Alumni Spotlight on Eric Liftin: The Future of Sustainable Building in NYC

Image courtesy of MESH

Eric Liftin, TC ’90, founded MESH Architectures—a New York–based residential and commercial architecture firm—in 1997, a few years after graduating with a Masters in Architecture from Columbia University. With countless projects in his robust portfolio, Liftin’s current endeavor is one of the more groundbreaking ones, not only for his career but also for the city of New York. The project is a residential building in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY and is notable for its innovative use of sustainable building materials, namely glue-laminated timber (GLT). The Herald sat down with Liftin to discuss his trailblazing building and what it may mean for the New York City skyline as the path to a more sustainable future grows narrower each day.

The Herald: Can you tell us a little bit about the building project you’re working on and what its origins were? 

Eric Liftin: So this is a six-story condominium building with 14 units in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on Union Street. And we actually bought four houses in a row—it took about a year to do it—and then combined them into one site to build this project. Union Street is not a huge street, but it’s a little larger than the other streets that run in that direction, so it’s kind of an artery. And it has slightly higher zoning density than the streets on either side of it. So this project is six stories tall, but it’s actually built totally as-of-right for the zoning in that neighborhood. I’m part of a partnership that designed the building, and I decided that I wanted to do it as a timber building pretty early on, about three years ago. 

CLT has been trendy for a while now, but it has not been used very much in New York City. New York has been very slow to accept it. There was a large project that was about 17 stories that was proposed for Manhattan a few years ago. And that project got killed. The Department of Buildings says that it was killed because the developer pulled out of the project, decided not to do it. But I suspect that some of it had to do with the Department of Buildings as well. They tried to get it approved and it really went nowhere. So there’s a lot to talk about. But do you want to talk a little bit about the building itself?

YH: Absolutely. And how you decided to use CLT, for example.

EL: CLT has obvious appeal, because I’ve been interested in general sustainable practices and building for a while. I got LEED-certified many years ago. I did Passive House training about six years ago, which involves low-energy, high-performance buildings that require very little heating and cooling. So that’s always been a big part of my practice and how I go about things. I was interested in doing mass timber because it’s a very sustainable way to build. Wood is very much a renewable material. And the great thing about mass timber, as opposed to, say, older methods of building with timber, is that it’s made out of very small pieces of wood that are laminated together to make larger pieces. So in the old way of building a timber building, you’d have big column[s] that were cut out of hundred-year-old oak trees, for example. Those are not as sustainable, because those trees take a very long time to be replenished. Mass timber is made from very small, fast-growing softwood trees that can be replaced very quickly. These are trees that are only about eight inches in diameter. You get a number of pieces of lumber from them and they go into the building. And the carbon in that timber is sequestered in that building for the lifetime of the building, which hopefully is a hundred years or so. Meanwhile, new trees are planted in its place. And so it’s a way of constantly taking carbon dioxide out of the air, which is good. 

The way it goes together is pretty much like putting together IKEA furniture. Everything’s pre-cut to the size it needs to be. A lot of times the connection between the members is pre-attached in the factory, so you’re literally just taking things out of the box, or off the truck in this case, and putting it up and bolting it together. And if everything’s been done properly, it all just gets bolted together and goes up rather quickly, which is fantastic. There’s less waste and also less embodied energy. The energy that goes into making steel and concrete is enormous. That’s all happening offsite and you don’t really see it, but it’s also something that’s part of the energy profile of any government. So being able to build a building with much lower embodied energy is good environmental practice as well.

[Finally], I like doing new things. I like innovation. I frankly kind of like the challenge of trying to get it done in New York City. At the point [when I conceived the project], there had been no CLT buildings done in the city, so I knew that it was time to do it. At that time, they were putting together the 2020 New York City building code. And the 2020 code was supposed to allow the use of CLT. 

YH: What exactly is CLT?

EL: CLT is cross-laminated timber, essentially large panels of wood that are made like a much more scaled-up piece of plywood. So you’re taking normal dimensional lumber—two-by-sixes, two-by-eights—and you’re laying it up in layers. You take a bunch of boards and lay them side by side, and then you take another layer of boards and lay them crosswise to the first layer, and you keep going until you get whatever thickness of panel that you want. Then they get glued together under pressure, and you end up with a very strong panel.

This has actually been done for years. It’s not a particularly new technology, but it’s really starting to become more popular now. It’s a great way to build, and it’s being done particularly in the Pacific Northwest, a little bit in the Midwest. Those areas are kind of ahead of us. And Canada as well. So the code for 2020 in New York is supposed to allow for building with CLT, but New York is a pretty conservative place when it comes to innovations and building. In fact, the 2020 code still hasn’t been passed. So I immediately started having some meetings with folks at the DOB. We actually put in the application for our building as a CLT building because if you really look at the code, CLT is not prohibited. It’s not specifically allowed, but its cousin glue-laminated timber, which is an older version of the same thing where wood is glued together to make panels and beams and columns, is allowed. So we put in our application for our building with CLT and it was actually approved. We thought, “Okay, great, we’re going to do it.”

