One of the best-known landmarks of Times Square was installed in
1989: the National Debt Clock. The billboard-sized display shows
passers-by the fast-growing national debt total, as well as "your
family share." Seymour Durst, second-generation leader of the family
real estate business known as the Durst Organization, installed
the Debt Clock to point out that, in his words, "We have mortgaged
our future and the future of our country because we refuse to face
our fiscal responsibilities."
The Debt Clock was retired in 2000, when the federal government
began paying down the national debt and the clock started running
backwards (creating puzzlement more than awareness). But in July
2002, with the return of large federal budget deficits, Durst Organization
co-presidents Douglas and Jonathan (Jody) Durst (Seymour's son and
nephew, respectively) restarted the Debt Clock.
The mindfulness symbolized by the National Debt Clock is very
much a part of how the Durst family of developers does business.
The family's real estate legacy began in 1915 when Joseph Durst,
the grandfather of Douglas and Jody, purchased an office building
on 34th Street in Manhattan. In the decades that followed, the Durst
Organization grew its holdings, eventually focused on commercial
properties, and built a reputation for prudent management, stability
and exceptional responsiveness to its tenants.
Greening the Skyline
During the past few years, in addition to managing its current
properties, the Durst Organization has been leading the greening
of New York City's skyline. The company's environmental leadership
has been recognized by awards from the Natural Resources Defense
Council (Forces for Nature Award, 2001), U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (Region 2 Environmental Quality Award, 2004) and Global Green
(Design Award, 2004), among others.
The Durst Organization made its first big environmental splash
in the mid 1990s, when they developed the first green-designed skyscraper
in the United States: Four Times Square. The 48-story, 1.6-million-square-foot
building was designed by Fox & Fowle Architects and built by Tishman
Construction Corporation, and opened its doors in 2000. From its
very inception, Four Times Square was an icon of environmentally
intelligent design, with abundant fresh air and daylight throughout
the building, fuel cells and photovoltaic (solar-energy-generating)
panels, variable-speed drives for the pumps and fans, occupancy
sensors and efficient lighting systems.
Success was far from obvious at the outset. It was the first commercial
high-rise built in Midtown Manhattan in a decade. The $500-million
project was speculative when the Durst Organization announced it
in August 1996, with no "anchor tenant" lined up in advance. (Condé
Nast quickly filled that role.) Then construction was marred by
two fires and a scaffolding collapse. But the building has been
a success, with satisfied tenants and high occupancy rates.
One of the original tenants is Innovest Strategic Value Advisors,
an independent research firm specializing in non-traditional sources
of investment risk and performance, including environmental and
social factors. So moving into Four Times Squareand outfitting
it with environmentally superior interior design and furnishingswas
important to the company. "We wanted to walk the talk," says Hewson
Baltzell, president of Innovest. And they've been pleased with the
results. "People like the space. They like working here."
Advanced environmental design strategies are now part of all new
Durst Organization projects. On Manhattan's west side, the Dursts
are building a 37-story, 580-unit residential tower called the Helena,
scheduled for completion later this year. The building was designed
by Fox & Fowle, the architects of Four Times Square, to achieve
a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold rating
from the US Green Building Council. The Helena's sustainable design
features include photovoltaic panels, on-site wastewater treatment
and reuse, plant-covered roofs to manage storm water and provide
insulation, an efficient micro-turbine co-generation energy system,
and the use of renewable materials such as bamboo and certified
The few Durst activities outside Manhattan address ecological
sustainability in a rural environment. The Durst Organization is
developing a 975-home community and country club in Dutchess County,
about 100 miles north of New York City, called the Hudson Valley
Club. While the project is still in the planning and approval stage,
the Durst Organization has hired the Rocky Mountain Institute's
Green Development Services to advise the developers on issues of
habitat, storm water, wastewater treatment and green building. And
just a few miles away is New York state's largest organic farm,
500-acre McEnroe Organic Farm, which Douglas Durst has co-owned
A New Icon
The Durst Organization's latest project, the Bank of America Tower
at One Bryant Park, is by far its most ambitious, and raises the
bar once again for high-rise commercial development. The project
broke ground last year and is expected to open for occupancy in
2008. It is a 54-story crystalline structure designed by Cook+Fox
Architects, on the same block as Four Times Square and overlooking
both Times Square and Bryant Park. As the next generation of intelligent
high-rise design, One Bryant Park includes a dazzling array of cutting-edge
environmental features and strategiesthe building will clean
the air, treat and reuse storm water, and generate its energy on-site
with an efficient CO-generation plant, among other things. (See
inset, One Bryant Park.)
