Sustainable Dwelling

Sven Peters, 2010

Learning from NYC

Currently New York City has 8.2 million residents. The projected number of residents for 2030 is estimated at 9.12 million. Any discussions about the future of the city become inextricably associated with demands on dwelling, as New York is constantly required to absorb the rising influx of inhabitants.  City authorities are always struggling to cope with diverse issues from housing needs to energy distribution and congestion. Response based strategies that address the abrupt, immediate problems do little to check the seemingly chaotic and unbridled growth of the city.

In 2007, under the initiative of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City released PlanNYC. This comprehensive manifesto is aimed at leading New York toward an ecologically conscious sustainable environment. It proposes a cohesive long-term framework to guide the city’s evolution. It addresses the varied aspects of New York’s physical environs from housing stock and transport to energy networks and air quality. In essence it seeks to cultivate sustainable habits within current practice. The consistently arising urgent issues that plague the city are now framed within a set of constraints that force the re-evaluation of the choices made towards resolutions.

In terms of land use, PlanNYC radically re-distributes future built spaces with significant shifts in densities and relative concentrations, in an attempt to rework the urban fabric in ways that promote ecologically conscious cultures. What are the implications of a shifting city and re-invented constraints? Could urban architecture seek creative opportunity within the imminent displacement of urban densities while maintaining it’s ecological responsibilities?

Presented below are two projects that examine the urban dwelling through shifting densities at distinctly different scales.


LIRR-Long Island Radically Rezoned

This is a research project I did in collaboration with Tobias Holler and Masha P. – which investigates the pattern of urban sprawl over the Long Island land mass. Geographically, Long Island is situated directly adjacent to New York city stretching eastward into an elongated, horizontal peninsula bound by the Atlantic Ocean.  It is currently served by Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) – a mass transit system that runs east-west along its length, branching out to reach its extremities.

The project proposes that the excessive land usage of urban sprawl directly or indirectly engenders environmental issues often seen in suburbia. Long Island represents the typical American post-war suburb and has a density 30 times less than the island of Manhattan, New York cities’ densest borough.

What can Long Island learn from Manhattan? What if we were to re-imagine a suburb as a dense, vibrant, diverse, mixed-use environment where it is possible to get around purely with public transportation? Could we turn suburbia into an efficient land user by organizing its function vertically?

These questions raised by the project are examined further by proposing a complete re-zoning and re-structuring of the built space on the Long Island land mass. It involves a radical re-distribution of densities to produce sharply contrasting pockets of concentrations. Existing programs of housing, offices, institutions and industries would be clustered in Manhattan like densities around the existing transit stations of the Long Island Rail Road. To ensure equitable proximities of each piece of land to the train station and to ensure precise amounts of program for every cluster, land is subdivided into polygonal shapes. The area for each polygon is mathematically derived based on the Voronoi Tessellation Method.  Using Manhattan’s density, total program assigned to each polygon is condensed into a circular settlement clustered around the respective train station. Due to their high density, the clusters only occupy 5%-15% of the total area of each polygon, resulting in vast open spaces for alternative land use such as agriculture and outdoor recreational activities while significantly reducing its environmental impact.


The Minor and a Major / The Objectionists

The second project presented has been realized by the joint efforts of five young architects/designers. The project is located in Greenpoint, a former industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn. Prior to its merger with Manhattan towards forming present day New York city, Brooklyn was one of America’s major cities. The Greenpoint area, once a thriving industrial zone, saw a shift in land use and a huge decline in manufacturing units resulting in vacant industrial structures scattered around the neighborhood.

The team of designers, unhappy with their current living situations, characterized by small, expensive flat-share type rentals decided to seek an alternative means of dwelling. They acquired a large space within an old factory warehouse with a substantially lower market value. The building was still serviced by the essential basic utilities-heating, plumbing, drainage, etc.

There are five interlocking volumes built, forming a structure that sits within the space. Each volume represents one unit-one for every member of the team. Each unit is designed to serve as a highly condensed pod to accommodate the bear minimal privacy needs of one individual. The units, constructed out of compressed fiber board and 2x4 wood members, create distinct ecospheres within the large space operating as privacy pods for each occupant. The combined area occupied by the tightly knit pods is only 20% of the total floor space. The rest of the space is designated for shared functions of library, workstations and living areas, which enjoy luxurious proportions. The shell of each pod contains strategically placed openings with hinged shutters that are controlled by the occupant- for light, ventilation and access. The degree to which the shutters are controlled to allow more or less “openness” creates diverse conditions of porosity in the pod envelopes- at times creating a rigid boundary and at times dissolving the distinction between public and private.

Although operating at different scales both projects derive design strategies through the drastic restructuring of density. There is an intense concentration of the private spaces while releasing vast spaces to the public realm. If ecological concerns have revived ‘densification’ as a sustainable strategy perhaps it also engenders the renewal of the conception of urban dwelling. The dwelling can no longer be seen merely as a static container for program. Instead it’s seen as situated at the threshold of radically contrasting conditions of density-an adaptive mediator between the private and the public- a responsive system with varying conditions of porosity, able to rigidly define or diffuse the edge. Situated as such the future dwelling is poised to be socially driven. There is considerable generative potential for design of this new architecture that must reconcile longevity and sustain itself in rapidly changing urban environs while still being socially relevant and current.