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If you're planning to visit the brand new Bank of America (BOA) building in midtown Manhattan, make sure not to use any Purell before you go. The 8,000 people who work in the crystal-shaped, glass skyscraper at the corner of 42nd St. and Sixth Avenue may not object to the ubiquitous hand sanitizer, but the building itself would. The tower's air circulation system is equipped with sensors to detect what are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and a rapidly evaporating substance like Purell is full of them.

You might well think that an office building should mind its business about what kind of hand cleanser you use, but consider that the VOC detectors can also spot volatiles outgassing from synthetic carpets, cubicle partitions, floor cleansers and much of the rest of the chemical soup that often makes breathing office air such a nasty experience. Consider too that a similar carbon dioxide detector can sample the building's interior atmosphere for CO2 and redirect fresh air to any room or corridor in which too many people are doing too much inhaling and exhaling. That drooping feeling you get midway through a meeting in a crowded conference room may not be caused by boredom, but by too little oxygen circulating in an overpopulated space.

The 55-story BOA building — officially known as 1 Bryant Park — was always going to attract attention even on the crowded Manhattan skyline. At 1,200 ft. tall, it edges out the venerable Chrysler building for the honor of second tallest tower in the city. And its reflective, faceted shape and 255-ft. spire draw eyeballs from almost any angle. But what the building's owners, architect and developers like to talk about most are its green features, a host of innovations that have made the tower the first commercial high-rise to earn a platinum designation from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program — the official best-in-show judges for environmentally friendly architecture.

At a time when fellow corporate giant BP is struggling to scrub oil from the coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico and Bank of America itself is similarly trying to clean the stain of toxic assets and bailout money from its own damaged name, a mega-building that evokes the ideal of a clean, renewable future seems like both good citizenship and very good PR. It didn't hurt that Al Gore, the Yoda of all things green, not only attended 1 Bryant Park's official opening last month but, more significantly, has rented office space there. But how a building is designed to perform is not always the same as how it does perform. Do celebrity tenants and a shiny LEED label really mean as much as they seem, or will an exercise in enormity like the BOA building wind up being more of a feel-good project than a do-good one?

At the new tower's sidewalk level — the only level from which the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers will ever experience it — its mission is clear in ways big and small. Despite its cool, steel-and-glass face, the handles on all of its street-facing doors are made of white oak, something that's impossible not to notice the first time you lay your hand on one, particularly if you're not expecting it.

"You don't just see a building, you touch it," says 1 Bryant Park's chief architect Richard Cook, head of the firm Cook+Fox. "We tried to design this one with what we call biophilic — or love of life — principles in mind."

The landscaped public patio in the tower's northeast corner carries that theme further, even if the official name of the open space, the "Urban Garden Room," perhaps takes it too far. The building's western side is bounded by a breezeway that links 42nd and 43rd Streets, adjacent to the landmarked Henry Miller theater. The theater is part of the building owners' parcel and has been restored — as well as renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theater — and integrated into the skyscraper's larger green grid. It's that grid that is the true test of the building's environmental cred, and by most measures it's an impressive thing.

About 65% of 1 Bryant Park's annual energy needs are generated on-site, thanks to a natural-gas powered cogeneration plant. The use of gas, the efficiency of the generator and the fact that the power does not have to be transmitted to the building across miles of cables means there's much less power wasted than in coventional skyscrapers.

"Up to two-thirds of all energy from power plants goes straight up the smokestack before even being converted to electricity," says Cook. "Another 8% is lost in transmission. The average efficiency for buildings this size thus winds up being about 27%. Ours is 77%."

There are a lot of other ways the tower keeps that number up. The basement of the building is equipped with 44 massive 1,000-gal. tanks filled with glycol and refrigeration coils. At night, when the pressure on the city's electricity grid is the lowest, the tanks freeze a collective 44,000 gallons of water which are used the next day to handle 25% of the air conditioning needs.

The 8,644 panes of glass that make up the building's 1.6 million sq. ft. skin are each dotted with a strip of ceramic frits at the top and bottom — small white flecks that are spaced close together and then gradually become more diffuse, like the graduated sun shade across the top six or so inches of a car's windshield.

"To the eye, the window goes from about 70% opaque at the densest part of the frits to 0% opaque," says Cook. "But the sun sees the shading as completely opaque. That reduces the solar heat load." Further cutting the demand for juice is perimeter daylight dimming — a sensor system that lowers the brightness of ceiling lights near the windows during the day and gradually raises it as the sun goes down.
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The building goes easy on the water too. Catchment systems collect and save the 30 to 48 inches of rain that fall on the site each year. Across the building's two-acre lot that adds up to a maximum of 10 million gallons. This and other so-called graywater, such as waste from sinks and water fountains, is recirculated into the refrigeration system. Waterless urinals — which rely on extra-slippery porcelain and a lighter-than-urine chemical reservoir in the drain where the liquid you don't want sinks into the liquid that you mind less — saves an additional three million gallons a year. "That's about 2,920 miles of one-liter water bottles laid end to end," says Cook.

All this combined with the tower's airy, from-the-ridgetop views and its proximity to the greenery of Bryant Park across the street create the sense that the building is not just clean and cutting-edge, but downright virtuous. While Cook rightly touts the improbable closer-to-nature feeling this creates, he does concede that LEED designations — even platinum ones — can sometimes be misleading.

For one thing, designers hoping to boost their LEED score will sometimes concentrate on easy, marginal improvements that get their numbers up — increasing by 50% the amount of building material they recycle during construction, for example — rather than investing in costlier innovations that will pack a bigger environmental punch. "It's called 'chasing points,'" Cook says, "and architects are always on the lookout to see if other architects are doing it." No surprise, Cook insists there was no point-chasing going on in the design of this building.

Even if every LEED point is justly earned, however, the question isn't how the building performs the day you take the shrink wrap off, it's how it does 5 or 10 or 100 years down the line. And that can be harder to determine. Everything from fluctuating occupancy levels and breakdowns in equipment to tenants who ignore or disable green systems (covering up motion sensors that turn lights off in unoccupied offices, say) can drive performance way down. And since LEED ratings are granted a single time with no follow-up later, once platinum means always platinum, no matter how efficient the building actually is.

Still, if the BOA tower turns out to be nothing else, it's a proof-of-principle structure — one that undeniably represents the state of the green art in 2010, even if that art turns out to need a lot of improvements down the line. If other architects chase the green standard — to say nothing of the aesthetic, eye-candy standard — that the new building has set, 1 Bryant Park will have more than done its work.