by Jincy IypeNov 21, 2022
New York City is a highly unlikely place to come across experimental single-family houses. Pick your reason why that's the case, but regardless of whether it is due to prevailing conservative tastes or high construction costs, the fact is that houses here tend to be quite conventional, if not to say bluntly, pretty uninteresting. There is no tradition for local architects to experiment with this most fundamental of all building types, or for that matter, small-scale architecture in general. I hope local architects take this observation personally because it appears that new opportunities are coming their way. In fact, a recently built house designed by Only If — Brooklyn-based practice founded by Adam Snow Frampton and Karolina Czeczek in 2013 — may be a sign that this regrettable tradition of mediocre domestic architecture is about to change its course.
The house, which measures only 13 feet and 4 inches wide by 100 feet deep and is appropriately called Narrow House, was completed earlier this year in the Brooklyn neighbourhood, Bedford Stuyvesant. What is exciting about this little gem is that it may start a following. Let me explain — Narrow House is a result of ongoing research rooted in aberrations of the city grid that the architects who are also university professors – he at Columbia and she at Yale — have been exploring for a while. The theme was first explored at their project featured at the 2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture in Shenzhen, for which they mapped 3,600 irregular empty lots dispersed throughout New York City by using Geographic Information System (GIS) data. These lots were organised into a catalogue of small, narrow, triangular, and kinked shapes. New York City Zoning defines “small lots” as anything smaller than 1,000 square feet, while “narrow lots” are the ones that are narrower than 18 feet.
The architects’ unusual experience served them well when the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development in partnership with the American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter initiated a competition in 2019 called the Big Ideas for Small Lots. After all, at least one-sixth of all the city’s irregular lots are owned by various city agencies. This meant that New York's chronic housing shortage could be tackled directly by finding creative ways to build affordable housing on underutilised city-owned land. A speculative proposal submitted by Only If was chosen as one of five finalists of the competition. The success emboldened the architects to go further. They found another challenging site and decided to turn it into their home. In the process, Narrow House has become an important case study and, hopefully, a catalyst for transforming not so much the city’s current planning policy but local architects’ attitude in finding more imaginative solutions for lots that are both challenging and typical. In the following interview with Adam Snow Frampton and Karolina Czeczek we discussed what makes their Narrow House special to them.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: To design and build your own house seems like a rare proposition for New York-based architects. How did this idea come about?
Adam Snow Frampton: It really aligned with our situation. We were looking for a place to live and we spent about six months searching for unusual or undervalued properties that we thought could lead to an interesting architectural project.
Karolina Czeczek: We didn’t start with any domestic preconceptions. We were looking for unusual building structures or a garage that could be adapted into a living space. We wanted to work with the existing urban fabric, knowing that we work best within constraints. The project was directly informed by the result of our search.
VB: Let’s talk about this project’s most apparent feature — its narrowness. I understand it is quite unusual. In fact, it is so narrow that the current New York City zoning does not allow residences to be built on such lots, right?
ASF: Our site is 13 feet and 4 inches wide and 100 feet long, whereas the minimum width of a lot in New York City on which you are allowed to build a house is 18 feet. The zoning regulations have exceptions that allow building one to two-family houses on narrower lots if they existed prior to 1961. Another requirement is that such narrow buildings require rooftop fire department access. Our lot and design met all conditions, so, we were eventually granted the zoning approval and the building permit.
VB: How come your lot is so narrow? Is it narrower than your neighbours’ lots?
KC: The typical New York City lot is 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. Our lot and two adjacent lots to the east have the same width. We don’t know why. It seems that the 40-foot wide space was divided into three narrow lots instead of two. The immediately adjacent lot is vacant and there is a two-family house, built in the early 2000s on the third lot. On the rest of the block, lots are more typical — in the range of 20-25 feet each.
ASF: Working with the city grid is very interesting for us, especially since we are fond of Rem Koolhaas’s obsession with the New York City grid. And I love the grid’s history, its consistency, the reasons for its geometry and dimensions, but also deviations from it.
VB: Since Narrow House is your first ground-up building, and it is your home, would you say that it is your manifesto? What was your main idea here?
ASF: Well, I am not sure we could claim that. Isn’t every building a reflection of its own unique sets of contexts? Of course, the house does reflect a number of issues that we have been exploring. I would rather describe it as a prototype for overlooked residual spaces in the city. So, maybe it is more than a building but less than a manifesto. The main idea or main problem is how to deliver daylight into the centre of the space. In doing so, we arrived at an organisation that subverts the typology of the house. In other words, the unusualness of the site led to certain departures from the expected domestic character of a typical house. I am quite sure that if we were working with a 20 or 25-foot wide lot we would have done something much more conventional. But it was the pressure to solve a number of real issues and constraints that led to forming our own definitions of domestic space and how to occupy it.
