Value engineering, the process by which clients eliminate costly elements of building designs in order to save money, is understandably unpopular with architects.
Some designers like to point out that all value engineering does is suck the values out of buildings; Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for The New York Times, once called it “a form of water torture.”
So, after seeing the new Greenberg Conference Center on Prospect Street, one must feel bad for Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, the School of Architecture dean who designed the building and who is also designing Yale’s two new residential colleges.
The Greenberg Center, which officially opened last week and which provides additional space for the University to hold conferences with world leaders, is by no means a bad building. It ably fulfills the needs of Yale’s Office of International Affairs and, though it is connected to the Betts House, it turns away from that historic building and does not distract from it.
Still, the first thing visitors approaching the Greenberg Center notice is the fake stone on the building’s base. Instead of leather insets on the writing surfaces in the main amphitheater, Yale chose to install a blue linoleum that is supposed to look like leather. In all, Stern acknowledged, the building is “lightly detailed.”
University President Richard Levin agreed, saying the Greenberg Center’s 114-person dining room is “in terms of finishes … probably not as grand as some of the dining halls in our colleges.”
While Levin said it was not a “cheap project,” the architects had to devote a great deal of attention and resources to the interpretation booths and kitchen facilities that are critical to the 13,000-square-foot building, which cost in the neighborhood of $10 million to $12 million. Expensive parts of the design had to be eliminated, and while there is no harm in negotiating down the price of the dining room’s china, as Yale did, other cuts matter more.
“It’s not like you’re going to a Marriott conference room,” cautioned University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer, who first conceived of the idea for the center. “But, for instance, it does not have the kind of molding you might have in a Yale residential college common room.”
The question now is whether the two new residential colleges that Stern is designing for Yale will have that kind of molding. After all, while the intention for the Greenberg Center was always to make a building that “looks like Yale even though it’s not downtown,” as Sharon Butler, director of the center, put it, the intention for the colleges is to make a building that just plain looks like Yale.
That costs a lot of money, of course, and Stern said Yale has committed, for instance, to using real stone and brick on the outside of the colleges.
“A budget was established for the colleges before the meltdown and we are still working accordingly,” he said in an interview last week, adding that the budgeting process will continue and “no one knows what that will be like — whether we can have less or more.”
Levin, for his part, said he hopes the budget for the colleges will ultimately have room for the kind of architectural expression that set apart the work of James Gamble Rogers 1889. But, he added, that will “depend on where we are” in terms of fundraising.
If there is no room in the budget for ornamentation and other detailing, Yale may not be at a complete disadvantage; Stern and his firm, Lorimer said, “were incredible partners in cost efficiency.”
Zeynep Pamuk contributed reporting.