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09.26.2011
Road to Green
Dattner Grimshaw Bronx partnership yields model sustainable housing.
Via Verde and its active stepped roof spaces.
Phipps Rose Dattner Grimshaw

Via Verde, the affordable housing complex designed by Dattner Architects in partnership with Grimshaw, would fit with any of the sexy newcomers on Manhattan’s West Side Highway. Built atop a former rail yard in the Melrose section of the South Bronx, the triangular site sits directly across from some featureless low-income housing in uninspiring old-school red brick.

Jonathan Rose Companies and Phipps Houses developed Via Verde with Dattner and Grimshaw, the team that won the New York New Housing Legacy Competition, New York’s first juried competition for affordable and sustainable housing, in 2007.

The 151 rental units and 71 co-ops are geared toward middle to low-income families. The 290,000 square foot project is shooting for LEED Gold and is a pilot for the city’s Active Design Guidelines, meant to combat obesity by encouraging exercise and activity through design; there are staircases everywhere.

The complex slowly steps away from athletic fields at the south and up toward a twenty-story tower. From a four-story section, to an eight-story section, then ten, and twelve, with each successive floor providing generous rooftop space for programming.

     
Left to right: The rooftop under construction; a detail of the facade with solar canopy; an elevational view of the facade; and a detail of sun screens over the windows.
 

Five live/work units face the street with street-side office entries, and some retail and grocery stores mixed in. Charcoal bricks face the first two stories, before being relieved by 25-foot-long prefabricated panels that front much of the building’s facade.

The prefab panels are divided into geometric color/material blocs that serve aesthetic and practical ends. Composite wood panels stained deep brown, maroon, and honey butt against aluminum rain screens with airspace between the outside facade panels and the wall sheathing and insulation behind. The pressure-equalized system, developed in Europe, allows moisture to “weep out” from the building, a feature more common in office buildings. The curtain wall panels include sunscreens, balconies, windows, and doors. They were shipped directly to the site, craned into place, and then snapped on.

Set midway into the building, a large archway guides residents into a central courtyard where a row of townhomes line the eastern edge of the site. Galvanized steel stairs invite residents to climb up, rather than ride the elevator—a theme repeated throughout.

 
The enlightened new faces off with generic old housing (left) and a detail of Via Verde along Brook Avenue (right).
Tom Stoelker (left) and Tom Holdsworth Photography (right)
 

Once inside the court, the rooftop setbacks get dramatic play. Residents can climb up to their apartment level via amphitheater seating that steps up to the top of the townhouses and a series of rooftop gardens designed by Lee Weintraub. There, a grove of pine trees—that can be harvested by the community at holidays—will give way to another level holding edible fruit trees. A bridge connecting the east and west wings of the complex guides visitors through a community roof garden. On the next level up there is a community gym, primarily programmed for exercise. The building continues to work its way up toward the tower, but the rest of the setbacks host an organized array of photovoltaic screens held in place, trellis-like, by galvanized steel frames.

At the top of the 20-story tower, there is a patio with a panoramic view of the Bronx and midtown Manhattan skyline. Across Melrose, the redbrick of old-school projects meets the contemporary orange of newer low-income housing. In the midst of it, all Via Verde stands apart: green striving for gold, and accessible on many levels.

Tom Stoelker