by Matt Alderton | July 24, 2017
Its spectacular glass pyramid notwithstanding, New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center looks from the ground like a lot of other convention facilities in which you've probably attended meetings. There's more to the Javits Center than meets the eye, however. Above the humming escalators, tiled corridors, fluorescent lights, and carpeted ballrooms is the last thing you'd expect to find in this industrial slice of Manhattan: a countryside. Well, sort of. Although it's not entirely pastoral, the Javits Center's green roof is rural enough at least for the growing community of birds, bats, and bees that have taken sanctuary there since its debut in 2014 -- and for New York residents and visitors, who have taken to the roof in growing numbers this summer for an up-close-and-personal look at sustainability.

To discover what makes the roof so special -- both for the critters who live on it and for the meeting attendees who visit it -- Successful Meetings spoke with Javits Center Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Tony Sclafani, who calls the roof a "modern-day miracle on 34th Street."

Lots of buildings these days have green roofs. Why is the Javits Center's so special?

Our green roof is the second largest of its kind in the United States. And it's certainly the largest in New York. It was completed in 2014 as part of a $453 million renovation that was funded by a tax on hotel rooms in New York City. As part of the renovation, more than 6,000 bird-friendly glass panels were installed on the building's façade. The Javits Center was known as the No. 1 bird killer in New York City because birds used to fly into the building all the time. As a result of the new glass installation, however, bird collisions have decreased more than 90 percent. When we installed the green roof, the Javits Center actually became a bird sanctuary. Since 2014, 26 bird species have been identified on the green roof at various times, as well as five bat species and thousands of honeybees. We entered into a partnership with New York City Audubon to study the impact of the roof and they've helped by coming regularly to the building and studying the impact of the green roof on birds. We've seen multiple nests built by birds where they're laying eggs, and those eggs are hatching and new birds are being born. So it's a really fascinating comeback story in terms of nature at the Javits Center. We're really proud to play a part in this new ecosystem, and I think that's what really makes our green roof special.

Clearly, the green roof benefits New York's avian occupants. Does it also benefit the city's human denizens?

The green roof has been a tremendous benefit to the Javits Center in more ways than one. First of all, it can absorb up to 7 million gallons of stormwater a year because it's comprised of a low-lying rock plant called sedum that was grown in Syracuse, NY, and transported here for installation. The sedum turns green in the spring and summer and red and orange in the fall, and it absorbs rainfall to reduce our stormwater runoff. Second, the green roof is actually lighter than the original roof that was constructed. So from a weight perspective, it's actually better for the building. The green roof also insulates the building in the winter and cools it in the summer. The temperature difference between the green roof section and other concrete sections is significant; it's much cooler on the green roof. Finally, all of our sustainable upgrades since our renovation -- including the green roof -- have contributed to a 26 percent reduction in energy consumption at the Javits Center, and that translates into savings of millions of dollars a year.

Most of all, though, we're very proud to have this green roof because it is, in essence, a living laboratory where our employees, customers, and research partners can study and learn about the benefits of sustainability. That allows us to be integrated with our community in more ways than we've ever been before, and to play a role in improving the quality of life in that community. For us, that's probably the biggest benefit.

Speaking of integrating with the community: I understand you offer 90-minute tours of the green roof so the public can engage with it?

Yes. Following the completion of the green roof in 2014, we started to offer tours of it to small groups of customers and community members on a very limited basis. Since then, demand to see the roof -- to hear the story of how the Javits Center went from being a bird killer to being a bird breeder -- has grown leaps and bounds. Therefore, this year we decided to post an online registration form to allow anyone and everyone to pick a date so they can come see the roof for free. It's very important to us that we do that because one of the reasons we started the tour program was to spread the message of sustainability. We're living proof that a building can make simple, smart changes and have a tremendous  impact on its surrounding environment.

How can meeting and convention groups leverage the tours you offer?

We're getting more and more requests from show managers to see the roof and to tour the roof. One way that shows have engaged with us to leverage the green roof is by launching social media campaigns around it. For instance, a particular show that comes to the building might create a contest among its attendees: Whoever clicks on a particular post gets a chance to tour the roof. Obviously, we give those tours. So, we've worked hand-in-hand with meeting planners to bring them to the roof as much as we can.

What size groups can you accommodate on the roof?

We've accommodated groups of up to 50 at a time. We try to limit the size a little bit because if you get too large you lose the impact. Our staff takes a lot of pride in these tours. We want to make sure everyone can hear us, understand what we're saying, and ask questions if they want to about how they could apply some of the principles they learn here to their own building. So, we try to make the tours as intimate as possible.

Clearly, the roof is a hit with New York and with its visitors. What are your future plans for the roof?

We view the green roof as our modern-day miracle on 34th Street. We do not pretend to know everything about sustainability or green roofs -- or birds, for that matter -- but we're learning. And every day we learn a little bit more. Together with our customers and research partners, we're learning how this roof is evolving and we're adapting to what we find. For instance, just recently we installed a series of bat boxes -- boxes for bats to inhabit -- just to see how bats would interact with them. So, we're constantly introducing new elements to the roof to understand how its potential can be maximized.