The airtight building on Roosevelt Island has helped one Cornell scientist keep his heating and electricity bills to $30 a month.
Fernando Gómez-Baquero loves the idea — and the reality — of living in the world’s first passive-house high-rise.Credit…Alan Tansey for The New York Times
Fernando Gómez-Baquero moved into his one-bedroom apartment on Roosevelt Island one day before the building officially opened in the summer of 2017.
“I convinced them to let me come here early,” said Mr. Gómez-Baquero, the director of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute’s Runway Startup postdoc program at Cornell Tech, the technology-based graduate school that opened on Roosevelt Island in 2017. He makes it a habit to try to arrive early in general, whether to new technology or rental housing on the Cornell Tech campus.
Which might explain why he is so pleased to be living in what is being marketed as the world’s first passive-house high-rise, a 26-story tower called The House.
“I geek out on this building,” he said. “I was really fascinated by how you make a building this tall consume 60 to 70 percent less energy.”
His position at Runway Startup came with an offer of on-campus housing. At the time, he was living with a friend in a TriBeCa two-bedroom, but he liked the idea of having a short commute to work (it’s only 49 steps to his office at the Tata Innovation Center). The main draw, however, was the building itself, which generates a steady stream of data for researchers and engineers at Cornell Tech. Several companies in his program have used the data or intend to use it in the development of energy-saving technologies.
Over the last 10 years, the passive house, a form of green design that originated in Germany, has surged in popularity. By creating an airtight building envelope with thick, insulated walls and triple-paned windows, passive houses can eliminate the need for heating and cooling systems in temperate climates and greatly minimize it in a place like New York.
But applying those design principles to the construction of a 26-story high-rise is more complicated than it is in a single-family home.
“The design is very clever,” said Mr. Gómez-Baquero, who thinks that the designer, Handel Architects, balanced the ratio of windows to walls in the building very well — keeping the windows large and numerous enough to maximize light and views without compromising the building’s functionality (walls make for better insulators). He also admires the heat-recovery ventilation system, which minimizes the energy needed to heat or cool air as it comes into the building. Last year, his highest monthly heating and electricity bill (from midwinter) was about $30, which he pays on top of his $3,100 rent.
Thermostats in units can be adjusted to between 68 and 75 degrees, which prevents residents from turning their apartments into saunas or freezers, throwing off the building’s balance and squandering energy.
“To me, that is very comfortable,” Mr. Gómez-Baquero said. “I think what a passive house can do is show you that you don’t need temperature extremes.”
A further inducement to energy saving is the digital tally in the lobby that tracks energy consumption by floor, which he sees as a fun way to urge residents to do better.
$3,100 | Roosevelt Island
Fernando Gómez-Baquero, 41
Occupation: Director of Cornell Tech’s Runway Startup program. He is also a founder of ipHaus, an organization that develops off-the-grid affordable housing.
The world’s first passive-house high-rise: The House, a 26-story residential tower developed by the Hudson Companies and Related Companies, is designed to consume 60 to 80 percent less energy than a traditional high-rise, for a projected annual savings of 882 tons of carbon dioxide.
Limited access: Apartments in the building are available only to Cornell faculty and students.
Leaving the island: Mr. Gómez-Baquero said he finds it easy to go to meetings on mainland Manhattan, by taking the tram to Midtown or the ferry to Lower Manhattan. The F train also has a stop on Roosevelt Island.
Limited dining options: They don’t bother Mr. Gómez-Baquero, who cooks his own breakfast and dinner.
A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Mr. Gómez-Baquero came to the United States to attend a Ph.D. program in nanomaterials at the State University of New York at Albany. While there, he developed the idea for his startup, Besstech, which applied that technology to make longer-lasting, fast-charging lithium-ion batteries.
After selling the company in 2017, he was looking to bring other clean energy ideas to market when he heard about the Runway Startup program, which provides five Ph.D.s a year with support, guidance and about $300,000 each to turn their ideas into market-ready technologies. He thought he might be a good candidate for the program. Instead, he ended up becoming the director.
Mr. Gómez-Baquero’s apartment comes with a striking view of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. “There’s something about the bridge that calls to me,” he said. “I am an engineer.”
His living room furniture is limited to a desk, a table and chairs and a few bookshelves.
“I’m a very minimalistic type person,” he said. “I thought about getting a sofa, but why put more things here? I don’t want it to feel cluttered. I like that it feels empty and big.”
He does, however, make an exception for a few things: a telescope, books, an electric piano, an accordion, a zampoña and any musical instruments in disrepair that cross his path.
“Some people rescue animals; I rescue instruments,” he said. “Craigslist is the best place to find them. I got my piano really cheap there because it wasn’t working.”
And although the campus is only one-third complete at the moment — and Roosevelt Island’s dining options are limited to little more than sushi, pizza and a Starbucks — Mr. Gómez-Baquero said he couldn’t be happier that he moved in when he did.
“It feels like I’m in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I like being close to things when they get started. I like being in this place where it’s empty, all possibilities.”
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