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Democracy Now! Goes Green

The progressive radio studio achieves LEED Platinum with RMI's help
By Ben Holland

For nearly ten years, Democracy Now! was based in an old converted firehouse in Chinatown, a neighborhood on New York City’s lower east side. Led by host Amy Goodman, the program grew in reach and prominence, becoming one of the most respected progressive radio/TV news shows in the country.

When the landlord asked them to leave so he could do construction work, the Democracy Now! team began looking for a new location, eventually settling on an old printing warehouse in nearby Chelsea.

As they needed to completely renovate the space, the team wanted to go for the highest level of green certification they could achieve and hired Bogdanow Partners as their architectural and design firm, and Brooklyn Interiors as construction manager. Although their architect, contractor, and mechanical engineer wanted to help them achieve this goal, they lacked the expertise needed to take them to the highest level. Amy Goodman interviewed RMI Chief Scientist Amory Lovins on Democracy Now!, and while he was there discussed their dilemma.

As is his style, Lovins asked questions about the efficiency plans for the future location, and finding areas for improvement, he put Goodman in touch with RMI’s then Built Environment Team leader, the late Greg Franta, FAIA. Shortly thereafter, a design charrette was held in Bogdanow’s office.

“Greg whipped up a group of experts in HVAC, building envelope, and lighting design,” said Karen Ranucci, the project manager for the Democracy Now! build-out. “He had the immediate ability to think outside the box and to look at our problem in a holistic manner.”

The charrette produced a host of aesthetic, lighting, and mechanical system design recommendations aimed at improving the existing efficiency plans. The team developed strategies to incorporate higher-performing windows, maximize the energy efficiency of their lighting plan, and to reduce the building’s mechanical loads.

Franta’s big focus was on the HVAC system. Democracy Now! has a massive data and server room, humming day and night, producing a great deal of heat. Cooling often incurs a huge cost, so RMI immediately sought to redefine the energy needs of the system.

In doing so, the team realized that the proposed system was twice as big as it needed to be. By redesigning the layout of the room, they were able to implement creative hot-and-cold-aisle techniques that cool the servers and transfer heat to a closed space behind the machines. With this, RMI significantly reduced the energy necessary to balance the heating and cooling needs of the studio’s data room. RMI also recommended using an economizer, which uses free, cold air from outside for cooling.

This past March, the Democracy Now! studio received LEED Platinum for Commercial Interiors, making it the first radio or television studio in the nation to receive the honor. It’s a designation that brings the Democracy Now! team a great deal of pride. “It was difficult to switch gears mid-stream, with a renovation already moving forward,” said Ranucci, “but in the end, we got what we were fighting for.”

Ben Holland is RMI’s outreach specialist.

--Published August 2010

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