2022

MCHAP

Narrow House

Only If

Brooklyn, United States

June 2021

PRIMARY AUTHOR

Karolina Czeczek, Adam Frampton

CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR

See below

CLIENT

Karolina Czeczek, Adam Frampton

PHOTOGRAPHER

Iwan Baan, Naho Kubota

OBJECTIVE

A main objective of the project is to maximize interior daylighting, conventionally a challenge in this housing typology. Additionally, another key ambition is to utilize the constraints of the site to create an unconventional domestic organization. While the exterior volume is mostly dictated by zoning regulations, the project was approached with few other preconceptions.

Windows are only allowed facing the front and rear, so those elevations consist of large format glass, detailed flush to adjacent black stucco, maximizing light to the inside. Aside from two lateral walls, the house is characterized by an absence of interior walls, rooms, and corridors. The openness—exactly 11 foot clear inside—enables daylight penetration throughout, but also an unusual lack of separation between uses. In lieu of walls, the split-level section creates spatial distinctions between different domestic functions. The vertical void inside the central, perforated steel staircase becomes a lightwell, further introducing daylight towards the middle of the plan.

The structural design enables the open interior. Lateral, load-bearing walls consist of reinforced concrete masonry units (CMU), and floors are composite concrete and corrugated metal deck. Based on the lot width, the clear span of floors is close to the maximum unsupported limit of the composite deck. Floors throughout are topped with a poured polyurethane finish, and the structure is exposed on the ceilings. Without interior shear walls, the building is braced at the front and rear façade for lateral stability. Three diagonal steel braces are also exposed behind the front façade.

CONTEXT

Located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Narrow House is situated on an atypical New York City lot measuring 13’-4” wide by 100’ deep, which is slenderer than the normative 25-foot-wide zoning lot. Despite its non-conformity, the site met other specific criteria which enabled development of the vacant lot. Since 1961, the Zoning Resolution has generally prohibited new residential buildings on lots less than 18 feet in width.

Although rapidly transforming, the neighborhood is characterized by a number of vacant lots that were an outcome of so-called urban renewal, including this site. In parallel to this project, the architect has been researching residual, vacant, and irregular lots throughout New York City. A 2017 exhibition by Only If at the Shenzhen Biennale identified and cataloged 3,600 such lots, 600 of which were owned by the city. Only If was also a winner of the 2019 open international competition organized by the AIA New York and NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to develop 23 city-owned vacant, irregular lots, including an identical, vacant lot directly adjacent to this one. The Narrow House represents a specific architectural proposition but is also a prototype for infill and a polemic on the greater potential for architectural invention in constrained residual urban spaces.

The project was self-initiated, developed, and is occupied by the architects themselves, who acquired the undervalued land in 2015. In this sense, the project also seeks a model of architectural agency, beyond the client-architect service model, to produce experimental forms of housing.

PERFORMANCE

Living functions are distributed throughout the open interior. To create a degree of separation from the street, the first floor is raised slightly above the sidewalk, and provides open space for living, eating, and cooking. A 28-foot-long bar volume, finished in black perforated metal, black stained oak, and black terrazzo, accommodates kitchen components and storage. At the rear of the ground floor, an oversized glass pivot door opens to the rear yard, extending the living space to the outside. Upstairs, different levels provide for two bedrooms and a flexible work study, which could be converted into an additional third bedroom in the future. The bedrooms are separated from other spaces through a plywood volume, containing bathrooms, closets, and sliding pocket doors for privacy.

Beyond its practical functions, the house also demonstrates the viability of urban infill on narrow and vacant parcels. The project suggests architectural possibilities of residual and often overlooked spaces in the city. Albeit generally critical to ensure a minimum quality of housing, the project additionally calls in question certain prescriptive elements of zoning and building code. The Narrow House speculates that changes to the existing rules might not only unlock New York City’s remaining irregular and narrow vacant lots, but also create new forms and formats of housing and urban density.