The Wrap in the River

The Wrap in the River

The 26-story residential tower will use passive principles to reduce energy use.
Courtesy Handel Architects

Cornell Tech’s new campus on Roosevelt Island is more than New York City’s next educational epicenter, it is a canvas for some of architecture’s biggest names. The first phase of the project, which is slated to open in 2017, includes a Thom Mayne–designed academic building, a corporate co-location center by Weiss/Manfredi, and a James Corner landscape that fills out and connects the site. SOM’s Colin Koop designed the master plan for the campus. There will also be an executive education center on the site, but an architect for that building has not yet been named.

The tallest piece of the first phase is a 26-story residential building designed by Blake Middleton of Handel Architects. Until recently, it had only appeared as a massing study towering above the glass and metallic campus below.

The tower, which houses 500 students and faculty members, is wrapped in a high-performance metallic skin designed to help Cornell meet its goal of creating a net-zero campus. “We’re not using as much glass as you might find in the high-end luxury towers that you see all over the city today,” said Middleton. But for the narrow strip of land in the East River, the firm is taking a different approach.


As an academic project, Middleton said there was no market expectation to build floor-to-ceiling windows. Instead, he designed what he called “The Wrap,” a 16-inch-thick, pre-fabricated facade that passively regulates interior temperatures. The tower’s windows, though, are not insignificant; some are roughly 5 feet tall and collectively create bands through the facade. To further increase efficiency, the windows are double—maybe triple—glazed. Middleton describes the exterior as a “high-performance engine” and a “giant thermos.” It is “where the magic happens,” he said.

The building’s exterior is largely a reflection of what was done on the inside to maximize efficiency. The layout, placement, and size of the apartments was designed and planned to reduce the heating and cooling necessary for each unit. The individual units are fairly small and each have their own climate control systems. Middleton said they could not just “superimpose” a high-performance skin on a standard building and expect these kinds of results.


The focus on creating such a sustainable structure was about more than decreasing a carbon footprint; the savings from the heating and cooling systems are used like subsidies to lower rental rates for the students and faculty.

Middleton explained, though, that creating a sustainable design from the inside out limited design options—specifically for more expressive forms. The tower’s shape is fairly basic, but The Wrap does add some dimension and design as it encases the structure.
At the top of the tower, The Wrap is angled upward to hide mechanicals and “mirror” the geology of Roosevelt Island, which rises up from the river on either side. At the base of the tower, The Wrap “cracks open” above a two-story glass facade known as the “front porch.” This space is intended to connect the tower with the campus’ teaching garden and tech walk.

Cornell expects to break ground on this tower, and the rest of Phase 1, in March, 2015.