Diversifying the Architecture Profession, Block by Block

By Lenis Valens, Media Relations Staff

Morales-Armstrong working on a GWB cable project

Omar Morales-Armstrong loved playing with blocks as a kid. He would build elaborate ‘structures’ and when his father would move a single block out of place, he would quickly put it back to make the perfect building again.

Morales-Armstrong has graduated from Legos to blueprints, working today as a senior architect in the Port Authority’s Engineering Department on the JFK Redevelopment Ground Transportation Project. He’s one of the few people of Hispanic heritage in his field and is building an impressive resume in his profession. LEED-accredited and a licensed architect in New York and New Jersey, Morales-Armstrong is a winner of the agency’s Applause Award for project management and a 2020 recipient of the Port Authority’s “Remembrance Through Renewal” Diversity & Inclusion award. Currently, he is helping develop a parking garage that features a “green” roof for JFK Airport.

Though Morales-Armstrong’s interest in architecture began as a child, his talent took shape as a high school student when he made blueprints of slide-rule hand drawings using ammonia in a darkroom. “It awakened a passion for design in me,” he said. That excitement stayed with him even during his time in the U.S. Army, deploying to Iraq, before returning to earn a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Columbia University.

Throughout school, he said he felt isolated, often being the only minority student in class. His experience mirrors those of many Hispanic students or employees who find themselves working to succeed in environments that were not always welcoming. The Bronx-born architect is the son of two attorneys of Puerto Rican descent who instilled in him a strong work ethic.

“It’s very important to me that when I inhabit spaces that are predominantly White, – and to be clear, Architecture is one of those fields – I represent my culture positively,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to prove that we belong in these spaces but representing well helps to challenge some of the pre-conceived notions that may exist about our worthiness to be “at the table.””

He’s been recommending books, documentaries, podcasts and articles about diversity and inclusion during Architecture Unit staff meetings. He recently joined the agency’s National Black Employees resource group and he, his wife and daughter also have been part of the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City.

Omar, with his wife and daughter

Before joining the Port Authority, Morales-Armstrong worked at several public agencies, including the New York City Department of Design + Construction and the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation, where his team won the 2016 ‘Best Small Project of the Year’ awarded by the Engineering News-Record for an indoor horse riding arena in Staten Island that serves children with autism.

“Working with Omar is a pleasure because he challenges us with his passion and determination. He is universally appreciated by his teammates, managers and our client partners,” said Port Authority Assistant Chief Architect Russell Kriegel. “He reminds us that renderings should reflect our diversity and that we should understand our work in context with the most important social issues of our times. I value him as a person, and I am grateful he is on our team.”

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Port Authority Breaks Ground on Clean Construction

By Abigail Goldring, Media Relations Staff

This week, in celebration of Climate Week 2020 and as part of its ongoing commitment to sustainability, the Port Authority unveiled one of the most ambitious clean construction programs in the United States.

Recognizing that construction activity has environmental impacts and with the urgent need to mitigate effects of climate change wherever possible, the program has been created to reduce emissions, air pollution, and waste throughout the entire lifecycle of agency construction processes.

Central Hall under construction at LaGuardia Airport

Those goals became clear earlier this week as the Port Authority hosted a two-session, interactive seminar titled “Breaking Ground on Clean Construction.” Hundreds of participants heard panels of experts from the public and private sectors, non-governmental organizations, and academia as part of Climate Week NYC.

With 39 percent of all global carbon emissions coming from buildings and construction, innovative practices such as the Port Authority’s are critical in helping curb emissions and slow the effects of climate change. The agency’s Clean Construction Program implements strategies such as diverting concrete, asphalt, and steel waste from landfills; requiring low emissions vehicles on construction sites; and incorporating LEED and Envision-equivalent standards for sustainable design to do just that.

Executive Director Rick Cotton, who began his law career as an environmental lawyer, kicked off the program by reaffirming the Port Authority’s commitment to sustainability, one of the agency’s six core priorities.

“Climate change is an existential threat, and we’re committed to responding to that threat in everything we do,” he said. That includes working towards achieving the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Accords through strategies such as green building, which extends to the PA’s Clean Construction Program.

