Audubon Society Opens Environmentally Responsible Headquarters Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Green” architecture and design gained public interest when the National Audubon Society purchased and renovated a one hundred-year-old office building using nontoxic, recycled materials and energy-conserving systems.

Summary of Event

Between 1989 and 1992, the National Audubon Society built an environmentally responsible national headquarters that became internationally celebrated as a working model of energy conservation, resource recycling, indoor air quality, and cost efficiency in office-building design. Developers, architects, engineers, and interior designers from around the world have toured Audubon House to gather ideas for environmentally sound building design. Architecture;Audubon House Audubon House Green architecture Environmental awareness;green architecture and design Green interior design National Audubon Society [kw]Audubon Society Opens Environmentally Responsible Headquarters (1992) [kw]Environmentally Responsible Headquarters, Audubon Society Opens (1992) Architecture;Audubon House Audubon House Green architecture Environmental awareness;green architecture and design Green interior design National Audubon Society [g]North America;1992: Audubon Society Opens Environmentally Responsible Headquarters[08260] [g]United States;1992: Audubon Society Opens Environmentally Responsible Headquarters[08260] [c]Architecture;1992: Audubon Society Opens Environmentally Responsible Headquarters[08260] [c]Organizations and institutions;1992: Audubon Society Opens Environmentally Responsible Headquarters[08260] [c]Environmental issues;1992: Audubon Society Opens Environmentally Responsible Headquarters[08260] Berle, Peter A. A. Beyea, Jan Childs, Kirsten Croxton, Randolph R. Flack, Peter

In 1987, the Audubon Society was leasing four floors of a thirty-story skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. Rent was increasing steadily, the organization needed additional space, and employees frequently complained of headaches, fatigue, and respiratory discomfort as a result of the building’s poor air quality. The society needed a new location. In 1989, it purchased the eight-story, century-old Schermerhorn Building, located at 700 Broadway in a lively lower Manhattan neighborhood. At the time of purchase, all but the ground floor of the building had been unoccupied for at least ten years. Designed by renowned architect George Browne Post Post, George Browne in the 1890’s, the building was structurally sound. Its elegant old exterior was in good condition, but its interior was dilapidated.

Vast amounts of natural resources and energy go into the construction, maintenance, and operation of office buildings; such consumption has led to the destruction of habitats and has had negative impacts on the earth’s natural systems. Annually, energy production alone for office buildings produces hundreds of thousands of metric tons of air pollutants that contribute to acid rain, global warming, and depletion of the ozone layer. In Audubon House, the Audubon Society was determined to meld its need for new offices with the organization’s environmental missions to protect and restore vital habitats for wildlife and to promote sustainable development to ensure a healthy environment for all beings. Sustainable development uses natural resources frugally, in a nonexhaustive way, and minimizes or eliminates impacts on natural systems.

The Audubon Society staff selected architects, engineers, and interior designers who were committed to the environmental goals of the project and who had previous experience in environmentally sound design. These professionals worked together as a team, integrating their efforts to achieve the “greenest” possible building.

In renovating the building, the designers recycled discarded materials from the old interior; used nontoxic materials and furnishings with recycled content to create the new interior; installed energy-efficient lighting, cooling, and heating systems; and created an internal recycling system for office waste. All material gutted from the building’s interior, except window glass and heating oil, was recycled. Iron, tin, and steel were sold as scrap metal, wood was sold for use as landscaping material, and concrete and masonry were crushed for roadbed fill.

In selecting materials and furnishings for the new interior, the Audubon Society’s environmental consultant considered the entire life cycle of the product: Was it made from sustainable rather than dwindling resources? Did it contain recycled content? Did the extraction of raw materials for the product or its manufacture damage natural habitats or the atmosphere? Would the product emit gases or particles toxic to building inhabitants or to the environment? How would the product’s eventual disposal affect the environment?

The designers minimized the use of adhesives and pressed woods in the new interior because of these materials’ tendency to emit formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds. Recycled newsprint bound with a low-toxicity bonding agent was used for subflooring instead of plywood. The drywall used contained a partially recycled gypsum core and outer layers of 100 percent recycled paper. Studs contained recycled steel.

Headquarters of the Audubon Society in New York.


An odorless, nontoxic paint was selected, and synthetic carpets and pads—sources of formaldehyde and other toxins—were avoided. An undyed, 100 percent wool carpet was installed over a nontoxic jute-hair pad that was tacked down to minimize the use of adhesives.

