Designing Sustainable Buildings: An Interview with Murray Levi

Murray Levi is an award-winning architect who has been behind many significant projects, including the AIDS Service Center NYC and the LEED EB Certification for Random House’s New York headquarters.

murray levi, head shot

He has also taught architecture and design at several prestigious universities such as the Pratt Institute, NYU, Baruch, the School of Visual Arts and Fashion Institute of Technology.

His career spans decades and tells the story of how our ideas about sustainable architecture have evolved from a focus on energy conservation to much more. To learn more about sustainable design, we sat down with Levi and asked him a few questions.

Public Goods: Why and how did you become an interior designer and architect?

Murray Levi: Fuel efficiency was in the air, President Carter installed solar collectors on the roof of the White House, and I became interested in designing the built environment to a higher standard than was the practice at the time. By chance, I spotted a book in the New York Times Book Review titled “Energy & Architecture.”

Written by Richard Stein, the book addressed all the things I was thinking about and more. Mr. Stein was teaching at The Cooper Union, so I made up my mind that I would go to Cooper Union and become an architect.

Investing my future efforts in architecture turned out to be a suitable goal. Creating the built environment invests more energy, effort and resources than any other human activity. The reason for the grand scale of that personal and collective effort becomes clear when considering the reasons we build: to support and improve our health and safety, to produce a stable environment protected from the elements, to live in greater comfort and for us to better enjoy our lives.

I was fortunate to have attended Cooper Union and studied with Stein, for whom I worked for six years out of school and consider my mentor in architecture and sustainability. I received my architecture degree in 1979 and began my career intending to make buildings that were energy-efficient, responsive to site and sun, and make better and more elegant use of their materials of construction.

For a long time this goal was difficult. The administrations after Carter did not care much for sustainability.

Thankfully there was a resurgence of interest in sustainable design in the early 2000’s. I joined a group called the Environmental Business Association of New York State [EBA] that held regular meetings on sustainable business practices.

Education would be the key to turning around my industry.

It became clear to me that the subject was poorly understood, and that building stakeholders had to be educated in the what and how of sustainable design, and green building operation and maintenance. Education would be the key to turning around my industry. I started giving lectures through the EBA, an activity that continues to this day through my activities as an educator.

One of the EBA offshoots was a program called the Green Building Salon. Monthly Salons were held offering programs on sustainable development, design and construction. I began to participate in the early stages of the salon by providing expertise, identifying subjects for the Salons and helping to run them.

At the same time, a group had formed in Washington, D.C. that called itself the “United States Green Building Council” [USGBC]. The USGBC sought to promote the concepts of sustainable design and development using a green building certification system called “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” [LEED].

The USGBC is organized into local chapters, with each responsible for promoting the concepts of sustainable design through LEED workshops, educational programs and public advocacy. Believing in missions of education and advocacy, I helped in the formation of the USGBC New York and Long Island Chapters.

PG: How has your work impacted the field and practice of sustainable design?

ML: In New York City I took the helm of the Chapter’s Program and Education Committee where I continued as Chair from roughly 2002 to 2008. I coordinated the efforts of a small army of volunteers who donated time, ideas and contacts to offer numerous programs each month. The P&E Committee also regularly offered LEED Workshops that educate thousands of interested people in the LEED system and its underlying concepts. The programs we offered under my direction introduced thousands of people in the design and construction industries to the concepts and practices of environmentally preferable design, development and construction.

new york city public library exterior
High Bridge in the Bronx, one of Levi’s latest projects.

Between 2002 and 2008 our Chapter literally transformed the industry through our educational programs and our governmental advocacy. The rapid transformation resulted from a perfect storm of circumstances:

  1. society’s relative ignorance of the principles of sustainability
  2. concern for the environment because of an administration in Washington with close ties to the oil industry
  3. a data-driven mayor administration who was willing to change his views when presented with sufficiently compelling evidence
  4. “An Inconvenient Truth,” whose first airing in New York City at the Sunshine Theater was arranged by our Chapter.

But on closer examination, the question of sustainable design, development and construction pales in comparison to the efficiency of existing buildings. New York City’s office market alone is comprised of over 400 million square feet of office space.

Along with a very small group of like-minded people, we asked the question: What would the potential savings in energy and carbon output be if we collectively improved the operations and maintenance [O&M] of the existing building stock? Further, how much energy should a New York City building consume each year?

In 2005 the Bloomberg Administration undertook a study to inventory New York City’s greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions; one of the first cities in the U.S. to do so. From that report we learned the following:

  • New York City’s GHG emissions represented 1% of the total carbon emissions in the United States, while our population represents 3% of the total in the U.S. Clearly, something was going right.
  • 79% of New York’s carbon output was from the operations and maintenance of our building stock.

But even as the most energy-efficient city in the U.S., our per capita carbon burden was equivalent to that of London, which is the most energy intensive city in Europe. Clearly, progress should be possible, and the emphasis should clearly be optimizing building O&M. Armed with that data, and spurred on by a host of concerned organizations — including Urban Green Council — the Bloomberg Administration set a target of achieving 20% reduction in New York’s carbon footprint by 2020 (the 20×20 challenge).

