CC BY 2.0 Melissa Breyer

Cornell Tech’s 26 story dorm on Roosevelt Island is the world’s tallest and biggest residential building built to the tough Passive House standard; Green building fans have been so excited to see it happen, particularly since there are so few Passive House buildings in North America. (They are pretty common in Europe, here is a slideshow of big Passive buildings just in Austria).

Architects designing to the Passive House standard have a real challenge; where most architects these days can use floor to ceiling glass, Passive House windows are very expensive. Where many buildings have jogs and other architectural elements that can add visual excitement, every jog on a Passive House has a cost, so they do tend to be boxy. It becomes an exercise in proportion and careful placement of the few elements that the architect has to play with; Passive House architect Bronwyn Barry has a hashtag to describe it when done right: #BBB or “Boxy But Beautiful.”

Handel Architects

There is a real learning curve to Passive House; many of the early ones were boxy and not very beautiful. I have looked at renderings of the Cornell building and see beauty in it, in the fact that “compared to conventional construction, the building is projected to save 882 tons of CO2 per year, equal to planting 5,300 new trees.” This one was also done on a budget; according to Curbed, "Cornell was adamant about keeping prices competitive for future students (the final tab, estimated at $115 million, should add just a 5 percent premium above a standard dorm of similar size). The solution included slightly smaller windows and a thick, high-tech facade."

Handel Architects also claim:

The new structure will be the tallest building on Cornell Tech’s campus and an iconic marker. The building’s exterior will shimmer, using a state-of-the-art, color-changing paint that, when reflecting light, naturally shifts color from silver to warm champagne.

Architectural critics have not noticed the shimmer. Two of my favourites hit twitter a few days ago to complain:

The Cornell Tech tower next to the Queensboro Bridge is so blah. pic.twitter.com/hfE0uoXqdp

— Alexandra Lange (@LangeAlexandra) March 4, 2017

This started a long interchange between the critics and the architects, but as much as I love Passive House, in the end I think Goldberger gets it right:

It totally does deserve such credit. But for the future of sustainability it matters that people not feel that it implies ugliness, too. https://t.co/hF0T4w2CVa

— Paul Goldberger (@paulgoldberger) March 5, 2017

Also, to be fair, the building is on a very prominent and important site; it would have been a challenge for any architect. I asked editor Melissa to take a run by and get some photos (I was offered a tour when I was last in New York for a Passive House conference but refused because they would not let us take photos. Perhaps they knew something.) Melissa writes about the sensitivity of the site:

We have plenty of ugly buildings, but that it has such a prominent place I think is the problem. The location is so singular – there are no other buildings in the city that I can think of that are right in front of a bridge – it would have been nice if it was a design that was visually inspired and worked in context with the bridge.

© Handel Architects/ Rendering of site

Goldberger said much the same thing:

Because of the prominence of its site and the expectations set by the new Cornell campus it isn’t unfair to hold this to a higher standard. https://t.co/I9LQocY6XN

— Paul Goldberger (@paulgoldberger) March 5, 2017

But in terms of sustainable design, this building has been held to what may be highest standard in the world. And if we are going to ever get a handle on our CO2, we are going to see a lot more tall urban buildings without big windows, without bumps and jogs. Perhaps we might even have to reassess our standards of beauty.

It’s a floor wax! It’s a dessert topping!/Screen capture

The architects describe the building as "a demonstration project that can show that radical energy savings are achievable right here and now." It has succeeded at that. And who knows, maybe they just haven’t applied the shimmer yet.