City of Systems: Skyscraper Mechanical

Manhattan’s density, supported by its mass transit infrastructure, is the principle reason the average New Yorker has a smaller carbon footprint than her counterpart in another large US city. At the urban scale, this density is, of course, enabled by a singular combination of geographic, economic, social and political factors. But at the scale of the city’s individual buildings, high-rise living and working are made possible by technological factors. And some of the technologies developed for lifting people, water, hot and cool air to great heights currently work in much the same way as they did when initially introduced. How often do we stop to consider the systems required to make a building function?

This question bears more urgency than casual wonder. 39% of CO2 emissions derive from building operations, including plumbing, electricity, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) and, in the case of high-rise buildings, the elevator system. To be sure, innovative work in architecture and engineering is improving the performance and efficiency of building operations, yet many people are unaware of the scope of energy intensive activities required for a building to function. So, with this in mind, we spent a day with Jim Ferrari, the chief mechanic of 515 Madison Avenue, a midtown Manhattan office building designed by J.E.R. Carpenter and completed in 1931, to find out more about what exactly goes on behind doors that typically only maintenance workers pass through. What Ferrari revealed was a series of day-to-day systems that many of us — those concerned with the environmental sustainability of our building stock — talk about improving without necessarily being able to visualize. –C.S.

This Urban Omnibus video is the third in a series called City of Systems, a suite of short videos intended to offer a poetic peek behind the scenes of some of the complex systems that enable New York City to function. This video series is made possible by IBM as part of its commitment to use technology and information to help build more sustainable and intelligent cities.


515 Madison Avenue | Photo courtesy of Newmark Knight Frank

515 Madison Avenue | Photo courtesy of Newmark Knight Frank

The music in the video, “Mistral” by Loscil, appears courtesy of kranky.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


City of Systems

A suite of short videos intended to offer a poetic peek behind the scenes of some of the complex systems that enable New York City to function.


Chris June 29, 2011

Great video. The small day to day improvements in building systems can add up to large ones in efficiency and sustainability.
There’s a program in New York City that’s related to this subject – the “1,000 green supers” program in residential buildings.

fred June 29, 2011

Fascinating infrastructure! And Fantastic video!

Lou June 29, 2011

Fascinating indeed – great series!

Etienne July 3, 2011

Great video. Have a look at the book “UNDERGROUND” by David Macaulay. A “kids” picture book illustrating the world beneath cities!