Columbia Implements Clean Construction Program in Manhattanville

Editor's note:

This story was originally published online on June 23, 2011.

November 21, 2011

Air quality, noise and vibration, traffic and business disruptions—these are some of the issues that could keep Ramesh Raman up at night as the University moves forward on its long-term expansion in the old Manhattanville industrial area.

Raman, executive director of environmental field compliance for Columbia’s Manhattanville Development Group, is responsible for making the new campus a model for green development. His job is to translate the stringent environmental compliance requirements agreed to by the University and distill them into a set of engineering specifications that get incorporated into construction plans.

One of the University’s main goals is to minimize the impact of construction on the daily life of the community as 6.8 million square feet of new building space go up on the former industrial site just north of the Morningside Heights campus. So far the University has demolished 33 buildings in the area, salvaging and recycling as much as 90 percent of the building materials. It is also working with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to ensure that all construction work applies the latest air pollution controls available.

“When I went to see the Manhattanville construction site, what struck me was that it was very quiet, clean and calm,” said Isabelle Silverman, an attorney with EDF. “Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion can serve as a clean construction model for other cities and universities.” 

The cornerstone of Raman’s work is a comprehensive construction mitigation program. Mitigation measures focus on protecting historically significant structures within 90 feet of construction; minimizing noise and dust; and using an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management. Angled noise barriers and blankets minimize sound from the construction site while construction equipment is outfitted with air pollution control devices. Equipment is also designed to use electricity or ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, which offers a significant reduction in particulates and other pollutants. Truck undercarriages and wheels are washed twice as they leave the site to limit dust in the air.

This mitigation program also addresses community concerns about construction activities. Community members can contact the Facilities Services Center at any time, and a website and newsletter provide frequent updates. The University also makes regular presentations to neighbors, community groups and the local community board to keep them informed about the progress of construction, which is expected to last three decades.

“From the beginning we engaged in careful planning to look at areas where we would intersect with the public and try to proactively avoid creating construction nuisances,” said Philip Pitruzzello, vice president of  Columbia’s Manhattanville Development Group. “We believe construction can work with a community to help create livable cities.”

Prior to joining Columbia, Raman was responsible for environmental performance for the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s large construction projects. Several of them, including the South Ferry Subway Terminal and the Fulton Street Transit Center in lower Manhattan, were part of the transportation recovery program funded by the federal government after 9/11, and he had to work with a number of city, state and federal agencies to address the environmental impact.

Subsequently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted Raman’s clean diesel emissions program as a model for other projects around the country and recognized his program with an award. His work to make New York City Transit’s maintenance facility in Corona, Queens greener received honorable mention in the 2004 New York City Green Building Design competition.

“Construction mitigation measures, like everything else in business, come down to a question of how much we care about what we do, how committed we are,” said Raman. “There is nothing mystical or abstract, and it is no more and no less than what all of us put into our daily jobs.”