Question: Based on your perceptions five years ago, what is the most surprising change that has taken place in sustainable design?
Serge: The most surprising change has been the swift adoption of sustainable strategies that seemed nearly impossible to achieve just a few years ago. The learning curve to integrate these practices was admittedly steep, but still fast to overcome. I was also surprised to witness how quickly energy code requirements in New York City have advanced as environmental awareness has spread. This is important because energy code affects all new and some existing buildings universally, including those that are not based on environmental design principles.
Question: You were the lead architect for the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, the first commercial high-rise to achieve LEED Platinum. What's next?
Serge: Just doing less bad isn't the answer in the long run. We need to find ways that are truly regenerative and "right the ship." For me personally, it's the rare project that can live up to the bar that was set at One Bryant Park—right time, right client, right team, right economy, and it happened to be right for me too. For our firm, we are looking at a wider variety of projects and approaches than ever before, including ideas about biophilia, restoring the natural attributes of a site pre-development and building on our knowledge and experience so far.
Question: Can you talk about biophilia? What are the current design boundaries, and how are you breaking them?
Serge: To me, biophilia is about reconnecting with other living systems, an instinctive bond that we have distanced ourselves from as urbanites. For example, for our office at 641 Avenue of the Americas, we installed a green roof directly outside our windows on what was once a hot, black tar roof. We recorded the difference in temperature before and after installation, with amazing results. Personally, the best part has been the visual effect the roof produces—we can watch the seasons change, with life returning to a dead space after winter. Staring out onto the green space for a few minutes, watching the taller plants move with the wind, produces a calming effect.
In today's fast-paced, globalized society, disconnection between humans and the natural world seems to be growing. Biophilic design bridges this gap, even in the middle of New York City. At One Bryant Park, which is located on the busy corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, employees can look down at green Bryant Park through the skyscraper's floor-to-ceiling glass. Finding ways to bring the outdoors in despite surroundings or location is a new challenge that I believe is crucial for any designer to consider in order to maintain the health and happiness of the occupants.
Question: What are some excuses you hear against designing a building to be more sustainable, and what do you say in response?
Serge: Unfortunately, I have heard every excuse in the book over the years, ranging from "It's too expensive" to "It's too complicated!" to "I just don't care." Despite any initial excuses that we might hear, we never give up. Many clients have allowed us to work with them and have been surprised at the end results!
One of the toughest naysayers during the One Bryant Park project recently came back to us and said he is converted. Well, not on every topic, but at least on the biophilic benefits of the ultra-clear glass!
Question: What changes do you hope to see happening with the LEED system in the next five years?
Serge: The USGBC and the LEED system have managed to make truly remarkable change in a short timeframe, leading to real transformation in the marketplace and beyond. The LEED rating system continues to become more stringent, as we can see with the new requirements in Version 3.0. Yesterday's Platinum-rated buildings might achieve Silver or Gold today. I support their approach and hope that they continue to raise the bar and act as a driver for change.
Question: Tell us something interesting about yourself.
Serge: I'm still at my first job after college—15 years.