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Retrofitting landmarks for 21st century.

During the 1920's, New York City experienced its greatest building boom. Between 1926 and 1927 alone some 30 office buildings were constructed in Fifth Avenue's Midtown area.

Over the years these structures have aged and weathered. In many cases, their building systems have all but reached the end of their useful life. And unless the architects were prescient, the building were not designed to meet the tenant and building demands of the 21st century.

To reposition these commercial properties in the marketplace, building owners have had to commit to major capital improvements. This means restoring the building's exterior and interior and upgrading its base building systems.

Retrofitting the building operating system of 60-plus-year-old structures for continued use is a major undertaking. To bring the building up to modern-day standards, several factors have to be considered: *Almost without exception, the windows are single glazed, double hung, fit poorly, and have a high degree of infiltration

* The walls and roof have little or no insulation

* The building was not designed for central air conditioning

* The electrical system is generally obsolete, inadequate, and unsuitable for modern-day lamps and today's electronic environment

* There are no dedicated telecommunications or telephone spaces

* Life safety systems don't meet the latest code requirements

* The old basic steam heat system is inefficient, costly, and guzzles energy

* There is no emergency back-up system

Upgrading older building systems becomes an even greater task when the building is a historical landmark. Here the challenge is to upgrade the building's operating systems without compromising its landmark status.

Some suggested solutions:

Air Conditioning

Air conditioning systems require some form of outside air intakes. Thus, air has to come either from interior shafts or from the building's perimeter through louvers.

Prior to achieving landmark status, it was common practice to install 1ouvers throughout the exterior wall of the building without regard to architectural aesthetics. A retrofit of this type of AC system might reduce the number of 1ouvers and streamline their placement to achieve a more pleasing appearance.

In cases where 1ouvers do not exist, the solution might be to create an interior vertical shaft. This approach calls for reclaiming interior space and may have some adverse effect on the net-to-gross area ratio of the building. Such systems require the placement of cooling towers on the roof. The challenge here is to design the system using a cooling tower with the largest capacity that is not readily visible.

Another solution is an air cooled/water cooled combination system which incorporates both louvers and cooling towers. In buildings where the floor plates get smaller on the higher floors due to step backs of the roof line, this approach is often the most cost effective and efficient.

Energy Efficiency

Although older buildings predate energy code requirements, most building owners opt to upgrade their buildings to maintain their competitive edge and to qualify for energy rebates.

Where budget allows, the optimum solution is a complete rebuild of the building interior, i.e., strip and insulate all walls, and replace all windows with double glaze glass. However, in landmark buildings, this solution not only changes the building's appearance but is not cost effective. The cost of refitting double glazing in landmark buildings and meeting all other requirements for mullions and historical integrity is very high. The standard payback in energy savings might take as much as 20 years. (incidentally, the difficulty justifying an investment with such a long-term payback, is specifically why landmark buildings are exempt from meeting energy code requirements.) One way to reduce the amount of infiltration without insulating wails or changing windows is to seal and refurbish the windows.

Heating As for heating, the original steam heat systems still operate and may just require minor repairs. They generally provide as much heat as needed in older buildings, despite the lack of insulation. The real issue here is economics. One way to reduce operating cost is to change the existing cast iron radiators from a steam to a water system. Although the same amount of energy is used to drive the system, in a water system, the temperature of the water can be varied in response to outside air temperature. Steam, on the other hand, can only be turned on or off. With steam, the temperature, usually 230 degrees, remains constant. Water temperatures, on the other hand, can vary from 210 to 140 degrees.

Steam heat systems can be upgraded by installing control valves on each radiator. These valves are thermostatically controlled to respond to temperature in the room. They operate by releasing steam as required to maintain a specific temperature level specified by the room's occupant. In this manner, less steam is used, less energy consumed.


The standard approach to retrofitting the electrical system of older buildings, whether landmark or not, is to replace the entire system - risers, horizontal distribution, wiring to lighting panels. If the original system still exists, it most likely suffers from chronic overloads, brown outs, periodic outages, and aged wiring. In the 60-plus years since the building was completed, each subsequent tenant redistributed electrical power to suit his own needs, leaving some electrical panels underloaded, some overloaded.

Additionally, the electrical capacity will have to be upgraded from two watts per square foot to six watts per square foot to support today's modem lighting systems as well as tenant's computer environment.

Fire Safety Systems

Fire safety systems in older buildings generally consisted of coded fire alarm systems which indicated the location of fire by the number of bells sounded. Local Law 16 passed in 1984, require that all buildings update their fire alarm systems to meet a minimal life safety code. This code mandates a Class E fire alarm system consisting of smoke sensors, smoke purge where applicable, full sprinkler heads from a standpipe system, risers, fire command and control stations, and elevator recall systems. Local Law 16 also requires emergency back-up generators for support of life safety purposes only. When it comes to Fire and Life Safety, adherence to code overrides any landmark specifications.

Direct Safety Systems

It is standard operating procedure when retrofitting landmark buildings to install a direct digital control (DDC) system to control the air, conditioning systems, security systems, and to interface with the life safety systems. Generally this is achieved through an inconspicuous control panel in the building's lobby with the command station located elsewhere in the building. In this manner, the integrity of the landmarked interior spaces is not compromised.

The Fred F. French Building

The Fred F. French building located at the corner of 45th street and Fifth Avenue represents the prototypical renovation of a landmark office building. Constructed in 1926-27 as the corporate headquarters for the prominent real estate firm of the same name, the 38-story building is a distinguished example of architectural eclecticism of the late 1920's. The building achieved landmark status in 1986.

The building's owner, MetLife Real Estate Investments, decided to maximize its investment in the building to retain its Class-A competitive edge in Manhattan's midtown. To accomplish this objective, a major rehabilitation program was initiated, part of which was the complete overhaul of the building's mechanical and electrical systems.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Hagedorn Publication
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:advice on office building retrofitting, including energy efficiency, heating and air conditioning systems, electrical and fire safety systems
Author:Beech, Jack
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:May 19, 1993
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