Finding Our Industrial Roots

Up and down and up again. The American economy has recently shuddered between moments of exhilaration and despair. As the number of jobs outsourced increases and U.S. companies move out, one of the calls above the din of uncertainty is clear: America needs a new revolution in technology, innovation and manufacturing. This time, the revolution must be green, clean, and sustain America’s economic engine and ingenuity far into the future. With the revival comes a new paradigm of industrial architecture and development able to support the path to redefining our economy. Understanding it requires a consideration of past models of industrial development and architecture. 

Industrial Birth

America’s ports and the residents who support them are of growing importance. In northern New Jersey, once an epicenter of American manufacturing and innovation, the Borough of Carteret developed like many industrial cities in the Northeast. Located on the waterfront between New York City and Philadelphia, it was a popular stop for traders and travelers in the late 17th century. Farms sprung up throughout the state, supplying meat and produce to voyagers and settlers. 

Agriculture, industry, and commerce continued to boom and by the 1800s, Carteret had major industries such as iron works and refineries and provided a gateway west for people and goods through railroad distribution. The borough’s pattern of development was typical of the industrial heyday of the United States: A residential core of workers formed at the center of the town; manufacturing and industry filled in the perimeter, adjacent to the waterways that provided transportation and utility. The formation of roads reflected this pattern. 

Some of the early industries to move in include: the Williams & Clark Company of New York, a manufacturer of fish fertilizer; Wheeler Condenser and Engineering Company, an iron works company; American Agricultural and Chemical Company, another fertilizer company; and a number of refineries and ironworks plants, including Chrome Steel Works, DeLamar Copper Works, and Carter Oil and Refining Company. The infrastructure to support the busy industrial sector and its workforce developed rapidly in the borough. 

Industrial Decline and Rebirth

After World War II, the nation faced industrial decline. Industry moved west and south, away from Carteret, leaving behind communities that would now need to travel for work and abandoning industrial sites and waterways contaminated with metals and chemicals. Between 1960 and 1985, the borough’s Cranbrook, Middlesex and Carteret landfills closed and not all in accordance with New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s requirements. 

The industrial sector in the state and the nation had transformed. The U.S. went from a producer economy to a consumer economy grounded by a skilled service sector efficient in the finishing and distribution of goods. Adjacent to large population centers, New Jersey became and remains the largest port on the East Coast. 

With the evolution of American industry and manufacturing, Carteret tried to redefine itself. Though the industrial sectors had changed, the borough’s assets, including its skilled workforce and proximity to the ports and major metropolitan areas, remained strong. 

A new industrial architecture of distribution supports the redefined economy. Supply chain efficiency drives distribution centers and warehouses to integrate specialized construction for material handling and address unique design challenges in the issues of scale, integration of occupied office space with high cube storage, and the need for extensive truck support. Initially, scale drove most industrial development to open green space south of the New Jersey ports. Though developers interested in good design initiated a modern industrial building typology, the isolated, remote greenfield sites promoted buildings of limited architectural expression. 

Revitalizing Industrial Heritage

The limitations of open greenfield sites, costs of land and energy, availability of labor, and renewed interest in sustainable development have spurred a return to former industrial cities for new development. IPort 12 stepped into this opportunity. 

Located at the end of the aptly named Industrial Avenue, the 113-acre site long abandoned by industry had nothing but three municipal landfills that leached into the Rahway River. It took vision to realize the site’s poor fill could be leveled off into a plateau to support large scale buildings on piles that would allow the achievement of extraordinary clear spans economically and sustainably. The team innovatively used recycled steel pipes for piles and optimized for floor loading to best take advantage of the support conditions. Below the slab, the project design introduced systems to vent methane in the landfill (unsuitable to produce energy) and collect and treat contaminated water that leached into the river. IPort 12 also recreated vital wetlands that can once again be open for recreation. 

The Carteret Skyline Today

While the site required enormous creativity and persistence, the buildings too exhibit innovation. The new paradigm for industrial development brings distribution much closer to the daily lives of everyday people–literally. IPort 12’s location on the New Jersey Turnpike provides the immediacy critical for environmentally- and time-sensitive trucking transportation and an iconic form for millions of commuters to see. The project delivers bold forms that are easily recognized and makes the most of its western elevations facing the turnpike. As the sun “travels” across the sky, it casts dramatic, dynamic shadows across the building, heightening its visual interest. The architecture, like the planning, responds to and is created by the environment. 

The connection between architecture and environment is deepened by the introduction of simple vertical fins that dare to break the roofline, create extensive shadows, and justify the opportunity for glazing. Knowing the warehouse interior would require continuous illumination, iPort 12’s design uses windows not only to provide daylighting and reduce energy costs, but also to sustain the building’s iconic architecture at night by illuminating fins adjacent to windows without additional exterior lighting. Texturally, the building’s precast concrete walls integrate smooth and articulated surfaces, and functionally present opportunities for integrated signage for tenants.

Like the architecture of New Jersey’s industrial past, iPort 12 derives its challenges and opportunities for form from its utilitarian and economic function. However, the new age of industrial architecture also provides and restores valuable resources, such as job opportunities and the environment. Soon we predict this architecture will provide clean power back to their communities through their vast roof surfaces and land, able to house arrays of solar panels. 

IPort 12 builds on a great industrial and architectural heritage, but it also signals a new era of unprecedented collaboration among industry, environment, and the community.