In addition to its environmental innovations, One Bryant Park
will be a visual icon in the Midtown skyline. The design was inspired
by elements of New York City's classic skyscrapers and by the New
York Crystal Palace, the first glass-and-iron building in America,
erected in Bryant Park in 1853. One Bryant Park's crystalline form
spirals from its base to its highest tower, with glass curtain walls
forming sculptural facets animated throughout the day and night
by the movements of the sun and moon. And at the street level, the
building engages with the pedestrian and traffic patterns of Times
Square, offering attractive and convenient public spaces.
Constructing a Legacy
So what does all this add up to in New York City's cultural and
commercial hotbed? Despite the Dursts' disappointment that Four
Times Square was not emulated immediately, Manhattan's high-profile
new development projects are now going green. (The Freedom Tower
designed for the World Trade Center, new headquarters for both The
New York Times and the Hearst Corporation, and Seven World Trade
Center all have environmental design elements and LEED aspirations.)
Architectural Record gives the Durst Organization much of the credit
for this trend. It was the pioneering Four Times Square project,
quickly followed by the US Green Building Council's release of LEED
and the establishment of environmental guidelines for residential
construction in lower Manhattan's Battery Park City, that convinced
other developers to follow. According to one developer quoted in
Architectural Record, "Before that, we said, 'Why bother?' No one
understood green design of what its advantages were. But after Four
Times Square, everyone thought, 'We can do that too.'"
Leading by example is exactly what the Dursts want to do, according
to architect Bob Fox, whose work with the Dursts has included Four
Times Square and the Helena as principal of Fox & Fowle, and One
Bryant Park as principal of Cook+Fox. For the Dursts, Fox says,
"this is about sharing and learning and allowing others to learn
from what the Dursts spent a lot of money doing research on. They'd
like other people to say, 'Hey, this is pretty good. Let me do it
too.'" And now (finally) many of the Dursts' peers are doing it
green@work recently visited the Durst Organization and spoke with
Douglas and Jody about their firm's leadership and their aspirations
for the family business.
green@work: Is there an inherent
relationship between your concern for the environment and the fact
that you are a family business?
Douglas Durst: We think so. We think that as a family business
you're thinking about the future, and future generations. And that's
what the environment is all about. It's thinking about saving resources
for the future.
Jody Durst: And in addition to that, if you're looking
back, we believe that our environmental consciousness came from
our grandparents, so that they influenced our respective fathers,
and in that way we share the common interest.
What were your first initiatives that
really started to put this into practice?
JD: In the early 1990s we looked at the demand-side management
aspects of our existing buildings, and we realized that there were
a lot of products coming on the market that would help with energy
consumption, and some of those retrofits that we did were energy-saving
lamps and ballasts in the buildings, and energy-saving electric
motors, and then those high-efficiency electric motors where appropriate
were connected to variable-frequency motors running pumps and fans
in the building. And then after that was accomplished, we looked
at the building-management systems and retrofitted those.
So we were just finishing up on those demand-side management
retrofitting programs when we had the opportunity to start designing
Four Times Square, and we realized that we had just touched upon
the energy aspects of our existing buildings, because in terms of
designing the buildings for the actual occupants, that was a lost
opportunity in an existing building. But we knew we had the opportunity
with Four Times Square to consider the actual user in the space
and to make that as environmentally friendly as possible.
Did you understand at that point what
some of the inherent opportunities were?
DD: From an energy side we understood. But when we built Four
Times Square we were really building a different type of building.
We looked at all the systems, all the materials that go into buildings,
trying to see what would be the best way to build it to make it
as efficient as possible to the occupants.