The building’s new bathroom countertops were made with plastic recycled from detergent bottles. Floor tiles in the ground-floor lobby and elevator vestibules contained recycled waste glass from the manufacture of lightbulbs. To support sustainable rain-forest industries, the Audubon Society purchased furnishings certified to be constructed from sustainable rain-forest resources.

To convince the business community that environmental design could be practical for office buildings and could be achieved at a reasonable cost, the society made the decision that materials, furnishings, and systems for the new headquarters had to be purchased “off the shelf” and had to have been on the market for at least one year. Novel uses were found for traditional products, but no experimental items were used. Simple, no-cost or low-cost design solutions were employed in tandem with advanced technologies to achieve desired levels of performance.

The Audubon Society reduced its lighting needs by more than 75 percent by using natural light, adapting light level to need, and integrating high-performance lighting components. Workstations in an open floor plan were oriented to receive the natural light flooding through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the building’s southern and western exposures. Ceiling and workstation partitions were stepped to admit as much light as possible. Offices along the west wall had large clerestories in their inward-facing walls. Venetian blinds with perforated slats were installed to admit diffused light while reducing glare. The light paint colors used on walls, floors, and ceilings maximized the reflection of natural light.

Artificial ambient (background) light levels were reduced by one-half, and task lighting used high-efficiency fluorescent lamps fired by electronic ballasts and coated so that the light they produced resembled natural light as closely as possible. Occupancy sensors turned lights off when no motion was detected in an area for six minutes, and daylight dimming sensors adjusted the level of artificial light as natural light fluctuated.

The building’s outer walls and roof were insulated far in excess of what was required under New York State code. A foam made of magnesium and dolomite was used instead of traditional foam insulation, which is often manufactured with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the leading cause of stratospheric ozone depletion. The designers also installed energy-efficient windows and skylights that deflected the sun’s radiant heat outward in summer and building heat inward in winter.

Insulation, energy-efficient windows, and reduced levels of artificial light enabled the Audubon Society to downsize its heating, ventilation, and cooling system by nearly one-half. The system was selected for its energy efficiency and low environmental impact. Unlike conventional systems, it emitted no CFCs and no sulfur oxides, a major source of acid rain; emissions of nitrogen oxides, also a source of acid rain, were reduced by 60 percent. The system, fueled by natural gas, placed no demand on the region’s electrical power supply, which was generated by burning fossil fuels, the source of vast amounts of carbon dioxide, a major element in global warming. In addition, electricity demand in the region was driving the development of hydroelectric power in Quebec’s James Bay region, with the potential of destroying vast areas of Subarctic habitat.

Another major objective the Audubon Society had in creating Audubon House was to demonstrate that a healthy, human-oriented work environment is compatible with both energy efficiency and cost efficiency. Audubon House’s ventilation system provided six air exchanges per hour and exchanged 30 percent more outside air than conventional systems. Employees could control the temperature in their work areas. Windows could be opened. The carefully selected furnishings were aesthetically pleasing and nontoxic, and natural light was abundant.

The Audubon House planners installed an internal recycling system for office waste. Four twenty-inch steel chutes, accessible from each floor, emptied into collection bins in the subbasement. Each chute was designated for a specific material: white and computer paper, mixed paper, aluminum cans and plastic bottles, or food wastes. Newspapers, magazines, and coated papers were recycled. Food wastes and soft paper were composted and spread on potted plants on the building’s roof. Other materials were sold to recyclers.


The stereotype of the environmentally responsive, or green, building is that of a small, futuristic prototype that utilizes expensive, experimental technology to achieve energy efficiency and minimize environmental impact—perhaps a model home on exhibit or a private home, owned and occupied by individuals who place environmental objectives above cost. Audubon House demonstrated that an eight-story office building with 170 employees in the center of New York City could be environmentally responsible and affordable.

Prior to completion of Audubon House, those in the development sector believed it was too expensive to construct office buildings that could be cost-effective, energy-efficient, resource-conserving, relatively nonpolluting, and safe for employees. Consequently, the project’s success created quite a stir. Audubon House was featured on television, in national publications such as Newsweek and The New Yorker, and in every major periodical devoted to architecture and interior design. It was often cited as a case study in discussions regarding the feasibility of making building codes more stringent.

The success of the Audubon Society’s effort spurred worldwide interest in green architecture. The organization’s public relations department received thousands of inquiries regarding the building, and many visitors toured it to see for themselves what Audubon House designers had accomplished.

Audubon House demonstrated that environmentally sound design can enhance cost efficiency. Its basic renovation and redesign costs were kept within the market rate for an equivalent, code-compliant project. Simple design solutions and the use of advanced technology enabled Audubon House to consume 62 percent less energy than an equivalent code-compliant building. This reduced the society’s operating costs by $100,000 per year, allowing the society to apply the savings to its environmental programs.

