At the Forefront of Change With Spectorgroup’s Michael Mannetta

The firm's senior partner & design director reminisces on major events that have shaped the architecture industry over the past four decades.
Michael Mannetta, Senior Partner & Design Director, Spectorgroup. Image courtesy of Spectorgroup

Michael Mannetta, senior partner & design director at Spectorgroup, led the way on a trip down memory lane, reviewing New York City’s architectural scene throughout the past 40 years, and observing how events have played major roles in its evolution by imposing or inspiring changes. With COVID-19 ravaging the globe, we wanted to find out how current strategies are unfolding, especially concepts such as net-zero standards and Passive House principles that relate to sustainability and energy efficiency in the built sector.

You’ve been with Spectorgroup for four decades now. Which moments or events have been the highlight of these years, and how do they relate to architecture’s evolution throughout this time frame?

Mannetta: I have been fortunate to be a part of Spectorgroup’s growth from a single office in Long Island to one of New York City’s largest full-service architectural firms.

COVID-19 is reshaping industries around the world, and it reminds me of other economic cycles during my career that have impacted our firm and the architecture industry. The market crash in 1987, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, 9/11 and the financial crisis that began in 2008, were all, obviously, periods of great upheaval. After each of these inflection points, Spectorgroup found itself expanding into new sectors, disciplines and regions that led to where we are today.

I started at Spectorgroup straight out of college, and, at that time, the firm was primarily focused on suburban, speculative office building projects across the Northeast. The first big shift for us came after the market crash of 1987. Suburban projects were moving to city projects up and down the Eastern Seaboard. We went from working directly with building owners to partnering with corporate tenants for individual corporate headquarter build-outs. Sony, IBM and Merck were a few of the big-name corporates we supported at that time. 

After the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, we were contracted by the Port Authority to reconstruct the lower levels—this was an immense and challenging project. It was also a turning point for us, and soon thereafter we opened an office in Manhattan and cemented ourselves as a permanent player for large-scale, Manhattan projects.

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The 1990s saw more hospitality, health care and higher education projects coming to market, and we expanded our work into those sectors. The onset of the financial crisis and the long recovery created a market where high construction costs significantly slowed new developments. The result was a stronger renovations market—both in the urban and suburban markets—and Spectorgroup had a depth of regional and multidisciplinary expertise that allowed us to move with the market.

New York, in my lifetime, has been defined by how the city and surrounding regions have handled and overcome adversity. Now is no different. The architecture and interior design industry, corporations, institutions and commercial developers are currently experiencing tremendous challenges. The firms that survive and expand will be those that harness the power of diversity. Diversity in thought, experience, clients and regional footprint, are creating and driving new and interesting opportunities for the industry.

Following the launch of the Climate Mobilization Act, how are things progressing for the architecture industry in general, and how is Spectorgroup handling projects under the new guidelines?

Mannetta: Some 40 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States come from residential or commercial buildings, according to a 2018 estimate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. While the Climate Mobilization Act provides the energy reduction thresholds to meet, it does not provide the blueprint. This is an opportunity for the architecture industry, and New York City, to lead.

For Spectorgroup, it’s largely business as usual. It’s about partnering with commercial developers, corporates and construction firms to create innovative solutions at a cost that incentivizes development on net-zero projects. Heading into 2020, meeting comprehensive climate-related regulations was becoming very costly. We were advising clients on how to balance meeting long-term climate and energy efficiency goals with rising regulatory and construction costs.

When did sustainability begin to gain importance in the architecture industry and cross the border from something new to something essential?

Mannetta: As an industry, architects have always been on the cutting edge of the push for clean, smart building design and construction and energy-efficient practices. The difference between what is proposed and the realities of what can be developed always comes down to weighing cost drivers such as the latest technology and material selection, in addition to the increasing regulatory costs.

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For example, before the wide adoption of LEED standards, we were pushing these concepts through proposals and implementing where possible, so much of what is in new energy codes now were already second nature in our projects. Our clients were largely like-minded, as long as costs didn’t outweigh the benefits. What we are seeing now is a convergence, where costs are coming down because of technology improvement, evolving construction practices and the industry rethinking what materials we use and for what purpose.

Europe’s Passive House principles are a major source of inspiration in achieving net-zero standards. How do you apply them to your projects?

Mannetta: Everyone hates the old cliché that “this will pay for itself in five years,” when presenting new and innovative project designs. What is interesting about Passive House principles is that it changes the conversation from future benefits to recouping costs on day one, because when done right, Passive House creates a building that will maintain natural heating and cooling with little or no fossil fuel usage.

The cost savings are created when new construction methods, technology and building materials work in unison to capture efficiencies. Modular construction, where you can achieve almost airtight seals within building units, is being applied in new buildings and even individual office units.

The price of technology always comes down over time. Think about when LED lighting was introduced, it was far too expensive to be practical. Now it’s standard. And finally, using tried and true building materials in a proven way to better retain, or even capture energy, creates tremendous efficiencies. 

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I am now a member of the North American Passive House Network, to stay at the forefront of this topic. By infusing the latest understandings of these principles to meet net-zero standards we can meet regulatory cost overruns, lower energy costs immediately and create buildings that more tenants want to occupy for longer periods of time. When landlords can count on long-term demand and rent stability, they gain flexibility in the property and greater financing opportunities.

What’s the most challenging part of helping your clients reduce their building’s carbon footprint, and how do you tackle it?

Mannetta: For existing building reconfigurations, the biggest challenge is deploying the right technology and materials at the right price point. The good part is these costs have all come down in recent years as technology has improved, and now we are able to install better-insulated windows, to overhaul inefficient HVAC units and to make the incremental upgrades to façades a standard.

You also need to create efficiencies in the design and construction process by understanding building height and sun exposure to maximize the use and capture of natural energy, and ensuring you are building to create the least amount of leakage outside the facade, and between units and floors.

What will it take to turn the net-zero trend into a mainstream standard?

Mannetta: This is all about the continued lowering of costs. Developers are not going to pursue projects where the margin doesn’t make sense, so it is incumbent on the entire industry to work together to create a cost-effective solution.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?

Mannetta: Like in most industries, the pandemic has accelerated change already happening. Look at the big retail locations turning over. Suburbs are also now picking up massive interest and we are seeing pent-up demand. Much like how prior economic cycles shifted projects between the suburbs and urban locations, it is happening again. I see this as a major focus over the next several years.

In Manhattan, bids are lowering and bringing costs down because the competition is high. Firms are hungry for business. Coupled with low interest rates, the next few years should see new and interesting projects as a result.

What impact do you think the health crisis will have on the net-zero strategy?

Mannetta: More than anything the pandemic has called into focus the importance of health and wellness in the spaces we inhabit. Protecting and preserving our planet is central to that, and net-zero is the biggest way we can enact positive change. At Spectorgroup, our focus remains the same as it has throughout my entire career—try to remain at the forefront of change and bring new cost and energy-efficient solutions to our clients.