It’s as true for green building as it is for anything else — context is what makes green buildings make sense. Every now and then a great-looking, energy-efficient building pops up that is so distinguished as to create its own context — 456 West 19th Street, for instance, or 11 Times Square, or a deluxe retrofit project such as the Empire State Building or Helmsley Building — but there’s a reason why we spend so much time talking about third-party certification and such. Green buildings are meaningful mostly because of how they are not like your average cookie-cutter brown building — in the efficiency they deliver, as well as in what they represent. So there’s your scoop for the evening: green buildings are good, and we at gbNYC are strongly in favor of them. But there’s a bigger problem that green building faces — yes, even bigger than whether or not Stephen and I think they’re neat. And that problem, as much as it pains me to write about anything having to do with brands, is a branding issue.
There’s such a thing as unhelpful context, too. You see this when green building — which actually does deliver much of what it promises in terms of efficiency, social responsibility and cost savings — is lumped in with the amorphous, carelessly curated broader category of “green.” Advertising Age ran a story today detailing the struggles of the “green” brand, which is roughly as soul-depressing as you’d expect any story about a brand’s problems to be. The long and short of the story, which flirts with an uncomfortably Gladwell-ian sense of anecdote-dependent overreach at times, is that an increasing number of consumers believe green products to be more expensive and less effective — and thus less appealing — than their non-green counterparts.
Now, this may well be true of, say, homeopathic deodorants or upcycled underpants or whatever, but is demonstrably not true of green building, when it’s done right. The difference in construction cost associated with building green is shrinking to negligibility in comparison to brown construction, and the payback time on the initial costs associated with green building and green retrofits are shrinking with each innovation that arrives. But brand images are tricky things, and while the idea that someone’s bad experience with crummy recycled toilet paper could somehow lead them to think less of the Bank of America Tower is kind of ridiculous, it’s easy to see how this sort of thing could work in a more amorphous and more damaging sense. As I’ve written far too many times, the green building cause suffers when it is made to seem like a boutique pursuit, with the risk being that the general public will consider it a Rich People Thing, as opposed to the potentially world-changing innovation that it is. Fall in with a crowd that has the wrong reputation — I’m looking at you Seventh Generation paper products — and the risk is being unfairly lumped in with their failings. I feel like green building’s guidance counselor, writing all this, but here’s why I’m thinking about it.
Steelworks Lofts was, back in the late, frantic days of the New York real estate boom, a project for which Stephen and I both had high hopes. It was an ambitious, design-centric adaptive reuse revamp of the 130,000 square foot former Lewis Steel Products building on North Fourth Street in Williamsburg, with developers Fifth Square Partners partnering with architect Gene Kaufman and interior design heavyweights AvroKO, who also designed the striking Manhattan restaurants Public and Double Crown, among others. (I should mention, here, that I’m friendly with AvroKO partner Adam Farmerie) Factor in a planned 8,500-square-foot green roof project overseen by Greener By Design, and it’s easy to see why we at gbNYC were cheering for Steelworks Lofts. Even though there was no indication that the project was pursuing a third-party certification, the dedication to reuse and simple, un-showy efficiency, as well as the respect for a historic space and a broadly forward-thinking aesthetic approach — all of this marked Steelworks Lofts as a gbNYC project whether it opted to get certified by LEED or not, and despite the fact that it was (yet another) luxury condo development in a neighborhood (and city) that didn’t necessarily need one.
That Steelworks Lofts was a casualty of the Lehman Brothers collapse and ensuing real estate downturn wasn’t surprising — it was an expensive, ambitious project in a developed-to-death neighborhood, and its timing was lousy, and moreover it was hardly alone in its fate. These things, those things happen. The same can be said of Steelworks Lofts’ newly reported second life as a luxury rental project, this time developed by Jacob Toll in conjunction with Cayuga Capital Management; as postscripts for failed condo developments go, becoming a luxury rental overseen by a successful development firm isn’t exactly being turned into a typhoid hospital. But while Cayuga is saying the right things about preserving the historic Lewis Steel Products building, it seems likely that much of the ambition of the original project — Toll confirmed in a phone call that AvroKO’s design is out — will fall by the wayside. Green rental buildings do happen, and can be successful, but while the green roof (for instance) might not make the final cut, it would be a shame if a misguided austerity led to the loss of what made Steelworks Lofts such an intriguing project in the first place.
The Toll family — Jacob, son of Toll Brothers founder Robert Toll, is spearheading the development – know their business better than most anyone, and certainly better than I. That’s not necessarily reassuring, though, when one considers that for most real estate developers — especially those of rental buildings — that manifests as a desire to do things as cheaply, quickly and most importantly cheaply as possible. That’s their business, of course. But it would be a shame if the greenest elements of this project were lost simply because someone assumed they were unaffordable luxuries. It would be a shame because Steelworks Lofts could’ve been a very cool building, but also and mostly because that all-too-common assumption is just plain wrong. The project, which will no longer be known as Steelworks Lofts, still could be a winner, of course, under its as-yet unannounced new name. But if Toll opts to dump the adaptive reuse elements that made this project so appealing, it will be a decision that has as much to do with a green’s tarnished brand as it does with business considerations.
NOTE: This post has been corrected. An earlier version erroneously identified Cayuga Capital as an “offshoot” of Toll Brothers. Jacob Toll is developing this project with Cayuga Capital, but stresses that there is no connection between his project and Toll Brothers, “Besides the fact that he’s my dad, and we hang out.”