James Leng

James Leng

Los Angeles, CA, US


Air Ops: A Retroactive Platform for Energy Exchange

Recipient of 2013 James Templeton Kelley Prize for Best M.Arch I Thesis

Air Ops is a project about re-envisioning zoning and energy-use in a post-Hurricane Sandy Manhattan.  The core of the project hinges on the notion that zoning has always been one of the most potent elements in shaping the city, and in order for architecture to tackle the problem of energy at the urban scale, especially as a response to the increasing volatility of the climate, it must bring topics of sourcing and using energy into active dialogue with zoning, real estate, and the public realm.

Just a few months ago, Hurricane Sandy tore a path of destruction through the North East.  In some ways, it was an event that revealed the fragile nature of the city’s electrical infrastructures.  It raises the question: How can we create a certain level of individual energy autonomy, while simultaneously increasing the robustness of our existing energy infrastructure?  One possibility is to look at the potential of an infrastructure that operates between the scale of the parcel and the scale of the city - a local, block scale system that can retroactively integrate with multiple existing buildings.

As a point of departure, the project delves into a careful investigation into the NYC zoning codes.  Ultimately, a re-imagination and an unconventional implementation of the air-rights zoning regulations enables the creation of a new urban typology.  This new paradigm volumetrically inverts the convention of the set-back: the top surface is maximized for sustainable energy collection, and the setback is then cut from the underside of the volume to ensure access to light and air for buildings below. 

In order to make this framework a reality, the creation of a new merged parcel ownership model enables individual owners to contribute structure, circulation, or floor area, in exchange for compensation through energy grants, tax credits, and on-site bonus FAR.  Functionally, the platform serves two purposes: first, to provide partial energy autonomy as an additional layer of redundancy in the grid.  And secondly, it is an energy exchange platform that facilitates waste energy re-use between buildings.  However, in addition to the infrastructural systems, public and commercial office programs are introduced within the platform as a realization of the aforementioned public and private incentives.  The final building size and massing inevitably becomes a direct response to new setback regulations and socio-economic pressures.

A group of parcels near Bryant Park provides the ideal test scenario because of the district’s general high density, and diversity of both building heights and types.  Adjacency to the park uniquely enables the project to directly engage issues of image, frontage, and public space.  The rooftops of certain lower buildings are converted into a cascade of public terraces, creating a vertical continuation of the Bryant Park where both the public and private can benefit, within this joint ownership effort.

Although this new physical infrastructure may enter the imagination through a canon of previous works that similarly occupy the air, such as Yona Friedman's Ville Spatiale, Archigram's Walking City, or Buckminster Fuller's Domed City, the key difference here is that this system is less about a mass proliferation of a specific order, rather that it is a selective, even opportunistic system that seizes upon the coincident intersection of existing urban conditions.  Nevertheless, in keeping with the spirit of these previous projects, Air Ops reiterates the necessity for the architectural thesis to reframe and challenge urgent issues within a speculative lens.  Although the building itself is but one manifestation in a larger framework, one could consider it a template upon which all future iterations may be built upon.  Ultimately, Air Ops envisions a fundamentally different spatial paradigm within the verticality of Manhattan, and hopes to spark a conversation regarding the intertwined roles of real estate, energy, and architecture, in the future of our cities.

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Status: School Project
Location: New York, NY, US
Additional Credits: Advisor: Eric Howeler