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A Color-Shifting Landmark

Cornell Tech’s high-rise residence is one of the tallest passive house buildings in the world

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Photo: Jonathan Morefield Photography

At 26 stories, The House at Cornell Tech in Roosevelt Island, N.Y., is one of the tallest passive house buildings in the world. Designed by New York City-based Handel Architects, it contains 352 affordable residential units for cash-strapped graduate students. Additionally, The House meets Energy Star standards and LEED Platinum certification for Homes Multifamily High-Rise.

Part of Cornell Tech’s new 2.1 million-square-foot technology campus, The House is designed to reinforce the unique model of academic integration, multi-disciplinary research and collaboration at the core of the school’s mission. At 270 feet tall, the building is an iconic marker for the school, while serving as a collaborative space for residents with its multistory lobby to its rooftop space.

The building’s extreme energy efficiency is one of the reasons the apartments are so affordable for students. The House has an innovative, high-peformance building envelope made up of Reynobond aluminum composite material (ACM) wall panels by Arconic Architectural Products LLC, Eastman, Ga., triple-pane windows, mineral wool insulation, and air and vapor barriers. The innovative system is factory-sealed into large, single-story curtainwall assemblies that were hoisted on to the building as fully integrated units resulting in a supertight, super-insulated exterior wall assembly.

When combined with highly efficient heating, cooling and fresh-air circulation systems, the energy consumption in the tower is reduced by up to 70 percent compared to conventionally constructed buildings of the same type.

Photo: Jonathan Morefield Photography

The House’s exterior shimmers, using color-changing paint that naturally shifts color from silver to warm champagne when reflecting light. To achieve the building’s striking appearance, Handel Architects reached out to Scott Moffatt, architectural sales manager at Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc., who suggested using PPG’s DURANAR MXL coatings. These coatings feature a dynamic color formulation that PPG had recently brought to market. Moffatt introduced the design team to David Story, PPG’s chief stylist and manager of color science, who worked directly with them to fulfill the building’s aesthetic demands.

From the beginning, Story says they were involved with trying to style two primary colors. “One was for the primary skin of The House, which the architects wanted in a silver color that shifted to a gold or champagne color. The second was for the large window well panels, which they wanted to paint in ‘a bronze with something special.’”

The team ultimately decided on a formula called Zenon Atoms for the primary metal panels and Kappa 4.1 for the window wells. Deborah Moelis, principal with Handel Architects, says they were looking for a paint that would be dynamic—one that would add depth and life to the façades. “The deep rich color of the Kappa with a slight sparkle provided the perfect contrast to the color-changing Zenon Atoms tint. The color of the Kappa was beautifully tuned to bridge between the champagne and silver of the Zenon Atoms.”

According to Story, each Duranar MXL coating is a unique styling, formulated with the architect to achieve his or her design vision. “Initially, we were going for the high-gloss look [for The House], but after the design team saw the 3-D look we were able to create with the Duranar MXL coating, they were sold on that.”

While the Kappa color for the window wells looks like a plain bronze shade from a distance, Story says that the color seems to explode when exposed to full sunlight, with a 3-D rainbow sparkle. The Zenom Atoms color contains PPG’s proprietary ULTRA-COOL IR-reflective pigments, which deflect sunlight to limit heat island effect and diminish cooling loads for the HVAC equipment, which provides energy savings to commercial buildings.