The building at 222 Bowery, in Manhattan, was built by the YMCA in 1885 to be its Young Men’s Institute. But over the decades on the way to its current LEED Platinum status as the headquarters and flagship retail store of Green Depot, it has been everything from a Buddhist meditation center to the home of William S. Burroughs–and most recently, a restaurant furniture supplier. Architects Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena of Mapos, LLC saw value and beauty in the building’s past lives, and sought to preserve elements of them for its current incarnation. In the process, they not only created a unique and dynamic environment for the company’s operations and sales, but managed to preserve and recycle resources (and help us continue preserving them) like the green design champs they’re known to be.
To coincide with an article in the current issue of GreenSource magazine about their work on the project, we took a moment to speak with them about their involvement in green building and what they’re excited about for the future.
Green Depot: Were you guys involved in green architecture and design before you got the Green Depot commission?
Colin Brice: Yes, we were. We didn’t and still don’t really market ourselves as “green architects” per se, but sustainability has always been a big part of what we do and how we work—it’s who we are. In terms of marketing, we focus more on the attention we pay to how we work to understand our clients’ values and design with them in mind—the green part is in the second paragraph, if you will. But it’s always been a fundamental part of our design process.
GD: Do you guys follow what’s going on in the green building movement in general, or do you pretty much stick to your own inspiration?
CB: We definitely keep up what else is going on. We take classes, go to lectures, participate in forums, even teach classes and give lectures ourselves sometimes. We try to play a really active role in the green building community.
GD: What are you most excited about, as architects, with regards to green building? Is there a kind of green building product or philosophy that you see really catching on among your clients and other architects?
CB: I’d say what we’re most excited about is the growing awareness among building owners that green building and design are things that they can do; that they can afford. And one of the things we find really interesting is the growing understanding among business owners that going green is about more than just building materials and green products—that their business practices and maintenance habits are just as important, if not more so, than their construction techniques. For example, it only does so much good to use all-green building materials if you have your air conditioning cranked all the way up with the windows open all the time. Things like that are only just starting to become part of the general consciousness, but they definitely are becoming so—and it’s nice to see. Even the LEED criteria are being updated all the time to reflect more of that way of thinking, and it’s great.
Another thing we’re excited about is that the more fundamental principles of green building, which start before the materials are even considered, are becoming understood by the general public—like the importance of repurposing existing buildings instead of building new ones, choosing the best orientation for the majority of the windows, and making the best use of prevailing breezes. Something like 75% of green design, in terms of energy conservation, can be handled at that level if you start there—and considering those things doesn’t even necessarily involve any more expense than not considering them. Then choosing energy-efficient materials and power and ventilation systems make up only the other 25%.
GD: Are you working on any green projects at the moment that you’re really excited about?
CB: We actually have two—one is a residence in upstate New York that is probably the greenest project we’ve ever done. The owners aren’t applying for LEED certification, but they’d certainly get it if they did—they’re going all out, starting with things as basic as the orientation of the house, like I was just talking about. But on top of that they’re installing geothermal heating and cooling, radiant-heat flooring, sun shading for the massive windows, and lot of recycled materials. It’s really an amazing project, incorporating a lot of passive house principles.
Then we’re also working on a new office for a big internet company, and recycling is playing a huge role in the design process for that project. The previous tenant left everything—all the cubicles, chairs, lighting—and we’re taking it apart to reassemble it as new furnishings and new lighting. We’re actually calling the part of the project that’s usually called demolition “disassembly” instead, for there are very few dumpsters involved. And a fun part of that project is that we’ve developed a new working process to help keep the employees involved in the design process. As a company, they place a huge emphasis on their identity as a community and preserving their sense of that. As architects, we feel it’s important to be able to tap into a community’s values and create environments that support its goals. So we’ve been meeting with this client throughout the process and have come up with games they can play to help them figure out what they as a group want for their office, and they’re really enjoying it.
GD: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Colin. We look forward to seeing some of your future work!