At the New York Harbor, mist rolls off of the water, the city appearing and disappearing behind it at various intervals. Cloud cover produces dramatic morning and evening skies, which in turn produce a variegated and wholly distinct light.
As a watercolor painter with a fondness for marine landscapes, particularly that of the Hudson River School, architect Jonathan Marvel understands the unique quality of the New York Harbor. His engagement with that environment played a key role in Marvel Architects’ design for Pierhouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park—even more so once Hurricane Sandy rocked the city during the design phase.
The frequency and intensity of severe storms has been on the rise—a result, most scientists agree, of climate change—and among the many effects of climate-related weather events is an increasing understanding that our cities must evolve. Green building no longer is about making an environmental statement, or even strictly about preventing far-off disaster. Today, sustainable design requires responsiveness to new environmental realities.
In the case of Pierhouse—adding 109 residential units and one 195-room hotel to a mile-long strip of Brooklyn Bridge Park—the building literally changed shape in the aftermath of 2012’s superstorm.
Back to the Drawing Board
Hurricane Sandy left Brooklyn Bridge Park underwater for hours, and although the park sustained minimal damage, FEMA raised the flood elevation following the storm. Marvel and his design team were forced to go back to the drawing board. (Marvel’s original design had accounted only for the 100-year flood elevation known at the time.)
The most dramatic change to the development was that the entire southern building was raised four feet. (The northern building was already slightly higher than its companion.) To prevent a “fortified look,” Marvel incorporated steps, ramps, benches, and planters to mitigate that height difference, using an existing buffer zone the team had created between the sidewalks and the building. Height limitations, however, forced the designers to remove a floor from the southern building. “The result was the building got a lot nicer,” Marvel says, indicating that each of the four floors now features higher ceilings. New floodgates that prevent water from entering the below-grade basement, which runs the length of both buildings and houses a 300-car parking garage and support systems for the hotel, including the spa and offices, were also installed.
Slated for LEED Gold certification from the beginning, Pierhouse boasts architecture that always had been intimately connected to its surroundings, in part through the incorporation of locally sourced materials. “Even though the buildings are built from scratch, we wanted to express a sort of ruggedness by reintroducing these original materials wherever we can,” Marvel says. Materials include granite mined from the same quarry as the Brooklyn Bridge and granite recycled from bridges that have been taken down in the harbor. Longleaf yellow pine, used for the flooring in the residences, was reclaimed from the warehouses that once ran along the entire waterfront.
The residential building also features vertical limestone fins that act as shading devices. “The material is evocative of the geological presence of limestone in the area,” Marvel says, adding that this particular material was also chosen for the residential buildings because it plays off the harbor light. “[Limestone] is kind of a neutral color, so it has the capacity to take on the color of the sky. We really wanted to make the buildings participate in the light of the harbor.”
By facing the residential units outward, Marvel and his team strengthened that engagement. “We were given a fairly large site,” Marvel says of the buildable area, which was one hundred feet deep but more than one thousand feet long. “But we decided to occupy as little of that space as possible to give as much square footage back to the park.” They made the building as narrow as possible, and with a single-loaded corridor, oriented its residential units toward the park and the harbor.
Further reinforcing the connection between the built and living environments, the park-facing façades feature planted terraces “that step in a very dominant, clear way, connecting the park and bringing it up inside the building,” Marvel says. A drip irrigation system is used to maintain the plantings, while a 30,000-gallon in-ground retention tank captures rainwater runoff for use in the park. “There’s a kind of symbiosis linking the building and the park,” Marvel says.
Pierhouse is designed to be as high-performing as possible. Residences feature high-efficiency heat pumps and composting units.
“The building is super-tight. We use a lot of passive solar techniques, but in the long run, having the park kind of climb up and down the building became a very important way the building engages the city. Our focus from a design perspective was really connecting the buildings to the park and its harbor with the form of the building.”