The fact that the Audubon Society was able to reduce its use of electricity for lighting by 75 percent demonstrated the inefficiency of most lighting systems used in office buildings. The society estimated that if all new office buildings built between 1994 and 2020 were to use the Audubon House approach to conserving electricity, 100,000 megawatts per day would be saved, eliminating the need to construct additional power-generating sources equivalent to fifty nuclear power plants.

Audubon House demonstrated that it is possible to insulate and air-condition a large structure without releasing ozone-destroying CFCs into the atmosphere. The Audubon Society estimated in 1994 that if every building in the United States were to reduce direct and indirect output of CFCs to zero, total emissions would be cut by 25 percent, significantly reducing the assault on the stratospheric ozone layer.

Audubon House also demonstrated that it was profitable for organizations to revitalize the inner city by renovating existing structures. In the early 1990’s, many organizations were moving to the suburbs, destroying natural habitats and consuming thousands of tons of natural resources in order to build new structures. The Audubon Society paid only $10 million for the Schermerhorn Building—essentially the cost of the land on which it sat—and then spent an additional $14 million to renovate the structure. The cost to purchase the Schermerhorn, demolish it, and replace it with an equivalent structure would have exceeded $30 million. Retention of the old structure preserved 300 tons of steel, 9,000 tons of masonry, and 560 tons of concrete, in addition to the energy and materials that would have been required to erect a new building.

In addition, the recycling of the materials gutted from the old interior of the Schermerhorn demonstrated a significant method for reducing the solid-waste burden on landfills, which were reaching capacity in many parts of the country by the end of the twentieth century. In 1994, construction and demolition waste constituted from 23 to 33 percent of municipal solid wastes. The Audubon Society also discovered that recycling of office waste was less expensive than garbage hauling. By recycling 80 percent of the 59,000 pounds of office waste generated each year at Audubon House, the society reduced its fees for waste disposal by $12,000. Architecture;Audubon House Audubon House Green architecture Environmental awareness;green architecture and design Green interior design National Audubon Society

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cagin, Seth, and Philip Dray. Between Earth and Sky: How CFCs Changed Our World and Endangered the Ozone Layer. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Presents a thorough account of the discovery and restriction of CFCs and examines the social, political, scientific, and economic factors behind the long battle to ban them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crosbie, Michael J. “Practicing What They Preach: The Natural Resource Defense Council’s Humane and Environmentally Responsive Headquarters.” Progressive Architecture 74 (March, 1993): 84-89. Discusses the Natural Resource Defense Council’s 1989 energy-efficient office renovation, a project on a smaller scale than the Audubon Society’s but sharing some features. Includes photographs and diagrams illustrating energy-saving systems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gissen, David, ed. Big and Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. Collection of essays focuses on skyscrapers in discussing all aspects of “green architecture.” Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Interesting discussion of green design by an architect and a chemist who are partners in a design firm that specializes in environmentally sound buildings, products, and equipment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Audubon Society and Croxton Collaborative, Architects. Audubon House: Building the Environmentally Responsible, Energy-Efficient Office. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. Presents a detailed, comprehensive account of the renovation of Audubon House. Discusses the philosophical basis for the project and the impact of office buildings on the environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Trust for Historic Preservation. All About Old Buildings. Edited by Diane Maddex. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1985. Focuses on the advantages of renovating rather than removing and replacing old buildings that are historically or architecturally significant. Discusses methodologies for preservation and renovation. Includes wonderful photographs and lists of supportive organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nesmith, Lynn. “Ready or Not, Construction Recycling Is on the Way.” Architectural Record 181 (December, 1993): 18-23. Provides an overview of the growing trend in the construction industry to recycle construction and demolition wastes and to use construction materials with recycled content. Informative chart shows the recycled content, disassembly, reuse, and disposal of common components.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wann, David. Biologic: Designing with Nature to Protect the Environment. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1994. Suggests that designers study natural systems to find efficient, sustainable ways of organizing energy use, food production, housing, transportation, and recycling of wastes. Surveys a variety of designs in use or being developed that do this.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Louise B. “A Bitter Wind Blowing.” In Sowing the Wind: Reflections on the Earth’s Atmosphere. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990. Presents excellent discussion of acid rain and its causes and effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Hothouse Earth?” In Sowing the Wind: Reflections on the Earth’s Atmosphere. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990. Offers a thought-provoking, balanced discussion of the greenhouse effect that separates fact from conjecture.

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Categories: History