Engineering a New Visitor Experience at the Empire State Building

It’s always rewarding for engineers to work on projects acclaimed by their colleagues in the buildings industry. But it’s even more rewarding to work on projects acclaimed by that notoriously difficult audience – family members. In the case of the Observatory Experience at the Empire State Building, Syska passed the family test with flying colors. Will Leong, the project manager, attests: “Even my kids think it’s cool.”

Connections spoke with Will and Jim Regan, who served as the principal in charge, about what made the project so cool and what engineering work took place behind the scenes.

A $165 Million Revamp

On July 29, 2019, the reimagined Observatory Experience opened to the public. The $165-million project encompassed 20,000 square feet on the second floor, where visitors pass through on their way to the 86th floor Observatory. Today, there is plenty to keep them occupied before they reach the elevators: a variety of immersive and interactive exhibits that showcase the progress of the building from its original construction to its current place in pop culture.

Syska’s role on the project centered on the design of MEP, fire protection, and IT systems. Other a/e/c team members included JLL (owner’s representative), Corgan (architect), Thornton Tomasetti (structural engineer), and Skanska (construction).

Balancing Preservation and Innovation

According to Will, the building’s landmark status presented challenges in two key areas. As a leader in sustainability, Empire State Realty Trust sought high levels of energy efficiency. But when it came to upgrading the HVAC systems, the historic preservation requirements prevented Syska from altering the footprint of the existing systems. “We conducted a great deal of research to find the right products,” Will recalls. “Fortunately, we were able to use new technologies that enabled us to work within the limitations and fit everything in smoothly.”

Given the anticipated volume of visitors for the Observatory, the second floor required a significant increase in ventilation requirements compared to those of a typical commercial space. Such requirements would normally lead to larger mechanical rooms and a larger centralized system, but instead Syska utilized a dedicated outdoor air system with heat recovery to serve localized ceiling units throughout the exhibit areas. Consequently, the architect and designer could maximize the available exhibit space to enhance the visitors’ experience. Syska also employed a carbon dioxide monitoring system to ensure that the appropriate amount of fresh air was provided to the visitors, while also optimizing the energy usage of the dedicated outdoor air system.

Similar considerations surrounded electrical upgrades, which were necessary to serve the new exhibits. To overcome these obstacles, Syska worked closely with Thornton Tomasetti. Together, they determined appropriate locations to house all of the communications and AV equipment while avoiding interference with historical elements of the structure.

On the electrical front, the upgrades included redistribution of the existing electrical system on each of the visitor floors, especially on the second floor, where more exhibits are located. One exhibit comprises a room of floor-to-ceiling monitors on each wall, as well as monitors on the ceiling. This large concentration of video required a major reallocation of electrical power to serve it. Along with this high concentration of power comes a high concentration of heat output. To decrease the output, we hung large HVAC units in the already very congested ceiling to cool the area. Along with the space challenges, we had to maintain the design integrity of the ceiling. By collaborating with the architect and exhibit designer, we attained the desired cooling without interfering with the ceiling elements.

The team had to work quickly because the project was on a fast-track schedule, with phased construction. That meant extensive coordination with the other project partners through in-person meetings and the use of BIM and 3D modeling. Furthermore, temperature had to be regulated during the times when areas were closed off and visitors were rerouted. “We were pretty immersed in the construction process,” says Will.

Results

By balancing preservation and innovation, Syska was able to design systems that promote sustainability, prolong the life of the building, enhance the working environment for building employees, and maintain comfortable temperatures for visitors. All while meeting the deadlines of a fast-track schedule.

Those are the results that excite engineers. The families of engineers? Not so much. They’re more impressed by the locale.

Jim understands. He visited the building with his wife in January and experienced the tour as an observer rather than as a design professional. “It was amazing,” he says. “The view tops everything off, but the second floor is awesome.”

Will agrees. His favorite exhibit is the “World’s Most Famous Building,” where more than 70 screens display highlights of the Empire State Building’s starring role. “The first time I saw it, I watched it three times in a row so I could see everything,” he remembers. “It was magic.”

“There’s something about these kinds of projects,” Jim muses. “You can take your family to look at them and they enjoy it. They see why you were working so hard. And they sense the great feeling you have about the results.”

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