KC: I wouldn’t call it a manifesto either because this house responds to a very specific condition. We are also not trying to become experts in building narrow houses. [Laughs.] At the same time, we can see some of the thinking in Narrow House applicable to other projects.
VB: Any other design strategies? What about your material choices?
KC: The NYC Zoning prevents people from building on such narrow lots because of the historical abuses in housing that created unhealthy living conditions. But in a typical townhouse living spaces end up being subdivided into smaller rooms and limited access to natural light. Our design does the opposite, introducing a continuous space with split levels. Different spaces can be used based on specific needs, not assigned functions. Openness and flexibility were our main design drivers.
ASF: We chose the spatial and material qualities of the interiors to be very neutral, yet experimental. For example, we explored a lot of non-domestic materials. That simply has to do with our personal material sensibilities. What we were really trying to do is to bring new possibilities by expanding our material design palette. Conversely, just as we introduced commercial materials in this house, we might try to bring domestic materials to another commercial project. Those inversions are always interesting. On the other hand, material choices are sometimes quite rational. For example, we used metal grating in the rear yard deck to let more daylight into the basement, and the perforated metal stairs in the atrium for the same reason — to bring daylight deep down and also to create opportunities for interesting shadows throughout the space. We use materials and geometry intuitively and we like these things to echo each other within the project. For example, we have several places here with similar perforation patterns that you can see on the stair treads, air returns, or kitchen cabinets. These details are carefully choreographed to create certain consistencies and an overall character.
KC: We tend to work with materials rather than products. We use materiality to emphasise the space organisation and architectural concept and often look for materials typically used in completely different contexts. We also decided to expose selected building elements and their materiality — structural bracing, metal decks, pipes, etc. In short, we were not trying to create a seamless domestic space. We like a degree of roughness adjacent to otherwise very sophisticated and refined details.
VB: Are there ideas that perhaps came not directly from the site?
ASF: I want to come back to your question about the manifesto. We are interested in operating on many different scales and across disciplines. The idea is to connect different scales — urban design, policy-making, spatial planning, architectural design, interior design, and materiality. We are especially interested in the larger role of architecture and we think we could be most socially relevant by working on housing. So, in that sense, maybe our Narrow House does represent a certain manifesto because it involves all these different aspects of our practice.
VB: Did you refer to any architectural project as inspiration while designing this house?
ASF: For sure, our design process is very referential. It is always an amalgam of different things, whether architectural or non-architectural. Organisationally, spatially, and as far as material choices, and colour schemes, we were inspired by a lot of Japanese houses. One reference was the home studio of Atelier Bow-Wow, also built on an irregular lot. Our exposed bracing and composite metal deck floor structure refers to the work of SANAA. The consolidation of bathrooms and closets in our plans is influenced by the townhouses in Lafayette Park in Detroit and Farnsworth House, both by Mies van der Rohe. And of course, there are many other influences that feed us, especially from contemporary work.
VB: A modern or contemporary house is a rarity in New York City, much more so than in other cities. Now that you built one, do you have a theory of why that’s the case and why New Yorkers are not moving to contemporary houses?
ASF: No, it is still a mystery to us. We think it is amazing to live in a contemporary house. [Laughs.]
KC: In housing in New York City there is a lot of conformity. In many cases, it is safer to follow certain known and boring models. This is exacerbated by regulations. Perhaps in other cities where it is cheaper to build, people are willing to take more risks.
ASF: What it ultimately comes down to is that housing in general, and especially in New York City, is a financial instrument first and foremost. When housing is seen strictly as a commodity it’s harder to experiment. Value is defined by conformity rather than quality.
VB: As you know, people often make fun of contemporary houses. There is something mechanistic about them. They are viewed as too open, too flexible, oversimplified, cold, disciplined, you name it. Is there a certain amount of sacrifice required to live here?
KC: I don’t think there is any sacrifice on our part. [Laughs.] We very much enjoy living here. There is no space here where we feel enclosed. Spaces flow from one area to the next, which enables us to use them very imaginatively. I particularly like the house’s relation to nature and how the back garden and trees seem a part of the interior. After having lived for over 10 years in tiny apartments in Hong Kong and New York, there is a great sense of relief here.