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Feature Story - December 2007

World of Opportunity
$1.9 Billion U.N. Headquarters Rehab Project Set to Start

Work is slated to begin next year on a major overhaul of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. Designs are nearly complete, and trade subcontractor hiring is just around the corner.

by Tom Stabile

The United Nations is giving its headquarters – and some of the world’s most famous buildings – a long-overdue facelift and significant upgrades.

The complex on Manhattan’s East Side is set for a $1.88 billion rehabilitation project to break ground in the coming months. Prominent features such as the 39-story, glass-encased Secretariat tower and the General Assembly Building’s main hall have gotten no major renovations since they opened more than 50 years ago.

“This is a historic landmark in New York City where we’re going to be maintaining the character of the outside and inside of buildings designed for operations of 50 years ago,” says John Gering, managing partner of New York-based HLW, one of the architects on the project. “When one imposes all of this state-of-the-art technology on buildings this dated, the challenge is maintaining the landmark quality.”

The UN’s Capital Master Plan covers the entire 2.6-million-sq-ft campus, including upgrades to building systems and utilities; removal of hazardous materials; structural, security, and space programming improvements; code compliance efforts; construction of a 100,000-sq-ft – or larger – temporary building; and extensive sustainable design features.[See Sidebar]

While the multiphase project as adopted by the organization was slated to finish around 2015, the UN staff this fall recommended an alternate plan that would move more staffers offsite, thereby allowing for a bigger construction effort and acceleration of the completion date to 2013 – all under the same budget. The UN General Assembly was expected to vote on the measure before the end of the year.

The recommendation had several sparks, including how the project as adopted in December 2006 had already fallen almost a year off schedule and saw its estimated budget bloat by $220 million. A UN staff report recommending the new track stated that the secretary-general’s office “will ensure that the overall project budget of the capital master plan will remain at the authorized level of $1,876.7 million and that the projected cost increase to complete will be eliminated through a combination of the accelerated strategy…and the value engineering exercise.”

Getting the 192 member countries in the UN to agree on the program in the first place required a multiyear effort. Now, the task is to keep the project on track and the heavily used complex – as well as the UN’s unique mission – in operation, says Steve Pressler, executive vice president and area general manager for Skanska USA Building of Parsippany, N.J., the construction manager.

“There are other projects where you have to separate the public from the construction work, where the users move through the site every day,” Pressler adds. “But have we done a UN? There’s only UN.” 

Skanska was awarded preconstruction duties in July, with first preference to earn the full job. It has been reviewing the design documents prepared by a team that includes HLW; Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering of Albany; and three other New York-based firms: Helpern Architects; R.A. Heintges & Associates; and Syska & Hennessy Group. Under the $7 million preconstruction contract, the UN asked Skanska to outline a detailed project schedule for what is expected to be $1 billion in actual construction, and the accelerated schedule on the table is one of its first contributions.

“We would anticipate being on the street for subcontractors for make-ready work sometime in the spring,” Pressler says.

From there, the team expects a steady march forward on a project that many participants already see as a signature career stop, says Matthew Chalifoux, principal at EYP, whose own résumé includes a project renovating the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is the first time I’m working on a building that is recognizable around the world,” he adds. “We’re excited about what it could be when it’s done.”

An Icon in Need of Repair

The UN headquarters is a place of historic moments in diplomacy and a backdrop for debate of global current events. It also stands out architecturally as an icon of the Modernist style and for structures that were advanced for their era, Chalifoux says.

For that reason, the design team has aimed to balance functional needs with respect for the original work.

“We want to be sensitive and knowledgeable about the building and its history, but we need to also learn the culture of the client and how they use the building and operate,” Chalifoux adds.

Nonetheless, many features on the 17-acre campus simply need replacing, such as building systems installed 50 years ago with 25-year lifecycles that are still straining to serve the complex. It also begs for a reshaping of spaces originally designed to serve the diplomatic envoys of 75 member countries and host 700 conferences a year, but which now accommodate 192 nations and 8,000 meetings.

The complex got limited upgrades in 1976 and emergency repairs last decade. That has left it operating with features such as hunks of asbestos around high-pressure steam pipes; single-pane, quarter-in thick glass that offers a weak barrier from heat or cold; and vintage mechanical equipment that Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, manufacturer of the Johnson System Automatic Temperature Regulator, has requested for its company museum.

The UN began to map out its Capital Master Plan in the late 1990s, hiring teams of designers to shepherd several steps – a preliminary phase that finished in 2002; a design-development phase that finished last year; and the construction documents stage that will be largely complete by year’s end, with a few items expected to finish in 2008. The teams considered other potential sites and a new tower, but eventually settled on the current plan. Design team members for the final stages came on board in 2004 and 2005, followed by Skanska over the summer. Pressler, Chalifoux, and others say the UN ran a thorough procurement effort that included outside auditors.

The UN adopted the renovation plan last December, and is funding the budget with assessments on the member countries. When Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s new secretary-general, took office in January, he endorsed the program, which is overseen by Alicia Bárcena, the agency’s under-secretary-general for management, and Michael Adlerstein, who started in July as the capital plan’s executive director and assistant secretary-general.

