Does Your Office Building Need a New Wardrobe?

Might be time for an overclad

By Duncan Kinney

The Peter W. Rodino Federal Building in Newark, New Jersey, is not a remarkable building. Built in the late ’60s of precast concrete, it could be a humdrum office building in practically any city in North America.

But it’s getting a lot more attention now that an innovative re-skinning process is being put in place. Called an overclad, the building is getting a brand new exterior built over the existing one.

Not only will this retrofit turn a boring building in a striking one, it also does all of the regular awesome stuff: increases energy efficiency, provides better fresh air ventilation and improves occupants’ comfort. The technique allows the building to be occupied while it’s still being renovated and includes the addition of a 60-kilowatt solar array built into a striking halo feature on the roof.

This approach makes a lot of sense and we could go and explain why, but why not let noted architect John Woelfling of Dattner Architects in New York City and principal on this project explain.

UL: Is the Rodino building emblematic of office buildings in North America?

JW: It’s a typical building. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a huge boom of building. Just an immense amount of building stock in Manhattan, but really all North American cities, was built in that time frame when energy was cheap and people were looking for the lowest first cost. A lot of our buildings that are out there are these very energy-intensive buildings.

UL: What’s going to happen to those buildings if nothing is done?

JW: They will continue to be “class B” or “class C” properties. Tenants will be less happy and workers will be less productive. Eventually they’ll reach the end of their serviceable life and get torn down. Or someone could make the investment to rejuvenate the buildings. I think a re-skinning or a re-cladding or a re-imagining of a building is a much less expensive way to deal with this older stock. For the Rodino project, the cost is around $200 a square foot. You couldn’t build new in New York City for that kind of cost. You’d be talking about $500 to $600 a square foot, and with the revenue stream that comes from the existing building you can help fund this project. You don’t have a project that’s sitting dormant without any revenue coming from it. It makes a lot of sense from many points of view.

UL: Tell me about the life cycle costs of the options you considered.

JW: The most simple, lowest first cost approach was to just simply repair the cracks and the spalls and stabilize it as best as you could. That leaves you with this legacy of coming back every five to eight years and doing this for the rest of the building’s life. The building really has this dated look, and when you do that it looks like it’s in poor repair. From the first cost standpoint that’s the best approach, but when you look at it in the near future, not even the long-term future, it doesn’t make sense because of escalation costs. If you do the repair work five years from now, it’s going to cost you more than it does today, and if you do it in 10 years, it’s going to cost you more. That escalation really contributes to that higher life cycle cost.

The option we ended up choosing had a higher first cost but when look you at it over 25 years, so that you don’t have to come back and re-do it every five years, that really made that large first investment the best option.

UL: Tenant-wise what are you expecting?

JW: We’re just starting but what we do expect to see is that tenants will be a lot happier with the office environment, not only from a controllability standpoint but also from a temperature fluctuation standpoint. They’re not going to have those single pane windows anymore. The daylight harvesting will give them natural light. They’ll have better sunshades. I think the tenants are going to be a lot happier. They’ll be getting a new, prominent-looking building that shows that their landlord is interested in their property and making it a good home for them.

The expected finish date on this rescue job is 2014. We spoke with Woelfling at the Manasc Isaac Reimagine Tower Summit.

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