Cooper Union's building is a towering, unique building that actually saves a lot of energy. | Photo courtesy Cooper Union

A new energy-efficient building in New York is raising eyebrows and inspiring creativity, but its unique design and innovative features are helping the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art save energy, help the environment and keep its students’ imaginations fresh.

Thom Mayne’s architectural masterpiece is shocking at first, rising amidst the city’s traditional buildings like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude somehow transported from the Arctic and placed in the depths of Metropolis. Inside this building, a 150-year-old institution trains what it considers to be the best (the prestigious school admits 7 percent of applicants each year and has a total enrollment of about 1,000) architects, engineers and artists, all tuition-free.

 “We set goals for the architect to make the building inspirational, but we wanted it to be green,” Dr. George Campbell, the school’s president, says.

Several features contribute to those goals, including the building’s skin. Perforated stainless steel panels cover the entire exterior, hinged and rotating with actuators triggered by the building’s management system that detects the sun’s position and the thermal conditions inside. This helps keep conditions for students in the building ideal while using very little energy — 40 percent less than buildings of comparable size.




Inside the building, the glass curtain walls allow sunlight in during the day, and motion-sensing lights help save energy when interior lighting is needed. A grand staircase on the lower levels allows for wide stairwell areas that encourage collaboration. Crisscrossing sky bridges on the upper levels float through the atrium that extends from the ground up to the ninth-floor ceiling, and a skip-stop elevator encourages walking by skipping some floors.

“There are visual connections throughout the entire building, so you can look into a painting studio then look across to a robotics or nanotechnology lab,” Campbell says.

Even the roof is green. By using vegetation, proper insulation and other features, the building mitigates heat radiation. A rain water harvesting unit reduces runoff into the sewage system, and the water is reused for nonpotable purposes throughout the building. A cogeneration plant provides long-term payback through a more-efficient energy operation that captures byproducts from heating and cooling that are usually wasted.

Students have been involved from the start. They participated first-hand during the design and construction of the building — the school incorporated the new facility’s birth into its courses, lecturing on the key concepts behind the building. Even still, Campbell says he doesn’t think neither he nor his students were prepared to see the finished product.

“Even for those of us who had seen the mockups, seeing the final product was a different experience,” he says. “The students feel that the social spaces serve great purposes for them to communicate and are enthusiastic about the green benefits.”

Rina Goldfield, a fourth-year student at the School of Art, certainly is impressed.

“The aspiration to be a green building seems really important,” she says. “Peter Cooper built the Cooper Union upon the ideal of social responsibility. When he founded the school, this meant admitting nonwhite and female students, and making education financially available to anyone. The greenness of the building keeps Peter Cooper’s legacy alive by beginning to address our contemporary responsibility to the environment.”

That responsibility is now being considered in the art and science happening behind the New York façade whose exterior, marked by a lightning bolt-like symbol seemingly engraved in its wall, reminds passersby each day that 41 Cooper Square isn’t your average school building — it’s a commitment to imagination, sustainability and the planet.