For millions of people who travel Interstate 95 north from New York City, the Pirelli building in New Haven is both a landmark and an oddity. It looms up just as Interstate 91 splits off, heading north. A notable example of the controversial Brutalist architectural style by celebrated architect Marcel Breuer, the tan concrete structure perched beside the highway looks like one box suspended above another. Many people love the edifice; others hate it.
The building is about to get a lot more love, it seems. It has stood empty for more than 20 years, but now is being brought back to life by an architect and developer as a boutique hotel and a model of sustainability. “We have to change the way we build,” says Bruce Becker of Becker + Becker in Westport, CT. “I couldn’t imagine building a building that was going to contribute to our problem with fossil fuels.” He believes it will be the first net-zero-carbon hotel in the country.
Net zero means the building doesn’t rely on fossil fuels for energy—it produces the power it needs for heating, cooling, lighting, cooking, washing, and even charging electric vehicles via more than 1000 solar panels mounted on the roof and on parking canopies. The hotel will be connected to the grid and will typically send excess electricity to the grid during the daylight hours and draw from it at night, giving at least as much energy back to the grid as it gets. In addition, it’s capable of running in “island” mode—meaning it’s disconnected from the grid and relies on solar power, its 1 megawatt-hour (MWh) of onsite battery storage, and energy management techniques to keep the lights on.
The 50-year-old building can operate in a 21st-century manner thanks to a slew of modern technologies, materials, and systems, including power-over-Ethernet wiring, super-efficient insulation, triple-pane windows, and a power-management system that enables the building and its human occupants to sip energy rather than guzzle it.
The Pirelli building, completed in 1969 initially as headquarters for the Armstrong Rubber Co., will reemerge late this year as the Hotel Marcel, in the Hilton family. The name comes from Marcel Breuer, lead architect of the original building. Italy’s Pirelli bought Armstrong but later abandoned the building. Swedish retailer IKEA purchased the property more recently and built a massive store and parking lot next door, but didn’t touch the historic structure.
To develop the property in this way, Becker had to take a crash course in sustainable building and operations practices and seek out specialist engineering, equipment, and construction outfits capable of operating on the cutting edge of the industry. People in the sustainable building movement refer to this as the industry’s “Tesla moment,” when many traditional ways of doing things are being turned on their heads. It’s still hard to do the right thing.
Here are three of the most significant innovations being put to use at the Pirelli building:
Power Over Ethernet (POE): Direct-current power running on Ethernet cables has been used for voice-over-IP systems for years, but now it’s branching out. Because you don’t have to convert from DC to AC power and back within a building, you can operate more efficiently and use less energy. Electricity and data run over the same safe-to-touch wires, so it’s easy to remotely control lighting, window shades, televisions, etc. The network also connects directly to solar arrays. POE-based installations can be about 40% more efficient that traditional systems. “We’re creating a complete DC microgrid in the building,” says Hannah Walker, chief operating officer for Sinclair Digital, of Fort Worth, Texas, the provider and installer of the POE network in the Pirelli building.
Passive House: This is a fast-growing performance-based voluntary standard for using super-efficient insulation techniques and materials in the walls and windows of buildings. The Pirelli building is listed on the National Register of historic places and utilizes historic tax credits, so it was challenging to meet the passive house standards while also preserving the exterior appearance, says William Zoeller, director of building enclosure services for Steven Winter Associates, the New York City-based firm that Becker hired to oversee the building’s exterior thermal performance. Highly-insulated buildings can develop moisture problems in the walls, so the firm used so-called hygrothermal modeling software, which analyses the anticipated interplay of heat, cold, and moisture in a building, to confirm they could safely insulate the precast concrete cladding with spray polyurethane foam (SPF).
Advanced Energy Management: Operating net-zero-carbon buildings requires the orchestration of a wide variety of energy sources, each with its own control system, plus the interface with the electrical grid. At the Marcel, this will be done using a microgrid control system provided by Ageto Energy, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. A critical moment for net-zero buildings comes when there’s a power outage. The Ageto Energy ARC microgrid controller enables building managers to power down selectively so they keep running on solar and battery power for days on end. “At the Marcel, the microgrid will switch to backup power in 15 milliseconds so guests won’t even know there’s a power outage,” says Mike Murray, Ageto Energy’s chief operating officer.
The building is an example of a shift away from fossil fuels to all-electric living—which is being pushed globally by environmental advocates as well as locally by a citizens’ group called New Haven Climate Movement “This project is a great example of what an electric future could look like,” says Chris Schweitzer, a spokesperson for the local group. “It’s really looking to reduce air pollution and other types of climate damage, and produce a much healthier future for New Haven and the world.”
Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, CT. His latest book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Challenges Through Local Action, will be published by Columbia University Press in October.