ARTICLE Patricia Moore PHOTOGRAPHY Taggart Sorensen
Apart from those ubiquitous yellow cabs, there's perhaps nothing that spells New York City quite like its unique rows of brownstone houses with front steps rising steeply, almost to the second level, from the sidewalk.
And today it's not just the steps that are steep; the prices paid for brownstones can be eye-watering and even the smallest spaces are sought after.
An opportunity to convert one such micro-loft space, in Manhattan's Upper West Side, into a functional and attractive apartment was one of the more unusual residential renovation projects undertaken by the team of award-winning architectural firm Specht Harpman (now Specht Architects) of NYC and Austin Texas. "A raw space, incredible in proportion and scale, was the primary driver to undertaking the project," says Scott Specht. "Also the opportunity to do a jewel box of a project with the necessity to design every inch as functional and beautiful, had always appealed to us."
The space is at the top of a very typical NYC brownstone apartment building, but it was an odd one, which originally incorporated both an apartment at the top, and a vertical extension to the building above that. "We had a tiny floor plate but a great deal of vertical height, which was a key to this project," says Scott.
The floor plate was indeed tiny; just 425 square feet (less than 39.5 square metres), but the actual space stretched vertically for approximately 25 feet (7.62 metres) with access to a roof terrace in an arrangement, which meant there wasn't even space to locate a bed.
Specht Harpman's solution was to maximise the use of the loft height by creating four separate 'living platforms', which provided room for the essentials, while also allowing the apartment to be opened up to the light. The entry and kitchen form the lowest level, with steps up to the main living area. Above that is a cantilevered bed 'pavilion', supported on steel beams, which projects into the main space. A final few stairs give access to the roof garden.
The spaces flow into one another and the only door is the one into the bathroom. "While the building is not designated historic by New York City's Landmark Preservation Commission, the project nevertheless offered plenty of challenges - something they're used to where "many buildings have strange, unseen conditions hidden behind walls and under floors," says Scott. "It involves coming up with creative fixes to whatever you may find." NYC also has a lot more building regulations than many places, with code restrictions as to height, area and what is allowable, he says. "We always employ an expediter to help us through the maze of paperwork.
"The building also had its requirements, including an independent architect who reviewed and approved the design, and we had to follow rules set down by the co-op board. However there wasn't a lot of battling - they were open to what we were trying to do, as they saw it as improving the building as a whole."
Then there were the engineering challenges, such as the structure required to cantilever the entire bed area over the living room.
"Just getting materials up to the 6th floor of a building with no elevator and a narrow winding stair was also a challenge - the builder had to hoist many items up to the roof from the sidewalk."
Where space is limited it's important to use it; every inch of space in the micro-loft is maximised. The bathroom and shower are built under the main staircase and storage is provided with built-in cabinets and drawers under the remaining stairs. Kitchen appliances are fully concealed, flip-up, high storage units provide easy access; and the countertop wraps into the main living area and features a built-in entertainment system. There are no traditional closets in the apartment although some of the taller cabinets have hanging rods.
With so many built-in features, furnishings are minimal. Materials throughout were selected to emphasise the spatial characteristics of the project, says Scott. The existing bricks that make up the perimeter (the actual brownstone is simply a facade, originally used as a substitute for the more costly granite or marble in the mid-to-late 1800s) are painted in light tones, and the kitchen features white lacquered cabinets and fittings, with glass splash backs and shelving.
The bed partition is clad in dark timber which is also used on the floor and stair treads that lead through and around the apartment spiralling up onto the roof deck.
For a major gut renovation this was a fairly typical build-out schedule of around eight months, and Scott says there were no major cost overruns. And, while client confidentiality means he is not able to expand on the costs involved, he puts it on the high side per square metre in NYC. "It was probably about 20% more than a 'typical' renovation.
"This build-out was an expensive proposition from the starts with lots of custom cabinetry, unique structural work, and difficult - but known - construction logistical challenges."
What he can tell us however, is that the delighted couple who commissioned the renovation, and now use the micro-loft as a part-time residence, is one half Kiwi!
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All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.
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