By summer, the project was already about a half-year off the schedule the UN adopted last year, which originally had planned for hiring of the construction manager in late 2006 and fitting out swing space locations this year.

The recent staff report outlined various reasons that the schedule slipped, including unexpected design complexity of adding blast resistance and sustainability measures and the departure last year of Louis Frederick "Fritz" Reuter IV as executive director for the capital plan, leaving the post vacant until Adlerstein arrived. Those factors spiraled further, the report states, delaying the selection of the construction manager, leasing of swing spaces, and contract awards for site design work. The negotiations with Skanska also took unexpected turns in the discussion of guaranteed maximum price contracts.

By the time Skanska came on board, the report states, the budget had ballooned by $220 million, partially because of schedule slippage and inflation, but also because of revised construction cost estimates. The staff report states that the accelerated schedule will shave time and as a result produce savings from not incurring higher construction and leasing costs in the out-years. Other savings to keep the project under its original budget would result from value engineering efforts, it states. The capital master plan office is also talking to private donors about funding sustainability facets of the program.

One of Skanska’s primary roles is to prevent any further slippage, Adlerstein says.
“Schedule is clearly a very important element in a project of this length,” he adds.
Skanska will have help, because of the UN’s expectations of collaboration among project team members, EYP’s Chalifoux says.

“There is a lot of responsibility on our shoulders as the design professionals to make sure that we’re communicating amongst ourselves,” he adds. “The UN CMP made that clear that it was part of our responsibility.”

Chalifoux cites the close coordination between EYP teams designing the renovation of the General Assembly Building and Syska teams working on the new central plant to ensure that both systems link properly. “It’s a critical connection and the engineers have to be in close communication to make it work,” he adds.

Another element of coordination is the use of uniform project terminology, design and documentation standards, and regular principal-level meetings.

“It’s a wonderful way to accomplish a complex project,” the UN’s Adlerstein says.
The team realized early on that the long schedule posed challenges in the potential for cost escalation and in the need for flexibility to allow incorporation of new technologies as they arise, Gering says. “The last thing we want is a building designed to 2007 standards when it will open [next decade],” he adds. “The UN is trying to take advantage of the costs through strategies such as prepurchasing but also trying to capture the best technology of the future.”

Once Skanska finishes its preconstruction review of the design drawings for constructability, value engineering, and cost projections, it will present the UN with multiple guaranteed price contracts for different phases of the renovation. If the UN rejects those contracts, it would be able to reopen bidding. Under the accelerated schedule proposal, there would be two main contracts – one for the Secretariat Building and the other for the General Assembly and Conference buildings.

“The UN came to the realization that it would be difficult to say here’s a guaranteed maximum price for the whole project while some design documents were still out,” Pressler says.

Pressler adds that the multiple contracts are good news for subcontractors.
“We’ll probably have more trade subcontractors that we would normally,” he adds. “The individual GMPs give us the opportunity to hire trade subcontractors for each one.”

As an at-risk construction manager, Skanska would hire lowest responsible prequalified bidders under its standard policies, though the UN would have the right to refuse specific contractors, Pressler says.

Many Areas of Focus

At peak manpower, the project should have more than 1,000 workers onsite, Pressler says. Under the accelerated schedule, they will work around the 2,200 UN staffers who are not moved offsite, but anyone who remains will probably move several times into swing spaces on the campus as the project unfolds in phases. The original plan would leave 3,750 staffers onsite.

The renovation targets include the Secretariat Building built in 1950; the Conference and General Assembly buildings opened in 1951 and 1952; the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, North Lawn Building, and South Annex Building, opened between 1961 and 1982; and the complex’s three-level basement with a parking garage.

Under the original schedule, fit-out of more than 300,000 sq ft of swing space for 1,050 workers and warehouse space is also planned for offices in Manhattan and Queens, but the accelerated schedule would likely take more swing space and house about another 1,100 employees. The UN has already leased 162,000 sq ft at 305 East 46th Street from SL Green Management of New York.

The original schedule and accelerated schedule both call for work on the temporary building to begin next year and finish in 2009 so that the General Assembly can move in and free up the permanent building for renovations. The temporary structure, to be erected on the North Lawn, will come down in 2014, or earlier under the accelerated schedule. Surveying work for the temporary structure began over the summer.

The biggest changes to the original schedule under the accelerated plan would be to move more people out of the Secretariat tower and trim its construction schedule from six to three years. The accelerated plan would also swap the order of work on the Conference and General Assembly buildings, focusing on the conference structure first rather than second – a strategy that would probably require expanding the size of the temporary structure, which is now planned for 100,000 sq ft. But the alternative plan would finish the entire project two years early by mid-2013.

Under the new plan, work on the Secretariat would start in 2009. It is getting the biggest overhaul – gutting of the interiors down to the steel, replacement of the entire façade, reconfiguration of all interior spaces, and installation of completely new building systems. The original plan called for renovating 10-floor sections in 15-month phases while the rest of the building remains occupied – a daunting task that would require careful staging, safety, and utility connection, Pressler says. It’s unclear how that would change under an accelerated plan.

