Meet Ian Booth, Buro Happold

On May 18, the 2023 Open City Benefit will bring together hundreds of New Yorkers for a festive evening at Powerhouse Arts—a 117-year-old power plant that has been transformed into a contemporary art center and fabrication space on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. At the event, we will confer the Open City Award to the design and development team behind Powerhouse Arts led by Herzog & de Meuron, PBDW Architects, Urban Atelier Group, Buro Happold Engineering, Silman, and Ken Smith Workshop.

Ian Booth, Partner at Buro Happold, shares his thoughts about his role in leading the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineering for the project and his hope for the impact of the facility on the makers, local artists, and surrounding community.

Tell us what role you played and what it was like to work on this transformative project.

I became involved in the project in October 2018 in the midst of my transition back to New York from Europe. I was excited to be able to attend a project meeting during one of my visits, drawn by the history of the building and the vision Powerhouse Arts had for it. I’ve also worked on many industrial projects throughout my career, so even in that first meeting I was already thinking about the complex systems design challenges we’d be up against in such a unique space. This was a dream project for me.

I started by leading the MEP design and rationalization of the design from the end of the Construction Document (CD) stage, and now I’m watching the building come online, helping with final commissioning and optimization of the MEP systems. It’s been a fascinating challenge and has given me some real insight into Brooklyn’s arts community. I’m thrilled to be a part of the transformation of this Gowanus landmark into a space that is thoughtful, vibrant, and purpose-built for its artists’ comfort and well-being.

Credit: Albert Vecerka/ESTO

What is your favorite feature of Powerhouse Arts? 

When I first started working on the project it reminded me of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, also a Buro Happold project, due to the extensive and visible nature of the MEP systems. The story of this building, with its old boiler house and power generators, was always about grand architecture housing engineering. This is an incredibly heavily-serviced building—in particular, the level of MEP and ventilation—and the most complex project in my 35-year career. The architects embraced this by exposing every single MEP system. 

I also learned a lot about the landscape of craft during my time working on the project. The Powerhouse Printshop and its team stood out to me, with its passion for the history of print in Brooklyn and its dedication to constantly exchanging ideas with, and building a community amongst, other print shops in the area. It’s one of a vast number of workshops and creative spaces within Powerhouse Arts, and the scope is hard to imagine, but the final result is a world-class facility. It is so rare that we get an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the end users, but we were able to design to cater for their specific needs to create their perfect facilities. Designing systems for the specifications of hundreds of specialists’ equipment resulted in 65 exhaust systems and quite possibly the largest heat pump installation in New York. 

All of this resulted in a two-pronged approach to the systems design where our primary considerations were maximization of health and well-being and minimization of energy usage. Creating artist and maker spaces tailored to their users ensured their safety, comfort and enjoyment. On the energy side of things, with the majority of the heating coming from the heat pumps, the Powerhouse building is already primed for electrification. That, combined with designing out mechanical cooling in the majority of the workshops, provides Powerhouse with MEP solutions that meet not only their current requirements, but also look to the future of the space.

Credit: Albert Vecerka/ESTO

“I hope that the future of Powerhouse Arts is one as a creative hive where makers have the space and support needed for their work, as well as access to the community space as a sort of “open door” for the larger surrounding creative community to come in, connect with them, and learn from them.”

– Ian Booth, Partner at Buro Happold

Tell us about the team effort required to manage the many different parts of this project and achieve excellence in design. 

Powerhouse Arts is a truly unique space because of its multifunctionality—the workshops, maker spaces, and event space all coexist in this complex, surrounded by a mix of contemporary and historic design elements like the preserved graffiti and exposed infrastructure. The mix of uses required a lot of different systems to work in concert for workshop spaces without impacting the event space experience. This required careful management with the design team, consultants, and contractors to ensure that both workshop and event systems are designed with care and intention. It was equally important that each of the exposed systems fit in seamlessly with the design, adding function and beauty. 

As you move through the building, you can really see how much specialist expertise and thoughtful coordination went into making these systems work harmoniously with the space so that they look at home with the historic, industrial details that the design team so carefully preserved. Something like that is only possible when you have a wonderful, collaborative team dedicated to the vision and a hands-on team of expert craftsmen capable of executing it.

How do you hope this facility will benefit local artists and the surrounding community?

At Buro Happold, we are deeply committed to low carbon and sustainable design and are passionate about working on projects and initiatives that lead to real and positive change. We really connected to Powerhouse on this level, and together we designed something that truly looks to the future. 

Powerhouse’s vision for society is one where the act of making empowers us to explore potential futures for ourselves as well as our neighbors, and I think the Powerhouse Arts facility is an incredible testament to that vision as well as the power of community and artistic expression. I hope that the future of Powerhouse Arts is one as a creative hive where makers have the space and support needed for their work, as well as access to the community space as a sort of “open door” for the larger surrounding creative community to come in, connect with them, and learn from them.

About Ian

Ian Booth is a partner at Buro Happold and expert in high performance MEP design and commissioning. With more than 35 years of experience, Ian is a proven leader with strong technical abilities who has delivered award-winning project designs. His creative engineering approach has allowed him to explore innovative MEP solutions that incorporate the latest technologies and deliver minimized energy usage. As a dedicated practitioner, Ian is passionate about working with clients who are interested in high performance and future proof engineering solutions. He is leading decarbonization efforts across New York City, including developing innovative solutions to reduce the Empire State building carbon emissions by 80%, an achievement recognized by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority as a winner of the Empire Building Challenge competition.

Buro Happold