But another CLT building in Brooklyn, done by a guy that I know, was going up, and that had given us hope that maybe the DOB in New York was going to allow it. But sure enough, that building, when it was about 80 percent done, was suddenly audited by the Department of Buildings. They just noticed that it was going up and someone said, “Hey, who approved this thing? What’s going on here?” And they actually withdrew the approval of the building. This is a building that’s almost done. So it was a huge hassle for those people, meeting after meeting. It took months, and they were just sitting there on hold. Finally, they kind of came to an agreement.

But that prompted me to have meetings with the DOB because I was not eager to have the same fate occur to our building. So we actually met with them a couple of times, and after months of meetings and waiting and meetings and waiting, they let me know that there was no way that they were going to approve CLT. So I fell back on the older form of laminated timber, glue-laminated timber, which is legal and approved, you know, because it’s essentially a grandfather technology. And this is made by taking two-by-six boards and putting them on edge and then stacking them together. Imagine just putting in a bunch of two-by-sixes on edge on the ground, stacking them up horizontally, and then gluing them all together under pressure—that’s how GLT is made. So it took a long time, but we got the Department of Buildings to accept it because they realized that there were no real grounds not to accept it. That was about the early fall of 2020. So we went forward after that, and since then [the building has] been going up. 

YH: Do you think there’s a reason that New York City is more conservative about this than other places?

EL: It’s a cultural thing in the city for sure. It’s not just related to mass timber. The city is very slow to adapt to change. The most obvious explanation is simply that there’s a lot going on here. There’s a lot of people, a lot of density. So if anything were to happen, the potential for damage is greater than it would be in a less dense city where the buildings are shorter and spaced further apart. The stakes are simply higher [in NYC], so people are more cautious.

Also, nobody wants to be the one who said it was okay to do something that then leads to a problem. This probably isn’t [unique to New York]: it’s part of our general culture in this country. Nobody wants to be in a position where someone says, “Well, that person signed this and allowed this to happen, and then there was a disaster, so it’s that person’s fault.” But I think at the core, the reason is simply that it’s a dense city with a lot of people and the stakes are high. So nobody really wants to initiate changes. 

YH: After making so many compromises with the DOB to get your building constructed, do you still feel that the building meets your initial vision? 

EL: In the area of building innovation, particularly in New York, changes are incremental. They’re not sudden and dramatic. So you’re just not going to suddenly see something that jumps ahead to a full paradigm shift. I’m very happy that we got this far, that most of our structure is CLT. The building very much looks and feels like a timber building when you walk inside it. So in that way, it’s both going to be a great building and it’s also going to serve as a statement, a symbolic step forward. People will see that it’s good and that it works, and I think it’ll be very popular. I think that people will really want to live there. And ultimately, if people say, “This is cool and we want more of this,” it becomes a political issue and people will respond in kind. 

Also, as for the larger story of the building, there’s no combustion anywhere in the building. No furnaces, no gas-fired hot water heaters, no gas-fired cooking, no gas-fired dryers. I think in a lot of places in the country, certainly in New York, people are used to having these kinds of things. But I like to think that if you’re worried about fire, it certainly helps that we’re not burning anything inside the building. I think it won’t be too long before we start to look at combustion in our growing spaces as being super old fashioned. 

YH: Did you decide not to have combustion in the building because of safety, because of sustainability, or some combination of the two? 

EL: It’s mostly for sustainability. We can’t get to a place where we’re not burning fossil fuels if we’re still burning fossil fuels. The goal is to no longer be burning fossil fuels at all, so we have to get rid of all of the sites where that’s happening. A lot of people still feel, “Well, there’s still a lot of gas, and gas is fairly clean in terms of its combustion.” And they also say, “Electricity is derived from burning fossil fuels, so what’s the point of just moving that combustion off-site, from your house to a plant somewhere?” But the point is that this building is going to be up for a long time—let’s just say one hundred years. And I would like to think that within a much shorter time frame than that, [hopefully] within 20 years, all power will be generated by sustainable sources, not by burning fossil fuels. So only buildings that are fully electric are in a position to take advantage of that. 

YH: So you’re planning ahead.

EL: Yes, exactly. And it’s happening very quickly. Offshore wind is developing quickly. New York State has very aggressive plans. A lot of it is offshore wind, some of it is photovoltaic. New York has traditionally had some nuclear, and I’m not sure where that’s going, but in general, we’ll be moving away from burning gas in the near future.

YH: Besides the material that you’re using for the building and the lack of combustion inside of it, were any other elements of the building designed with sustainability in mind? 

EL: Yes—we’re going to try to have photovoltaic panels on the roof. Generating power onsite through solar panels is a great thing to do, so hopefully we’ll be able to do that. We also have parking in the back of the building, and we’re providing electric charging stations for people’s cars so that people can charge them onsite. And we also have a high performance envelope, meaning that we have more insulation in the walls, ceilings, and roof than you would have in a typical building, more than what’s required by code.