Either way, the end result will reprogram spaces that house mechanical systems in roughly 10-floor intervals; recapture building core spaces on each floor; and break open a perimeter office set-up in favor of a flexible, open floor plan, says Gering from HLW, which led the tower renovation design. New mechanical systems will be housed on the roof.

“What we’re looking at is a contemporary version of a very efficient, flexible, and fluid floorplate,” he adds.

The renovation also entails installation of new, energy-efficient and blast-resistant glass curtain wall that will have double or triple glazing. Gering says the building will regain the transparent glass that originally was a design hallmark before officials added a film to deflect sunlight. R.A. Heintges is lead designer on the curtain wall.

The project team will also execute fundamental structural work in order to: stiffen the structure for security purposes; redistribute loads to accommodate where the new buildings systems will go; and meet modern seismic, vertical, and lateral load standards, Gering says. The team is also studying strategies to relocate ducts, conduit, cabling, and other systems throughout the existing floor frames.

“It’s essentially constructing a building within a building,” he adds.

Simultaneously, crews will be renovating other portions of the complex, with the first focus on the General Assembly Building, then two phases on the Conference Building, and finally the library and south annex, Pressler says. EYP handled the designs for the Conference and General Assembly buildings, while Helpern designed the library renovation. Syska led the infrastructure effort, which involves the central plant and features such as air handlers, pumps, chillers, cooling towers, piping, and wiring.

Interwoven into the original budget are $165.5 million in security measures, such as blast protection features; $36.5 million worth of backup and life-safety systems for operating the campus in the event of emergencies; and $28 million in sustainable design features [see sidebar].

With the work set to take off, the team is satisfied that the many moving parts – and various players in the mix – are all moving in the right direction, Gering says.
“It’s working very well,” he adds. “We’re all in it together. It’s not a competitive environment. And we all have the same end goal.”  

UN Elevates Green Building as Global Responsibility

by Tom Stabile

Incorporating sustainable design features into a nearly 60-year-old campus is no small feat. But the $1.9 billion renovation plan that the United Nations adopted last year included $28 million dedicated to sustainable design measures intended to help the complex approximate a LEED Silver rating.

And that was before going green really became a priority under Ban Ki-moon, says MatthewChalifoux, principal at Albany-based Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering.

“The focus on sustainability has gone up a notch with the new secretary general,” Chalifoux says. “He has a focus on this issue. He has placed the challenge to CMP and the design teams to do even better. We’re all very excited about it.”
The complex is widely thought to be inefficient, but Chalifoux says that stems mainly from its age.

“While people say the UN campus is inefficient from energy standpoint, when it was built it wasn’t considered inefficient,” he adds. “The problem is that there has been a lot of advancement in the last 50 years. All we’re doing overlaying the modern ideas on the building but not changing basic premise. It was a forward-looking, technologically savvy building [then]. And that’s what it will be.”

The renovation program will introduce a full roster of green measures, some tied into broader tasks and others focused on sustainability. A recent UN staff report estimates that the project will achieve a 40% reduction in energy consumption.
The new curtain wall for the 39-story Secretariat Building, modern lighting, and more efficient building systems are examples of needed upgrades that will introduce energy savings. The HVAC systems, for instance, will use no CFC-based refrigerants, while electrical generators may run on biodiesel fuels and plumbing fixtures will use low-flow water technology.

Meanwhile, green-specific features include building automation and lighting control systems; monitoring and filtration systems for indoor air quality; and rainwater and condensate collection for blackwater reuse.

The UN is also considering further green measures as final designs are set – and new technologies come online. Among them are steam condensate recovery systems, photovoltaic roof panels, and energy exchanges between outside air and exhaust air.

The UN has not indicated whether it will formally seek LEED certification, but the team will proceed with documentation in the event it decides to do so, says Steve Pressler, executive vice president and area general manager for Skanska USA Building of Parsippany, N.J., the construction manager for the preconstruction phase.

“We will have to do all of the things in the construction phase, all of the documentation and tracking, to make sure the materials that get installed meet sustainable goals, such as low-VOC paints,” he adds. “They want a green and sustainable UN.”


Owner: United Nations
Program Manager: Gardiner & Theobald, London
Construction Manager: Skanska USA Building, Parsippany, N.J.,
Architect-Structural Engineer-Secretariat Building: HLW, New York
Architect - Conference Building, General Assembly Building: Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering, Albany
Architect – Library: Helpern Architects, New York
Curtain Wall Consultant: R.A. Heintges & Associates, New York
M-E-P Engineer: Syska & Hennessy, New York
Space Programming Consultant: Perkins + Will, Chicago
Security Consultant: Kroll Schiff & Associates, New York
Surveying: Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, Elmwood Park, N.J.
Engineering Consultant: Ove Arup & Partners Consulting Engineering, London
Geotechnical Consultant: Warren George Inc., Jersey City, N.J.


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