When clients need to install air conditioning in landmarked buildings, such as Carnegie Hall, or investigate problems with the city’s aging infrastructure, they call Charlie Copeland. He’s the head of engineering consulting firm Goldman Copeland—fondly called Goco. For 50 years, he has specialized in the behind-the-scenes mechanics that keep New York’s buildings operating in the modern world.
How did Goco come to specialize in energy innovation?
I’m a mechanical electrical engineer, so I mostly work on infra- structure. I did the country’s largest energy program for the city of New York in the days of Mayor Koch. That involved designing strategies to save energy—such as changing lighting, HVAC and so forth—in almost all public buildings. I designed one of the early thermal solar collectors to capture heat and to heat water. In the past 15 or so years, we’ve done audits to reduce energy consump- tion for close to 50 million square feet of buildings.
Do you worry about climate change?
I do. The new codes are very stringent, though. We used to calculate 2.5 watts of energy per square foot for older buildings; now code mandates 1 watt per square foot. All of our computers and appliances are Energy Star–compliant now. A lot of chillers in buildings we see today are working at less capacity than they did 10 to 15 years ago. But we can always do more.
How do you upgrade old buildings without affecting their integrity?
When they designed Grand Central Terminal in 1913, they left large columns that were pretty much empty and rooms in the attic that were meant to house early ventilation equipment. To put in air conditioning, we ran ductwork down the columns. I engaged the architect to create grilles on them about 15 feet up that look like they’ve been there from the beginning. I hid the generator where FDR’s special elevator to the Waldorf Astoria was. I was there recently during a train delay—there must have been 50,000 people waiting. I was happy I’d put in a robust AC system.
Steam explosions cause a lot of damages. What triggers them?
We don’t know yet what caused the Flatiron explosion. I was the expert on the 2007 steam explosion in Midtown. The cause of that was a condensation-induced water hammer—similar to the banging in steam-heated apartments but exacerbated by extremely high pressure and condensation inside pipes. The steam system in Manhattan is quite efficient—about two times more efficient than what we get from our grids. It generates electricity and, as a byproduct, steam. People don’t understand this: It makes our high-rises possible. Lots of good things about the steam system affect the beauty of buildings in New York.
Do you worry we’ll see more explosions?
We have a lot of rain here now; the climate has shifted. When I walk on the streets, I notice that many of the grates that collect stormwater are full. Cool water running into the steam system is not a great thing.
You also do work on Broadway. Did you make the snow possible in Frozen?
When we were designing the infrastructure for the St. James Theatre, they weren’t yet up to discussing how they would create snow. So I oversized the cooling tower and piping infrastructure—wisely, it turned out. There are a million LEDs set backstage, and even though they are LEDs, that’s a lot of them, and they have to be kept cool. Just for the stage, there are 35 tons of air conditioning.