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Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo

Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo

The New York Times 02/24/2011

Ms. Castillo is the new president of the American Institute of Architects New York, one of the oldest and largest A.I.A. chapters in the nation, with just under 5,000 members.

She is also a principal at Helpern Architects, specializing in sustainable and historic preservation projects.

Q The theme of your presidency is “design for change.”

A It has to do with sustainable urbanization, which is absolutely critical. With over half of the world’s population now living in cities, and that number expected to reach 70 percent by the next generation, how are our cities going to handle all of this?

Seventy-five to 80 percent of greenhouse gases are from buildings. Architects have a responsibility in knowing that figure.

Q What can architects do to make cities more sustainable?

A How you design the buildings influences energy usage and the way you orient a building — where you put windows, the type of overhangs, and whether you use daylight versus artificial light. Every material selected has an environmental implication.

We’re very happy with Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through PlaNYC. The A.I.A. wants to go further: we want zero emissions.

Q Is that realistic?

A Well, I think you have to try. Imagine not needing fossil fuels, and the implications of not having to go abroad to get oil. It isn’t just extracting the fossil fuel, a limited resource, but it’s also the pollution caused by fossil fuels. You need to create buildings that use renewable resources.

Q What are some of the new materials being used or tested?

A We’re trying to encourage more interest in building science. People talk about phase change materials, like an insulation that changes from a liquid to a gas or solid. In New York, every square inch of buildings is so valuable. To just add, say, two feet of insulation is not going to work.

Q Will we see more LEED-certified buildings?

A They don’t always have to be LEED. Some, like the School Construction Authority, use the term “high performance.” They have their own guidelines.

Q Some of the smaller developers have complained that getting LEED certification is expensive.

A I don’t think it’s in the cost of the materials; it can be in the application process. LEED does have a lot of paperwork in terms of documenting where every single material comes from.

Now there’s the New York City Energy Conservation Code — as of last July — which sets energy-efficiency standards for new and existing buildings. The codes are changing so rapidly that they are going to acquire a certain amount of energy efficiency.

Q Do you have a favorite building?

A They’re all interesting for different reasons.

Q Or architect?

A Maybe McKim, Mead & White, after having worked at Low Memorial Library at Columbia and some Carnegie libraries. They’re magnificent buildings.

Q How is business at Helpern Architects?

A It has been slow over the last two years. It’s a little bit better.

Q What projects are you working on now?

A We’re working on a hotel — it’s to be rolled out in the next three weeks — and the Marble Collegiate Church, on Fifth Avenue and 29th, which is sort of a longstanding client. We’re doing a renovation there.

Q Your practice focuses largely on historic buildings.

A Some of the first projects that we did were up at Yale, on mansions. One of them was the Davies Mansion, which sat empty for 25 years. To turn that into the new center for globalization was both an interesting mission and a challenge, since the building was practically destroyed by fire.

Q What are your thoughts on the repurposing of the High Line?

A I think it’s a beautiful design. What’s great about the High Line, is the way it started off — with a competition. There was even the idea of turning it into lap lanes for swimming.

Q Can any other found space be creatively repurposed?

A I would like to see the space at Governors Island used. It is restricted — you can’t do housing, or a casino, but you could do restaurants, conference centers or parks. And there is a plan for a park from West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture.

There’s so much history there, and there’s a tremendous opportunity with Fort Jay and Castle Williams to teach children about history. You feel like you’re a world away, with these old trees, the barracks and the houses.