Michael Adlerstein’s UN Project, On Time And On Budget

In 2007, when Capital Master Plan for renovation of the United Nations was approved by the member nations, Michael Adlerstein ( LF ’86) joined the UN staff as in-house architect–officially assistant secretary-general for the CMP. At the start, staying within the 7-year horizon and 1.9 billion price tag to renovate the entire NY compound must have seemed to many observers like an impossible dream.Moreover, halfway in, the project was expanded to accommodate new structural security protocols and given a mere additional year to complete them.

It’s 2015 and the project is completed, and within 10% of its budget. Adlerstein says, “In an ongoing institution that never left the house, in the construction industry today, I’m astounded that we’re so close to being on budget, and we are on schedule.”

And there’s another unique aspect. “The whole world paid for the project, which was really wonderful,” he said. “It’s very unusual in the UN that everyone pays for any particular assessment; there’re always some holdouts for political reasons, and in this particular case, every member state participated in the renovation of the UN.”

Adlerstein’s 30 years as a preservation architect prepared him well for the massive UN undertaking. He was chief architect with the National Park Service and project director for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, as well as many historic battlefield restorations. He oversaw renewal of the iconic New York Botanic Garden.

But there were some daunting challenges in the UN project, some related to its unique transnational status. In addition to the security concerns, the UN complex had not been updated since its 1952 construction. The city, which could not enforce building codes, issued a wakeup call: UN staff were warned that since the building did not meet codes and had deteriorated, local emergency personnel might not be able to enter because it was unsafe.

The CMP required retaining the building’s original appearance, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s focus on sustainability and climate change mitigation presented another imperative. Since the Department of Homeland Security required, for security reasons, that staff remain in place throughout the construction period, all the work, including removal of massive amounts of asbestos, had to be conducted around them. In the end, the buildings were awarded a LEED Gold designation.

Adlerstein describes the experience as “a long project but a lot of fun,” which he attributes largely to a “wonderful team of architects, engineers and construction people.” Two other Loeb alums played key roles. Kent Barwick (LF ’77) was selected by the US State Department to chair the advisory committee of architects representing each of the regions of the world, which met several times a year to monitor construction progress. Carter Wiseman (LF ’85) worked on the CMP book.

Adlerstein planned from the outset to create a photography book documenting the project, and with funding from the UN Foundation, he engaged retired professionals to come in on evenings and weekends to photograph the building before, during and after construction, as well as the construction crews and ceremonial events. The first chapter of the book, written by former Finnish president and UN diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, is devoted to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s legacy and the work of the UN during his tenure. Barwick suggested Wiseman to write an architectural discussion detailing the original design, the renovation goals and the greening of the compound. “He did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of the project,” says Adlerstein.

The book will come out in September under the Rizzoli imprint and will be a gift from the Secretary-General to the 140 heads of state of the General Assembly in gratitude for their unanimous support of the project.

As for Michael Adlerstein, he leaves his post in 6 weeks, and he’s not thinking about his future yet, beyond enjoying a couple of months of golf and sailing. He’s confident an absorbing new role will turn up in good time.

Read more about the Capital Master Plan challenges and Adlerstein’s “diplomacy through design.”

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