Only if architecture designs a new look for Brooklyn Infill

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The Founders’ Bedford Stuyvesant home is a model that makes the most of a narrow footprint.

Brooklyn-based company Only If Architecture– led by Adam Frampton and Karolina Czeczek – dedicates part of his research-based practice to exploring the complexities of vacant, residual and irregularly shaped urban land. Not only have these plots been rendered empty due to the effects of urban decay over the past few decades, but also the impact of more recent urban renewal, the development of large multi-family residential buildings and subsequent rezoning. In an exhibition curated by Czeczek and Frampton at the 2017 Shenzhen Biennale, the duo surveyed more than 3,000 properties around the world, including 600 hundred identified in the New York metropolitan area alone.

After winning an open international competition organized by AIA New York and New York City Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), Only If was commissioned to redevelop and infill 23 sites in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The company’s recently completed narrow house occupies a particularly deep plot approximately 13 feet wide and 100 feet long. The flexible scheme they designed could serve as a prototype for others.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan

“Finding vacant land in New York City was the result of a six-month search for undervalued, unusual, or unused space that could become living space,” Frampton says. “When we found the vacant land we knew it had potential, but we weren’t sure if it could be developed in its own right within the zoning. You had to take a risk.”

Concerned about the usability and habitability of the house before its aesthetic value, Only If designed a structure capable of capturing as much natural light as possible, given the depth of the site. Due to zoning laws and the potential for new buildings flanking either side of the property, the house facades facing the street and courtyard are fully glazed within the curtain walls. Serving as the only sources of daylight and air circulation, Czeczek and Frampton opted for as few interior walls as possible to avoid obstructing the 11-foot-wide exhibits. The other walls are defined by a perforated steel stairwell that cuts through various divided levels.

image of a house interior showing a table, shelves and a stairwell
Courtesy of Naho Kubota

“Due to its large-format windows, the landscape has an unexpected presence inside the house,” explains Czeczek. “The changing seasons, shadows, colors and movement of the trees keep us very aware of the natural environment in an otherwise densely built neighborhood.”

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Although characterized by an open floor plan, each of Narrow House’s split levels helps define the program. The composite concrete and corrugated iron ground floor—raised from street level like many mid-19th-century brownstones nearby—contains the home’s living, dining, and kitchen spaces, delimited by a long black bar. An oversized glass pivot door at the rear makes a seamless connection to the outdoors. The matrix of the upper floors includes two bedrooms and an office. Plywood inserts placed in between contain more intimate bathrooms and closets. The reinforced concrete masonry unit (CMU) side walls of the structure help define its volumetric profile and contain its various functions – a true minimalist paradise.

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