Top architects at TRD panel: Non-union labor on the rise

Cost considerations cited as cause of "irreversible trend"

TRD New York /
May.May 15, 2014 07:19 PM

The amount of non-union labor used to develop buildings in New York City is expected to increase, according to several leading architects. That’s despite such work in the past having been inferior to that of union labor, one said.

“I think it is kind of an irreversible trend,” Gene Kaufman, principal of Gene Kaufman Architect, said. He was speaking on a panel this afternoon that was part of The Real Deal and Luxury Listings NYC’s New Development Showcase, a daylong forum held in Chelsea.

“[With the] bottom line being the main issue for a lot of projects, this whole notion of trying to do things with less money is going to accelerate, not decrease,” Kaufman said.

John Cetra, co-founder of architecture firm CetraRuddy, told himself he would never work with a non-union shop again, after being burned during the prior construction boom. “Probably the worst” projects his firm ever did at the time were non-union, he said. But now the quality of non-union shops is improving.

“We went through a learning curve with non-union construction,” Cetra said. “Today the quality of the non-union is two- or three-times or more during it was during the upturn.”

The other panelists included Bjarke Ingels, of the Bjarke Ingels Group; Paul Whalen, partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects; and Betram Beissel, design and project partner with Ateliers Jean Nouvel. It was moderated by TRD architecture critic James Gardner.

The architects also bemoaned when developers choose separate designers for a building’s exterior and interior. “There is sort of a lobotomy where the connection [is lost] between the floor plans and the envelope. It’s almost like two different projects,” Ingels said.

In addition, the panelists ticked off their favorite new buildings. Ingels liked 432 Park Avenue and Cetra gave a shout out to 56 Leonard Street.

As for the worst building in New York City, Cetra did not name it by name but implied 1 Court Square in Long Island City was an eyesore, where “one building obliterates the view.”

Despite the fact that developers are worried about rising construction costs, architects on the panel said developers are more supportive than ever before when it comes to cutting-edge design, which they feel enables them to charge higher prices for apartments.

“The market for design is the best it’s ever been, so we need to capitalize on it,” said Kaufman.

Addition reporting by Stuart Elliott

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