New York headquarters.  The CMP has not only grasped the nettle, it has made it an opportunity to create a real showcase of commitment to sustainability.