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The challenges involved in maintaining and operating the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City were immense from the start. Since it opened in 1986, the 1.6-million-square foot facility has been one of the largest and busiest convention centers in the United States. A five-year, $463 million renovation project completed in 2014 upgraded a host of the facility’s systems, and it added one component that put the facility on the path to sustainability – a green roof.
Now, a $1.5 billion expansion completed in 2021 has taken the convention center’s sustainability to new heights – literally – and it has made the challenges of maintaining and operating the facility that much more critical.
A 6.75-acre green roof on a facility the size of the Javits Center was a monumental undertaking, but the installation turned out to be such a success in terms of sustainability, energy savings and public relations that Javits officials decided they wanted to take on an even larger sustainability challenge, one that also represents expanded challenges for the center’s facilities department.
“We have teams of carpenters, electricians, engineers, painters, plumbers and cleaners who care for the Javits Center throughout the year, ensuring all of our equipment is working effectively and efficiently," says Kenneth Sanchez, the center’s senior vice president of facilities management. “Spanning 3.3 million square feet over six city blocks, the Javits Center is considered the busiest convention center in the United States, hosting a wide range of trade shows, conventions and special events, and the heavy use of the building demands that our teams work diligently to maintain the structure in optimal working order.”
The facilities department staff already maintaining the original facility and its 2014 expansion obviously would be responsible for the post-installation inspection, repair and maintenance of the center’s expansion and its rooftop sustainability components. So it only made sense that the staff also played a central role in the 2021 expansion’s design and installation.
“The facilities department played a critical role in the design and installation of our 6.75-acre green roof and the recent expansion, which added 1.2 million square feet of state-of-the-art space to the convention center,” Sanchez says. “Our staff worked closely with architectural firms and contractors to ensure the additions were completed in a timely fashion and the new features integrated with the existing building in a seamless fashion.”
As if a $1.5 billion expansion is not complex enough by itself, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated it further. The Javits Center served as a COVID hospital in March and April 2020 and treated almost 1,100 patients. Then it opened as a vaccination center, distributing more than 646,000 vaccines. The expansion was completed by May 2021, and the rooftop officially opened in September 2021. The center resumed events following the COVID-19 pandemic in the fall of 2021.
While most attendees of events at the Javits Center are likely to focus on the exhibit and meeting space inside renovated original space and the recently expanded space, the expansion’s components operating overhead are perhaps the most interesting parts of the facility and certainly among its most sustainable.
The expansion’s rooftop features a one-acre working farm and a 10,000-square-foot orchard with 32 apple trees and six pear trees growing in 3 feet 6 inches of soil, as well as a greenhouse for microgreens and vegetables. Additional areas on the green roof include an outdoor terrace with seating, a shade garden and ornamental perennial planters. The expansion was built to hold at least 1 million pounds of soil in a bed 18 inches deep.
“More than eight stories above street level, the rooftop farm can generate up to 40,000 pounds of produce a year, allowing us to create a truly unique roof-to-table program,” Sanchez says. “Nearly half of our entire menu now consists of ingredients from the rooftop farm, giving our customers an opportunity to taste produce grown only steps from where they are sitting.”
The farm grows more than 50 different crops, from arugula to zucchini, that supply the center’s kitchens throughout the building.
“Brooklyn Grange, an urban farming company, manages the day-to-day operations of the farm, and their farmers work closely with our employees to ensure we maximize its potential,” Sanchez says.
The structural design of the expansion had to account for the presence of a large farm operation on the rooftop, including the demands presented by keeping plants and trees irrigated.
“The rooftop farm is supported by two underground cisterns, which recycle stormwater and help to irrigate the crops,” Sanchez says. The cisterns have a 344,000-gallon-holding capacity capture and treat rainwater to be used for irrigation on the roof, reducing the need for potable water for irrigation by at least 50 percent.
The green roof also can absorb up to 7 million gallons of storm water run-off annually while reducing heat gain throughout the building. As a result, of all of the convention center’s sustainable initiatives, the facility's annual energy consumption has been reduced by 26 percent.
The 2014 expansion of the Javits Center also addressed one troublesome aspect of the original facility – namely, bird collisions. The expansion’s new glass is translucent and bird-friendly. As a result of the upgrade, bird collisions have dropped more than 90 percent. The improvement means birds that would normally fly around the convention center have started to make a home on the green roofs.
“Since the installation of the green roof and thousands of bird-safe glass panels, the Javits Center has transformed into a wildlife sanctuary, serving as a habitat for 51 bird species, five bat species and nine beehives,” Sanchez says. “Comprised of sedum, the green roof has helped reduce our energy consumption by 26 percent, resulting in millions of dollars in energy savings.”
The expanded convention center also features a 13 MW microgrid that acts as the facility’s central plant and is equipped with a power management system. As part of the center’s resilience program, three diesel generators allow the facility to be off grid for up to six consecutive days if needed. 1.61 MW of solar photovoltaics, combined with 3.5 MW of battery energy storage, will provide at least 10 percent of the facility’s energy consumption from a renewable source.
The upgraded and expanded Javits Center also features technology and systems that are designed to ensure the facilities department has the resources and tools to monitor and oversee its complex and critical systems. Engineers and facilities management staff have access to a centralized dashboard to monitor real-time energy consumption metrics. The center’s microgrid includes three generators that run on diesel fuel and is a key component in making the center more resilient to disaster. It also can provide the facility with energy to be off the grid or six consecutive days.
While the current facility might mean more work and new challenges for the facilities department, it also offers the department’s staff opportunities to expand their skills and experiences.
“The expansion certainly added to our overall workload, but in the aftermath of the pandemic, our employees have enjoyed the opportunity to get back to business and host large-scale events again," Sanchez says. “Our events provide a tremendous amount of economic support for businesses throughout the New York region, and our employees recognize that.
“In recent years, our sustainability program has required our employees to develop new skills in order to manage the increased presence of soil, water and wildlife. Our engineers have learned so much about bees and bird management, and their commitment to sustainability has allowed us to continue to move the program forward. We also have employed the latest technology to help us evaluate and monitor the conditions of the building, including BIM modeling, project-tracking software and state-of-the-art sensors that alert us when a particular piece of equipment may not be functioning properly. We have found that preventing a potential issue is much easier than having to fix it when it’s too late.“
The task of ensuring that the upgraded and expanded Javits Center delivers on its promises of sustainability now rests in the hands of the facilities department staff.
“Thanks to our employees and business partners, the Javits Center has become a model of sustainability, and therefore, we are pushing the boundaries of what it means for a building to be sustainable,” Sanchez says. “Our focus is to ensure our employees are properly trained and supported as they maintain these new features and recognize their impact on the building.”
Dan Hounsell is senior editor of the facility market. He has more than 25 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management.