Meet the Man Building a Greener New York Skyline

Lou Nowikas of Hearst Corporation turned the building that houses the Good Housekeeping Institute into an example by which other New York City builders set their green standards

When Hearst Corporation’s Good Housekeeping issued its first seal in 1909, the purpose was to guarantee to consumers that a product was “tested and approved” by the laboratory staff of the Good Housekeeping Institute (GHI). At that time, no one could have predicted how ubiquitous the seal would become.

Nor could Lou Nowikas have anticipated the seal’s significance in his life when he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and engineering management, respectively. His engineering career began in the consumer pharmaceuticals industry, providing engineering support for his employer’s consumer and building-management projects. An early client was the pharmaceutical giant Merck, for which Nowikas worked on the design specifics for its drug and product testing labs. From there, Nowikas joined Goldman Sachs as a project manager for its GS Tower in Jersey City, New Jersey. At the time, he thought he had found his home in engineering.

However, in 2004, Nowikas’s laboratory design and development experience attracted the attention of Hearst, which sought him out as it planned the renovation and construction of Hearst Tower in Midtown Manhattan. Sure, Nowikas’s engineering chops were great, but Hearst wanted to know if he could help the company redesign, update, and modernize the GHI’s test kitchens and laboratories, which for almost a century had issued one of the world’s preeminent standards of quality and reliability. Keeping progress in mind, Hearst wanted the “Good Housekeeping Lab of the future.”

It was a formidable request and involved reengineering one of Hearst’s most famous and beloved icons. Despite knowing that it would be no easy (or inexpensive) feat to build a lab on the 29th floor of a Manhattan high-rise, Nowikas understood the engineering science behind laboratory design and took the job.

A Whole New Building Adventure

Hearst had several ultimate goals for the tower, including that it would become the new global headquarters for the company’s many publications (Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and, of course, Good Housekeeping among them). As a NYC Landmark building, Hearst also wanted it to preserve William Randolph Hearst’s original 1928 façade and be built to LEED standards, befitting Hearst’s motto to do the right thing.

Nowikas first experienced LEED standards at Goldman Sachs, but was surprised by how far behind New York City lagged on green building practices. In 2003, Hearst Tower was among the first projects in the city to recycle the materials from its demolition. The team separated and recovered about 90 percent of the debris removed from the original six-story base, diverting what would be landfill waste to other uses.

Another surprise was the role that the GHI had played in America’s history. Over the course of most of the 20th century, the institute’s formal living and dining rooms had entertained all but three US presidents and all but one first lady. The provenance of the original test kitchen was equally significant to the culture of quality in America’s homes. Moving those spaces to their new home on the 29th floor of the tower would require much sensitivity and respect.

As the project manager, Nowikas worked closely with the building team, including renowned architect Norman Foster of Foster + Partners, the professionals at Tishman Speyer, Turner Construction, and many on Hearst’s upper management team.

Unlike many corporate building projects, the Hearst decision-making process started with then-CEO Frank Bennack, Jr. At monthly meetings where quality, finishes, and designs were hashed out, Bennack joined discussions about marrying traditional materials with modern design. He never allowed a compromise of the LEED standard. The reward for Bennack’s commitment came when the building opened in 2006. In a city teeming with new and reconstructed buildings, the 46-story Hearst Tower was its first building to receive LEED Gold certification for both its base building and interior construction.

More New Adventures

Opening day was another beginning for Nowikas as he assumed the role of operations manager. In addition to maintaining the original LEED standards and green practices, he had to ensure the building evolved as environmental practices changed. In the decade since, his thoughtful and insightful responses to changing practices and products resulted in the tower achieving LEED Platinum for Existing Buildings certification in 2012 and then again in 2016.

There are several reasons for this distinction. Hearst was the first large-scale organization to compost its kitchen waste, as all staff now separate out organic waste, then separate non-organic recyclables from actual trash. As a result of the composting, Hearst Tower also reduced its landfill contributions by 90 percent, and many other NYC buildings have followed this example. By 2009, the more than 14,000, 32-watt fluorescent bulbs were at or close to their three-year life expectancy.

This is when Nowikas inquired about a better bulb and determined a 28-watt bulb that yielded energy/costs savings would be beneficial (and recoup the project’s $200,000 cost in the first year). Thanks to the bulbs’ five-year life expectancy and lower wattage, the reduced power drain also net roughly $800,000 in savings over the next four years and cut the cooling load of Hearst Tower to the point that it availed enough chilled water capacity to cool an adjacent Hearst property. This also eliminated the need to replace antiquated equipment.

The lighting/cooling experience changed everyone’s mind-set about how green living is both economical and aesthetically pleasing. Maintaining that mind-set is now firmly entrenched in Hearst’s corporate identity.

In 2010, the company promoted Nowikas to vice president for real estate, where he brings the green culture to Hearst’s global real estate holdings. At every opportunity, he strives to, in his words, “insert a sustainable narrative into every new project.” The tower itself is one of New York’s most awarded buildings: In 2006, it earned the Emporis Skyscraper of the Year (the “best new skyscraper in the world”). In 2007, it earned multiple national and international awards for sustainability, leadership, technology, and engineering design. And between 2007 and 2014, NYC’s Building Owners and Managers Association gave it five annual awards, including three Earth Awards.

Still, some things have stayed the same. On the 29th floor, for instance, the Good Housekeeping living and dining rooms look exactly as they did in 1928, and the laboratories continue to stamp high-quality, reliable products with the GH seal.

In 2009, the “Green Good Housekeeping Seal” was introduced, designed to help consumers make more environmentally responsible choices.

Burlington Station

Rehabilitating “the most beautiful structure of its kind in America” is a daunting task for any builder, but that was the project assigned to Omaha, Nebraska’s Leo A Daly Co. when it agreed to convert the 1898 Burlington Railroad Station into a home for Hearst’s ABC TV affiliate, KETV.

The station’s original Siena marble pillars, bronze newel posts, and 28 nine-ton pink Colorado granite columns had inspired the title. But by the mid-1970s, the site had been stripped of its grandeur and was eventually abandoned.

The project presented challenges; the vacant building was housing the homeless in a mostly abandoned neighborhood. However, the Daly company’s chosen architect Sheila Ireland had featured the station in her architectural master’s thesis and her vision was clear.

To this day, the station is a unique marriage of new and old. The painstaking reworking of the coffered ceiling restored its Rosette Room. Its Grand Hall now has sound panels adorning the ceiling, and the mid-century “Lunch Lady” that had been covered in graffiti remains in place on the original red brick wall. 

The 2013 project spurred a renaissance in the three-block area around the site. More than $120 million in private investments have been added, including a performing arts theater, company headquarters, apartments, and Omaha’s first year-round farmers market. This is all part of the good that Nowikas says came out of the project.

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AFD Contract Furniture, headquartered in New York with offices throughout the US and Latin America, is one of the largest, multi-national full-service office furniture management companies. As a leading resource and an authorized dealer of Steelcase, we provide the corporate, healthcare, educational, automotive and architectural/design communities with strategic planning, professional expertise, and individualized attention.

We congratulate the Hearst Corporation, Lou Nowikas, and his team for fostering a foundation of excellence. For information on how AFD Contract Furniture’s innovative approach can maximize your office design and potential, please contact us at 212.721.7100 or www.afd-inc.com.