A lot of these practices are enumerated technically in Passive House building. Passive House is originally a German movement, but it’s pretty widespread at this point. The name is a little misleading if you’re not familiar with it, but essentially, it’s creating low-energy buildings, buildings that don’t require a lot of energy to heat and cool them. There are a lot of things involved with that, but primarily it involves very thick insulation and sealing the building. Imagine you’re sealing the building so no air can go through the facade, so you’re not leaking heat from your building to the outside. You’re also insulating so that you don’t have the cold outside affecting the air inside the building. And because it’s so sealed, you have active fresh air circulation.

We have these units called ERVs, which stands for “energy recovery ventilation.” They take air from the outside and bring it in, so you get fresh air, and then they take stale air from inside the building and expel it to the outside. And it has a heat exchanger, so instead of expelling hot air that’s been warmed inside your building and bringing in cold air that you then have to heat, which uses a lot of energy, it takes the heat from inside your space, from the air that it’s expelling, and transfers that heat to the air that’s coming in. So as you’re bringing fresh air into the building, you’re not losing heat and thus using energy. You end up with very fresh air inside the building that’s constantly being renewed—you have very good air quality inside your space. But at the same time, you’re using very little energy to heat and cool it.

YH: That’s incredible! How can citizens who care about sustainable building encourage more amazing projects like this to happen in the future? What about the government?

EL: I think it’s a huge thing if people can show that they actually care about this stuff. New York says a lot of things about conserving energy and sustainability—they’ve articulated that they understand that and appreciate it. And the code has continually been updated to have more stringent requirements for insulation, energy-efficient lighting, all those kinds of things. But in terms of being able to build with mass timber, I think it would be great if people would express to their representatives that that’s something they care about. Until this point, no one really has thought much about it, so there’s no pressure on anyone in government to do anything about it. It’s just not a priority, and it’s easy for them to ignore it as long as nobody seems to care too much about it. So if the public were to demand, “Hey, we like mass timber buildings and we’d like to see more of them,” that would spur politicians to say, “Yeah, that’s something we want to see happen.” 

And that really goes for all areas of innovation. If people could indicate to politicians that they care about it and want to see it through, that would definitely put it on the map for the priorities of those politicians. And what the government can do is be more open and more flexible in terms of accommodating new things. Of course, they have to be cautious: someone can’t just say, “Oh, here’s this new thing, can I do it tomorrow?” But certainly looking at the evidence, noticing that [mass timber building] is being done all around the country and [that] so far it’s been pretty safe. Because the next phase is to do taller timber buildings [in NYC]. People in other parts of the country are doing up to 18, 20 stories in timber, which is pretty amazing. [Our building] won’t have anything like that—I think we’re going to be maxed out at about six stories, even after the code changes. But I think going to taller buildings in high-density places of New York City will be great. 

YH: How does the cost of a mass timber building compare to the costs of less sustainable building materials? 

EL: The cost of GLT or CLT as opposed to a steel or concrete building—it sounds like a cop-out, but it’s kind of the same at the end of the day. And I think it could actually be cheaper once people are more versed in it. The builder who is doing our building has never built a mass timber building before. So, like with anything, there is a learning curve, and it’s taken time for them to figure it out. It’s taken them more time than anything else. The cost of buying the material and assembling it is actually pretty efficient, because a lot more of the work is done offsite. When you’re building, so much of your cost is labor, especially in places like New York City. Labor costs are enormous in terms of getting people, insurance, job site safety, et cetera. So if you can do more offsite and just kind of drop it into place, that will reduce your costs tremendously. 

The other way we save money is that the material itself is beautiful and doesn’t need to be finished. If we were doing a steel building, our columns and beams would be clad with framing, sheetrock, plaster, paint, all that kind of stuff. And same for the ceiling—your floor plates would be concrete, then you’d hang a ceiling with framing and put sheetrock on it, and paint it. In our case, most of our ceilings are just exposed timber. You literally just look at the underside of the wood decks, and the beams and columns are exposed. And it’s actually a lot more attractive than the sheetrock we’d normally use to enclose those things. And of course, it’s less work because you just put it up and it’s already finished. You just put a floor on. So on top of the wooden deck, we’re pouring two inches of concrete, which is part of getting the fire rating we need to get. And then we’re going to put a wood floor on top of that. So there is a floor treatment, but the ceiling is just the underside of the floor above you, and it looks great! 

YH: When do you expect that the project will be done? 

EL: Somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Right now it’s on a very good rhythm: on each floor, they spend two days putting up the columns and the beams, two days putting up the floor plates, dropping in the panels that are on the floor. Then the next week, they do the masonry—putting in those blocks takes another week. And you really notice that when they do the wood, it’s so clean, it just drops into place and gets bolted in. It’s so satisfying to watch it happen. Then the next week they come in and do the masonry, and that’s messy: there’s muddy water running everywhere, and cement gets splattered all over everything. It’s such a contrast. 

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