Roosevelt Island, New York, USA

The House at Cornell Tech, Student Residence Tower

Project Highlights

  • High performance, eco-friendly, urban building
  • Tallest Passive House high-rise in the world at the time of completion
  • Thermal breaks separated louvered HVAC rooms on each floor to isolate them from the conditioned interior
  • Used to meet requirements for continuous insulation and reduce heat loss

World’s Tallest Passive House Pushes Environmental Envelope with Help of Structural Thermal Breaks 

Roosevelt Island, New York City – At 26 stories, The House at Cornell Tech is the tallest high-rise Passive House building in the world.  The ground-breaking residential tower at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island was developed in partnership with The Hudson Companies and Related Companies.

Speaking for Buro Happold, which provided structural and MEP engineering services for the project, Associate Principal Julie Janiski says the firm expressed confidence about meeting Passive House standards during initial meetings with Handel Architects, The Hudson Companies and Cornell.

This decision to pursue Passive House principles is revolutionary in this high-rise application because Passive House is the strictest energy efficiency standard for buildings in the world. Developed in Darmstadt, Germany in the 1990s, the standard cuts energy consumption by 60 to 80 percent compared to buildings built to traditional codes. For the Cornell Tech dormitory, Passive House construction translates to a projected savings of 882 tons of CO2 per year. The reduced energy consumption is critical in an era where the building industry accounts for 39 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Passive House standards push for reduced thermal bridging and optimal energy conservation

How does the dormitory meet Passive House criteria? “The façade is one big thermal wrapper,” Janiski said. “The building is well insulated and leak proof, so that energy needed for heating, cooling and lighting is calibrated to optimize energy use.”

Building orientation for solar management and façade detailing for thermal management are integral to the building’s energy conservation. The tower is a long rectangle, oriented so that the long sides are facing north/south to allow the façade to optimize available solar energy. This orientation and use of triple-glazed windows are key elements of the Passive House standard.

Passive House construction also aims to avoid thermal bridging, which is often unaddressed in traditional designs in the US.

Thermal bridging occurs when heat is conducted through the insulated building envelope by structural penetrations. During winter, heat from interior slabs or steel supports is conducted through the envelope into exterior balconies, canopies, parapets or other penetrations that dissipate heat into the environment like cooling fins.

Where structural thermal breaks were installed

Structural thermal breaks were specified at the Cornell residential tower to preclude thermal bridging in vulnerable areas in the façade, roof line and main entrance.

The dormitory’s façade, made of a prefabricated metal panel system, acts as a thermally insulated blanket. This thermal wrapping requires sealing at several places including the entrance steel “eyebrow” canopy, the roof line where the concrete curves weave in and out, and the southwest façade that opens out to reveal a louver system extending to the entire height of the building.

According to Handel Architects, “This reveal is designed to be the ‘gills’ of the building, literally providing a louvered exterior space where the heating and cooling equipment live, allowing the building system to breathe. Purified fresh air will be ducted into each bedroom and living room, providing superior indoor air quality.”

Instead of locating mechanical systems on the roof, which is typical for high-rise construction, they are installed on enclosed balcony slabs in a corner of every floor to facilitate efficient heating and cooling of that floor. Since these enclosures lack AC or heating, and are vented to the exterior through louvers, structural thermal breaks were installed to insulate the exterior balcony slab from the interior floor slab, while providing load bearing performance equivalent to that of traditional balcony extensions.

The integrative approach to building systems and architectural expression does not limit design flexibility, but it does require technologies and attention to detail that contribute to achieving a design that complies with LEED® requirements and the more stringent Passive House standards.

In the case of Cornell Tech tower, the use of structural thermal breaks made it possible to meet the requirement for continuous insulation, reducing energy loss by 80 to 90 percent compared with conventional steel and monolithic concrete penetrations.

Upfront communication required for acceptance and successful execution

Mark Paskus, associate at Buro Happold Engineering says, "because the balconies are structurally complex, Schöck certified the model of structural thermal breaks based on our dimensions and capacity requirements."

He explained that the steel canopy required more coordination among teams because the engineers needed information from the supplier to put in their drawings while meeting the architect’s requirements for maintaining the thinnest canopy possible. “We provided the loads and moments so the supplier could design the system and deliver a fully-engineered product constructed to the specifics of the design at hand.

“The challenge of using structural thermal breaks is not the technology itself, but rather, getting people to understand and trust it,” Paskus said, adding, “The contractors were unfamiliar with the system and apprehensive until the shoring was removed, the mechanical units were installed and the thermal breaks performed as specified."

Upfront coordination among the trades, proper notation of construction documents, and supplier participation were essential to the successful outcome of this project.

Advances in building design and components make Passive House possible

By adhering to Passive House principles and employing innovative technologies, The House at Cornell Tech is leading the charge in high performance, eco-friendly urban construction that significantly reduces energy consumption and carbon emissions without impacting design freedom or structural performance.


Isokorb® concrete-to-concrete
and steel-to-steel thermal breaks
for balcony and canopy connections


The Hudson Companies/Related Companies


Handel Architects

Structural Engineering

Buro Happold

Construction Completed


  • Passive House

  • LEED® Platinum

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