After a lively discussion, where panelists shared their optimism about the potential to change the construction industry for the better, Office of Energy and Environmental Programs Director, Christine Weydig, closed out the first day by highlighting the Port Authority’s duty to lead others towards cleaner construction practices.  “We can show the world how it can be done differently,” she said.

Construction crew on the GWB

If the first day of the conference focused on the big picture, Day 2 focused on the innovative strategies that panelists have employed to cut down on carbon emissions during construction, such as new data-gathering mechanisms and efficient on-site recycling practices that can help reduce costs and the use of natural resources.

For its part, the Port Authority is exploring a new platform that can track the carbon footprint of the materials contractors use, said Dorian Bailey, an environmental scientist in the Materials Engineering group. She added that the Port Authority has already decreased carbon emissions 17 percent by driving down the cement content of certain mixes.

The panelists seemed hopeful that new technologies for reducing and tracking carbon in the construction process will become more available as companies begin to see it as a priority.

Mary K. Murphy, the Port Authority’s Director of Planning and Regional Development Department,closed out the seminar by encouraging participants to think outside the box when coming up with solutions to combat the threat of climate change. “Each of you has influence. We will have to fight a few battles, but we will all be able to make a difference,” she said.

To learn more about the Clean Construction Program, view the press release here.

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Port Security Director Wrote the Book on Safety — Literally

By Amanda Kwan, Media Relations Staff

For anyone in a highly sensitive security job, it’s important to know the rules by the book. In the case of Michael Edgerton, the new security director of the Port of New York and New Jersey, he literally wrote it.

Michael Edgerton at work summer 2020

Edgerton, named to lead the port’s security efforts in January 2020, is the author of “A Practitioner’s Guide to Effective Maritime and Port Security,” published in 2013. His book, which calls on the international port industry to treat security as a form of risk management, is now used as a textbook in the maritime security field and details the prevention strategies he hopes to bring to the Port Authority.

“If a port simply complies with international code, they’re doing it to satisfy a legal requirement,” said Edgerton, during an interview in recognition of National Preparedness Month this month. “My view is that a port, in order to be both competitive and to exercise due diligence, needs to look at security as something beyond a government mandate.”

As the seaport’s security director, Edgerton is continuing an outstanding tradition of exceptional leadership in securing the Port Authority’s port facilities in both New York and New Jersey.

Current Deputy Port Director Beth Rooney was on the port technology team on 9/11. By the next day, she’d been reassigned the responsibility of securing the seaport as the nation grappled with new fears of attacks against its infrastructure – a position she ended up holding for 14 years. Rooney helped draft legislation that now serves as the anchor of national maritime security.

Edgerton arrived just two months before the coronavirus pandemic changed life, and has yet to meet many colleagues in person as they continue to work from home. Although the work situation is unusual, his job remains as important as ever, considering recent events such as the deadly explosion in the Port of Beirut this year.

After Beirut, port officials were inundated with questions on the likelihood of a similar incident here. With his background in the Coast Guard, one of the federal entities tasked with inspecting incoming cargo declared as “dangerous goods,” Edgerton already knew the answer: No, not here. Federal regulations require such goods to adhere to strict fire safety and security protocols, including segregation of materials expressly to avoid incidents similar to the Beirut explosion. The port has in place strict requirements for storage of anything deemed dangerous.

Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal

“The security and safety of our facilities is our top priority,” said Port Director Sam Ruda. “It is essential to have a seasoned professional like Mike on our team to keep our nationally recognized security program running and to stay ahead of emerging risks and threats.”

After a childhood spent partly in Europe, Edgerton considered the diplomatic corps after college, where he majored in international relations. Edgerton also holds a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C. — details of that advanced degree are withheld for obvious reasons. After seven years in the Navy that included an assignment in nuclear weapons security, he transferred to the Coast Guard with a focus on port security.

Having spent the better part of 30 years in the tri-state area, Edgerton took his current job for the challenge of its size, name recognition and reputation. “I found it in really good shape, but I want to leave it better than how I found it,” he said, citing improved cyber-security as one of his goals.

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