My career-long experience building green(er) buildings and interior environments also taught me that, no matter how green the building, the designer’s best intentions can be unintentionally subverted if the occupant doesn’t maintain their environment properly. Cleaning products with toxic chemicals can pollute the interior environment, inattention to shading windows when the sun is full in the summer (or even winter) that increase energy consumption, even leaving power bricks plugged in when electronic devices are not in use draws significant amounts of power over time. Consequently, I began advocating for improving existing building operations and maintenance.

Initially I joined both the International Facilities Management Association, where I convened programs on sustainable building O&M and instigated the creation of the IFMA-NYC sustainability Committee; and the Building Owner’s and Managers Association of New York where I participated in committees and assisted with conferences designed to promote sustainable O&M.

A few years later the USGBC launched LEED for Existing Buildings [LEED EB], a rating system specifically for improving existing building O&M. In addition to my advocacy for LEED EB, I consulted on green building O&M for such organizations as The Nature Conservancy, the Battery Park City Authority and ultimately helped Random House Bertelsmann secure LEED EB Certification for their headquarters building at 1745 Broadway.

high bridge library interior, students studying
Interior shot of High Bridge.

The question still remained: How much energy should a New York City building use? Of all the results of that decade of advocacy, the most significant accomplishment has been the passage of a series of local laws collectively known as the “Greater, Greener Buildings Plan” [GGBP] that require owners of large buildings to:

  • Benchmark their buildings using a standardized methodology that generates a percentage score calculated relative to the whole population of buildings reporting. The law also requires these buildings’ owners post their scores to a public database. Scores are anonymous to maintain the privacy of the building owners
  • The requirement that buildings meet specific criteria, perform energy audits and recommission their buildings to increase efficiency
  • The creation of funding mechanisms to assist building owners with commissioning and energy efficiency retrofits
  • The creation of free resources, such as the NYC Retrofit Accelerator to help building owners access information to more easily improve their buildings
  • The creation of a New York City Energy Conservation Code that is specific to the city; its unique attributes and the city’s goal to reduce energy consumption and thereby GHG emissions.

The benchmarking information alone has yielded extremely important data that has given us much greater insight into building energy performance than was ever possible before. This data will continue to be used to improve building design, operations and maintenance, and help data steer public policy.

Early on in my career of public advocacy it became clear that the instilling concern for societal sustainability was both educational and generational. I began teaching sustainability in a number of venues: NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate, where I both taught and helped to formulate their Certificate in Sustainability Program; The Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College, the SVA Interior Design Department where I taught a class in integrative design that became a required class for the program, the FIT Interior Design Department, initially in their Masters of Sustainable Interior Environments program and where I continue to teach on the undergraduate level, as well as numerous presentations to public institutions and forums around NYC.

As a practitioner I am particularly proud of a body of work that has consistently created uplifting spaces that support the health and well-being of their occupants and our collective environment. Two projects that stand out are a passive solar house designed for a couple — one of whom was an artist and the other an environmental advocate — that continues to function beyond expectations three decades on.

Saul and Joanna gave me the greatest compliment I’ve received in my career when they told me after more than 15 years living in their house:

“We really have to work at this house. We always need to pay attention to where the sun is, where the winds are, what the weather is like inside and outside of the house so we can operate it properly. Because of that we are more intimately connected to nature than we ever imagined we could be. That is the greatest gift you could have given us.”

I designed a series of projects for Saint Francis College in Brooklyn, one of which remains groundbreaking: The Frank and Mary Macchiarola Academic Center. The building was designed with environmentally preferable materials, special techniques to maximize daylight in the interior of the building, and underfloor air. One of the few successful underfloor air buildings of its generation, one of my SVA students once asked if I was the architect for that building because she had many friends who studied there. When I told her that I was in fact the architect for the project she said:

“What did you put in the air in that building? My friends all love it! They say they’re always awake and in such a good mood when they have class there!”

PG: What does sustainability mean to you?

ML: Sustainability is more of an outlook and approach to life than anything else. One must first acknowledge that we are all part of nature and that our activities will always have consequences for the environment around us. With that as a starting point, it becomes easier to make better, more informed decisions; decisions that maximize health, comfort, safety and personal satisfaction while striving to minimize deleterious consequences for the world around us.

high bridge public library interior split images
Another interior shot of High Bridge.

As an architect, it’s about healthy, energy-efficient design. That mission requires setting priorities to balance budgets and goals to optimize the final product. In concrete terms that means using the right materials, intelligent lighting design and including the right building systems for each project.

I find it humorous to think back to the early 2000s when the idea was widely held that sustainable architecture meant all of us moving to the wilderness somewhere and living in a yurt with no electricity or running water. One and a half decades on, we’ve seen thousands of beautiful, sophisticated projects built that come closer to the goal of a sustainable man-made environment than would have been thought possible in the yurt era.

We do not know how to do sustainability yet.

But let’s please be honest with ourselves. We do not know how to do sustainability yet. We come closer every year, but the technologies we depend on still aren’t there. Getting there is going to take persistent effort and imagination. We each have to try to minimize our footprints on nature while we maximize our personal potentials by making careful, informed choices every day.

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