When this building was built, the one we're in now (Durst Organization
headquarters), back in 1984, we had just come through the oil shortage
and the big push was energy efficiency. So they reduced the amount
of outside air to the absolute minimum in the buildings of that
generation (for more efficient heating and cooling). We've changed
that since then. But the buildings built around this period were
made very efficient energy-wise, but not efficient from the occupants'
side. So we looked at the buildings not just from an energy point
of view, but from the occupants' point of view.
When we started, we said, "How will we make this building different
from others? How will we make it an efficient building for occupants
and for the environment?" And so we had to examine everything that
went into it.
JD: And the other two major team players-the architect and
the construction manager-we were all very much aligned on the desire
to do something that was sort of a quantum leap better than the
conventional wisdom that goes into a building. And so it was really
a great relationship and a great team.
DD: You really need that to do this. You need everybody on the
team on board. The easiest way to build the building and the easiest
way for the engineers to design it is to do what they did last time,
because they know what works and they know how to do it. And the
hardest thing and the most expensive part of the environmental building
is the time and effort you have to put into designing it. Because
each building is different. It serves a different client, a different
What kind of a payback horizon are you
looking for when you put up something like Four Times Square or
One Bryant Park, if there are going to be some higher initial costs?
DD: There are two types of extra things that we do. One is where
we do something that's a demonstration. Like at Four Times Square
and at the Helena we have photovoltaics (PVs). At One Bryant Park
we're not going to have PVs. And with PVs, the payback today at
Four Times Square is about 25-30 years and about a 20-year life
expectancy on the products. The payback wasn't exactly there. But
we wanted to demonstrate that it was a feasible technology, so there
was absolutely no payback whatsoever. For the CO-generation plant
at One Bryant Park, we have about a four- to five-year payback,
which is about what we look for in a major investment.
Has Four Times Square lived up to your
DD: Absolutely. It's lived up to what we hoped it would be and
it's been more efficient than we had anticipated. So we're very
pleased with the way it's turned out.
JD: We're very pleased with how the building turned out, but
we had anticipated that others would be faster to come along and
embrace that technology.
DD: We thought that once we'd shown what could be done that others
would naturally follow, but the next few buildings had very few
environmental features. Now it's finally caught on. So it took a
lot longer than we anticipated.
When you built Four Times Square LEED
wasn't around. Has LEED changed the way you look at designing the
JD: I think it's really complimentary. To the extent that you
have to fit a specific aspect of the building into one of their
neat cubbyholes, there has to be a little bit of interpretation
and back-and-forth with LEED in an effort to make sure that your
design intent will qualify (for LEED points) if you do it in a certain
What is the business case for developers
to build green high-rise buildings?
DD: I think the business case is there in the sense that if they
don't buildI like to call them intelligent buildingstheir
buildings will be obsolete before they're complete. So I think that's
JD: When you're going through the time, effort, energy and
expense of building a new building, you absolutely want to build
the best building you can at the time, because the next one that
comes along has the advantage of time over the one that you just
completed. So you absolutely have to build the best building you
can with what you know at the time.
What would you like to see as your contribution
to the commercial development industry?
DD: We'd like to think that we're setting an example that others
will be forced to follow if they want to build a non-obsolete building.
JD: With the construction of Four Times Square, it became apparent
that the energy-efficiency aspects in a building are only really
four or five percent important to tenants in terms of bottom line.
Eighty percent of their costs are in their personnel. Eighty percent
versus four or five percent on the energy side. So if you can make
personnel more productive and efficient, that goes directly to tenants'
bottom lines. And while there may not be a complete or sincere understanding
of that issue right now, I think that major corporations are becoming
sensitive to employees wanting a healthy environment to work in
and gaining an awareness that reducing absenteeism and improving
productivity goes right to their bottom lines.
What do you hope
the legacy of your generation will be to your children and grandchildren,
in terms of the Durst Organization?
DD: A fully leased portfolio. And also innovations in the green
JD: When Douglas and I started assuming more responsibility
in taking over where the second generation left off, I think their
legacy to us was a reputation of fair dealing and treating tenants
with the realization that they're our bread and butter and we have
to do what we can to accommodate them. That really was invaluable
to Douglas and me in having a leg up on credibility, due to the
second generation's reputation. We'd like to extend that to the
following generation and perhaps improve on that reputation in the