The Risky Business of Building Big
Construction in New York City can be a challenging endeavor — but many strategies can help keep large projects on track.
by Julia Murphy
Take a walk around the city, and it’s obvious: New York is in the middle of a building boom. Construction fences line the sidewalks, cranes dot the skyline, and towers are rising from Lower Manhattan to Midtown, to the far West Side and beyond. A recent study estimated that between 2017 and 2019, more than 15 million square feet of new office space will have been built in New York City — more than at any time in the last three decades. The rezoning of East Midtown, approved by the city last year, opens up further opportunities for large-scale development.
As the frenzy of building continues, new towers seem to sprout up almost overnight. But this dizzying speed is deceiving: in fact, an incredible amount of careful, deliberate coordination needs to happen at every step along the way for a building project to be successful.
If building big is risky business, this is especially true in New York City. Any major construction project is a complicated and costly endeavor. When you take considerations of schedule, budget, and regulatory approvals, and add in the logistics of building in a dense metropolis, you wind up with a tangled set of challenges.
The high cost of land in New York adds enormous pressure to the process. Although a cliché, there’s perhaps no better way to sum up the challenge that every property developer faces: If time is money, then schedule is everything. Due to the opportunity cost of real estate, even small delays to a project schedule can translate to millions of dollars in lost revenue for the owner. Anything that can add more time to the schedule represents a risk.
At SOM, we see ourselves not just as architects, but as risk managers. We bring a powerful set of tools to help navigate the process. Long before the first shovel hits the ground, we work with our clients to understand their greatest risks, and focus our creative energy to help mitigate them.
Getting it approved
We often follow a tried-and-true method of project management: build the schedule backwards from the finish line.
Securing a building permit is often a key schedule challenge: the NYC Department of Buildings can currently take six to nine months to review a new building permit application. To reduce our clients’ risk, we’d essentially need to file for the permit the day we pick up our pencils to start designing. While this is not possible, we often look to submit early in the Design Development phase, and then conduct open discussions with the DOB, working together on a shared timeline for approval.
The time-and-revenue game extends to the construction process. Because the cost of land is so high, most schedules in New York assume that construction will begin before the construction documents are completely finished, in order to minimize downtime as much as possible.
Making strategic decisions early in the process can make all the difference.
While waiting on approvals can cause anxiety, we use a number of strategies to bring certainty to the process. One of these tools is called a CCD1 (Construction Codes Determination) — an advance request that we’ll file with the DOB for aspects of the project that might be out of the ordinary. It’s like giving our clients a piece of insurance. When our CCD1s are approved, we know ahead of time that a potentially complex review item has been given prior consideration.
Another great advantage we bring is our deep institutional knowledge. SOM has an 80-year history of building in New York, and many designers in our office have logged decades of experience in the city. We’ve seen it all—and as a result, we understand how projects get approved and built here, and we’re able to flag potential issues early on.
Once the building permit is secure, it’s a great relief for our clients. But often, it’s not the only regulatory hurdle to clear. The design may need to be reviewed by a host of other agencies, depending on the project — the Department of Transportation, the Fire Department, the Parks Department, and the MTA, among others. If it falls in a historic district, it may need to be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, not to mention community boards and other civic groups.
Here, again, our long experience in New York City gives us an advantage. The web of public agencies adds many layers of diplomacy to the process. Having worked with each of these agencies for decades, we can help steer even the most complex projects to the finish line.
Cost is key
Our network goes beyond the office: over the years we’ve maintained long relationships with some of the biggest construction managers in the city, and we’re used to having them at the table early in the design process. Rather than consider it a hindrance, we welcome their early input. It’s just another way of adding certainty to the process — knowing that what we’re designing is more likely to be constructible and cost effective, and avoiding expensive late-phase value engineering that can compromise the design intent.
Make it flexible
Approvals are not the only risk that can set back a project schedule. Sometimes, the client’s program requirements change midway in the design process. Commercial developers, for example, are always responding to a changing market: at the outset, we might not know whether to design a space for a financial tenant (large trading floors), or a media company (where a smaller footprint will suffice). Even for corporate and institutional clients, the needs defined in the project brief are simply a projection, made years in advance of the eventual move-in date. These needs are liable to change along the way.
Any possibility that we have to go back and redesign something is a risk. But we’re used to dealing with unknowns. Making strategic decisions early in the process can make all the difference.
At the very beginning, we work with our clients to establish deadlines to make the big-picture decisions, such as the building footprint. After that, we design for flexibility. By creating spaces that can be adapted or reconfigured to serve changing needs, we can help our clients future-proof their investment.
The beauty in pragmatism
Often, our methodical approach yields not only an efficient solution, but also a design that’s anything but ordinary. An example can be seen rising on the West Side: One Manhattan West has now topped out at 995 feet. Despite its height, the most challenging aspect of the project lies underground. The tower is built over a platform above active rail lines leading to Penn Station. We had a limited amount of space to anchor the building to solid ground, and the proximity of trains made it impossible to support the tower on conventional columns.
This kind of problem solving is at the heart of how we work. Our integrated team of architects and engineers was able to create a design that would be not only buildable, but also beautiful. The tower’s structural core rises from bedrock, like a massive tree trunk, and then fans outward to support a 40-foot floor plate. When complete, the lobby will be enclosed by column-free glass, putting the tower’s heroic structure on display. It’s a daring, expressive design — and yet entirely rooted in practical concerns.
While it’s risky to build large projects in New York, this doesn’t demand settling for cookie-cutter buildings. The constraints are what fuel our creativity.
Julia Murphy is an architect and Associate Director at SOM.
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