News
10.31.2007
Subcompact Hybrids
Four young firms prove that when it comes to living space, scarcity is the mother of invention. By Lisa Delgado.
Designed by Openshop|Studio, this compact structure contains the family bedrooms and a futon that can slide out the side for guests.
craig mccormick

Architect Adam Hayes often refers to one recent project as “the thing.” Indeed, it’s hard to put a name to the faceted structure he and his firm, Openshop|Studio, designed as part of an extensive interior renovation of a Brooklyn loft. A sculptural-looking, perforated form, it resembles some sort of alien pod or perhaps a rough gemstone.

It may look wild, but the structure is intensely practical. CNC-milled plywood ribs provide structural support for the orientedstrand-board-clad facets, which contain a tight configuration of rooms, including a study, kid’s room, master bedroom, bathroom, and myriad storage nooks. Outside the pod lies a conventional loft space, its airy quality and sight lines only minimally disturbed by the blobby form in the corner. (Hayes compares the overall effect to a blimp in a hangar.) The efficient use of space and inexpensive materials helped them meet a budget of $109 per square foot in the 1,200-square-foot space.

The renovation is just one of a number of New York residential projects making creative use of limited resources. In this expensive, overcrowded city, many clients are asking architects to be ever more ingenious in planning living spaces; in effect, they want something out of nothing, or at least not much. Openshop|Studio and several other young firms are helping their clients tackle both problems by designing unconventional but highly efficient, flexible hybrid spaces.

Not long ago, John Hartmann of Freecell Architecture did some design work for a client who isn’t much of a cook and loathes clutter. As a result, the client decided he’d be just as happy with a part-time kitchen in his 450-square-foot Manhattan studio. Freecell designed a giant, piano-hinged door-cum-cabinet that swings closed when that kitchen area isn’t in use. Though Hartmann says the unit rolls easily enough, even he is still a bit incredulous at the concept. “Most people would say, ‘What is this? I have to roll a 200-pound door to get to my refrigerator? This is insane!’“ he says.

Movable parts were also the name of the game in a more ambitious project by workshop/apd. Within the spacious confines of a 2,400-square-foot Midtown loft, the firm designed a smaller cube in which all of the living functions interlock. It contains a study; two bathrooms; and a kitchen, which features a sliding door that offers division from the adjacent living area as needed, as well as a table that can slide out from a slot under the countertop to create an informal breakfast nook. Nearby, two bedrooms can be easily converted to three, by pulling apart a central pair of wheeled doors in opposite directions. The entire effect could be described as “a kind of an interactive box,” says principal Matt Berman. “You’re pushing and pulling on this thing from each side and interacting with it in different ways.” Designing such a flexible space was strategic, since the architects designed the space for a developer on spec, without knowing who the eventual inhabitants would be. The strategy paid off, since the loft sold quickly, says Andrew Kotchen, another principal at the firm.

“A lot of our projects deal with this idea with collapsing activity programming into more efficient spaces, and it’s clearly stemmed from doing a lot of New York interior renovations, because space is so finite,” Kotchen says. “The more efficient we can be in the way we use and configure our space, the more sustainable that environment will be,” he adds. “It’s more compact, uses fewer materials, costs less, and so on.”

For architecture- and furniture-design firm 4-pli, one innovative project stemmed from a client’s complaints about her husband’s clutter taking over their open loft. “She wanted to literally contain his mess; to give him a space where she didn’t have to see it so they didn’t have to fight about it,” says partner Jeffrey Taras.

Using Baltic birch plywood to help keep within a $20,000 budget, the firm crafted dividers that double as storage spaces for books and other materials. The husband’s office pod has a striking curve that’s smooth on the outside but lined with shelves to help contain his clutter. The 1⁄8-inch-thick plywood doesn’t provide much sound insulation, but it did let the architects bend the wood into graceful, organic-looking shapes. A ladder leads up the outside of the office to a guests’ sleeping berth on top, which doubles as the wife’s writing area. Another wavy divider features shelves on the living room side and a smooth surface on the master bedroom side. A matching wardrobe in the bedroom offers yet more storage space. Naturally, highly customized projects such as this one and Openshop|Studio’s carry their share of headaches. Openshop|Studio’s faceted form required more than one hundred individually cut pieces for the geometrically irregular surfaces. Likewise, the varying forms of the structural ribs had to be custom milled on a CNC cutter. 4-pli’s design was an experiment in how much 1⁄8-inch thick plywood can bend. In the end, the design for one of the panels in the office pod had to be redone because the wood wasn’t pliant enough for the original design’s double curvature, says Bill Mowat, another of 4-pli’s four partners.

“I think, in a way, this project was our most intensely experimental project,” says Taras. “For the most part, it worked out…but we learned a lesson; we wouldn’t experiment this much in a single project now.” The project was a learning experience that led them to launch a fabrication branch, Associated Fabrication. For their Odd Couple clients, it was a step toward peace and quiet.

Lisa Delgado

Lisa Delgado is AN's assistant editor.