Plumbing Challenge – What Lies Beneath Pier A Harbor House

by JRSBlogWriterSeptember 30, 2015
Pier A Harbor Plubming Challenge

When you decide to open a new restaurant in New York City, location is of the utmost importance. When you find a site that has a stunning view of the Statue of Liberty and sits literally on the Hudson River, it’s a no-brainer, right?

New York City restaurant and development company, HPH said, “yes” to just such a building. As a result, if you find yourself in Battery Park, you can now dine at the stunning Pier A Harbor House. But getting to where they are now was not without its complications.

Pier A Vacuum System

Pier A Harbor House is the only Victorian Pier left in New York City. It is a noteworthy representation of the guilded age, and the innovation and invention that came out of the industrial revolution. These reasons alone would make it worth saving, but Pier A has an exciting history.

Pier A was built in 1886 for the New York City Harbor Police and Department of Docks, who were in charge of capturing pirates. Later it served as the VIP holding area for European Ambassadors traveling to Ellis Island. Then as a boat station for the New York Fire Department.

When Vincent J. Laino, architect and founder of Green Light Architecture (Laino is also an associate at Sawicki Tarella Architecture + Design), first saw the site he was looking at a building over 120 years old. A structure that had sat vacant for the last 20 or so years left to decay and crumble.

“We quickly realized there was a reason there was never a bar or restaurant on that site,” said Laino. The building is 400 feet long with most of it sitting above the river. In its previous uses, a few bathrooms on the land side were adequate. This new restaurant, however, was going to use all three floors and occupancy would be high. There would have to be bathrooms throughout the building in addition to plumbing for the kitchens and bars.

Laino said that there was no way to get the wastewater out of the building. The Department of Environmental Protection would not allow them to run waste pipes under the pier or over the river. Everything had to be contained within the building.

While the first floor would have been impossible, the second floor wasn’t any easier. Because of the length of the building, the pipe slope would have been significant.

“At one point we proposed raising the floor two feet,” said Laino. He laughed and added, “I thought I was going to get fired that day.” Instead, HPH sent him back to the drawing board. Laino had to figure out a solution that would not compromise their vision or the building’s historical significance and magnificent ceiling heights.

That’s when Laino and Ettinger Engineering came up with vacuum plumbing as a possible solution. Laino said, “we thought about what people would do on cruise ships and airplanes.” It was a brilliant analogy. Just like a plane or ship, the plumbing would have to be contained within the structure.

Interior Pier A Harbor HouseWith vacuum plumbing, gravity is no longer a part of the equation. You can simply lift the wastewater up and out of the building. Laino could now place kitchens, bars, and bathrooms anywhere they needed to be.

We are so glad that HPH and Green Light Architecture could realize their vision. When we first met with them, the building was an empty shell. Not much more than the outside structure and floors. Today, Pier A Harbor House is an international destination featuring a visitor center, outdoor plaza and promenade for festivals and dining, a beer hall, restaurants, lounges, and an event space. An international destination that, as far as the public can see, reflects and respects the history of the building. The infrastructure, however, is state of the art.

Laino described the four-year project as one of his most rewarding. “It was a once in a lifetime project and a privilege to work on."

If your construction project is facing significant challenges from what lies beneath, we urge you to reach out to us. Vacuum plumbing just may be the solution.

If you'd like to read more about the history and the original construction of Pier A, you can download the Landmarks Preservation Commission's report.