Ever since it opened in 1986, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center has been a bit of a disappointment. While the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD) had the wherewithal to hire a good architect to design the facility—James Freed of I.M. Pei and Partners (now Pei Cobb Freed)—it never scraped together the budget to fulfill Freed’s vision. To begin with, the northern bay of the proposed structure was cut out of the plans. Then, the ESD procured all of the materials and construction services as cheaply as possible. As a result, there were problems with the innovative space frame structural system that delayed the project. When the building was at last completed, the roof leaked. Rather than fix the problem right away, maintenance was deferred indefinitely, and the building was allowed to deteriorate.
Those, however, were not the only problems that faced architecture firms FXFowle and Epstein when they were brought on to renovate and expand the facility five years ago. In the two and a half decades that separate Freed’s design and the beginning of the rehabilitation effort, Javits fell well behind the curve of other American cities’ convention centers. At 675,000 square feet, it weighed in on the small side. In fact, it is the 18th or 19th smallest in the U.S. It also came up short on meeting rooms, which make up as much as 30 percent of the square footagein contemporary convention centers. Its gray-bronze glass skin—the pinnacle of performance glazing in its day—gave the Javits a dark, dour aspect counter to that expected from its Crystal Palace-style design. And then, perhaps most evident to conventioneers, there was the uninviting and asphalt-heavy arrival sequence, which wasn’t what it should be for such an important building (and underscoring how the Javits failed to become the economic generator for the West Side that it was supposed to be).
In its initial studies, the design team looked at all of those problems in the context of an overall urban revitalization program that included a new subway expansion and a rezoning of the neighborhood that allows for a more than 21 floor-to-area ratio in new developments. They presented a proposal that expanded the Javits to encompass 1.3 million square feet, reworked the entry plaza to create a pedestrian friendly landscaped urban space, improved truck marshalling and storage, replaced the envelope with a new high-performance curtain-wall and skylights, added a 6.75-acre green roof, upgraded mechanical and electrical systems to reduce energy consumption by 26 percent, and renovated the interior. Regrettably, as happened to Mr. Freed all those years ago, design aspiration came head to head with the karate chop of political budget cuts.
What began as a $1.7 billion project was, in the end, whittled down to $465 million, all collected in a bond fund established years ago to raise money to fix up the convention center and fed by a hotel tax (the Javits tax).
Faced with those reduced means, the team moved ahead with what was really important: replacing the enclosure with a green roof and high-performance cladding. First and foremost, however, they erected a pre-engineered Butler structure to the north, adding 80,000 square feet to the facility to keep it operational while the renovation of the existing building progresses. While that was ongoing, structural engineering firm Weidlinger (the original engineers on the project) conducted a thorough analysis of the space frame structure, deeming it, with the exception of a few rusty spots, to be sound.
The green roof was seen as a priority because the area is expected soon to be home to much taller buildings, an eventuality that will make the Javit’s crown an integral part of its exterior aspect. It also promises to increase the building’s insulation values for much of the time, the only exception being when it is cold and wet. Nonetheless, work is now underway to rip out the existing roof and build it back up. Work also includes replacing all of the center’s HVAC units with high-efficiency modernizations, a fact—along with other changes to the electronics and lighting control systems on the interior—that will help reduce the building’s energy use by 26 percent.
The real challenge, however, has been replacing the glazing. The original cladding system was based on the building’s space frame structure, which established a ten-foot-by-ten-foot module that was further subdivided by a split mullion system, creating four five-foot-by-five-foot glass panels per module. The team looked at the possibility of simply replacing the glass, but that proved problematic. The existing system was so deteriorated—and there were so many unknown conditions—that no subcontractor would touch it. Plus, simply replacing the glass wouldn’t have provided the opportunity of putting a thermal break in the system, meaning that, no matter how efficient the new glass proved to be, insulation values would not be much improved. In the end, the team decided to replace the facade entirely. The new system adheres to the ten-by-ten module, however it does so without the vertical mullion, using instead two ten-foot-wide-by-five-foot-high glass panels per module.
The new insulated glass units are treated with high performance coatings and frit patterns and are also much more transparent than their predecessors. This factor led to two other major design changes to the Javit’s former aesthetic. The original design had glass covering both transparent as well as opaque parts of the building, a move that was made with impunity since the glass was so dark and showed no difference between either condition. The new transparent glass does not offer that. Instead, the team is placing textured stainless steel panels over the opaque parts of the building where glass used to be. The dark glass also led the original designers to paint the exposed space frame structure dark brown, a look that did not seem to fit with the new more transparent glass. The refreshed structure will now be painted a light grey.