Big Idea, Small Package

GRO Architects finds major opportunities in a tiny residential lot in New Jersey.

In 2007, Denis Carpenter had a deed, a little money, and some big ideas. Two years later, he was settling into a 1,600-square-foot, energy-efficient, prefab bachelor pad on a pint-size lot in Jersey City, New Jersey, that local officials had considered all but undevelopable.

It wasn’t easy. Carpenter approached GRO Architects, a 2009 Metropolis Next Generation notable, with a challenging brief: he wanted a green, concrete house on a devilishly slim budget—just $250,000. (A comparable from-the-ground-up urban residence costs about $70,000 more.) So the architects created a rigorously utilitarian scheme. One part of PREttyFAB’s roof funnels rainfall to plants in the backyard; another part, tricked out in PV panels, cocks south at 30 degrees to catch every last ray of sun. Even a cedar screen that visually softens the gray edifice doubles as a rain barrier. “The house looks the way it does,” says Richard Garber, who runs GRO with his partner, Nicole Robertson, “because every single space does something.”

The city had its doubts. “When we first got the proposal, it was only marginally acceptable,” says Claire Davis, a Jersey City planning supervisor. The main issue was that the land Carpenter had purchased was only half as deep as a standard lot, and GRO’s plans overstepped the legal setback by 12.5 feet. To proceed, the architects needed variances (the real estate equivalent of a papal dispensation), and to get variances, they had to parade their design in front of the zoning board. At Davis’s behest, GRO made a couple of minor changes—another window and a planter in the front yard to echo neighboring 19th-century row houses—before sending the project to the board. It won unanimous approval.

The concrete manufacturers were skeptical too. Schooled in the particulars of basement foundations, Northeast Precast had little experience producing the irregular geometries of PREttyFAB’s exterior, and initially declined the job. Twice. Eventually, though, it came to see it as a business opportunity. “For inner-city housing, we felt they were really on to something here with this green home,” says Northeast’s president, John Ruga. “Going forward, we realized it would be a good fit for us.” A crane installed the resulting 18 concrete panels in three days over three weeks, slashing labor costs.

In the architects’ telling, PREttyFAB stands as a testament to sustainable residential development in a city that, like many others, has more vacant lots than anyone knows what to do with. “These leftover plots are rampant not only in Jersey City but in Brooklyn, Queens—all over the place,” Garber says. “We think there’s room in the future to develop the house elsewhere. It’s mass customizable.” Customizable, of course, is the operative word. “You can do sustainable construction, but you have to be creative enough to see that the features that work in one place don’t work somewhere else,” Davis, the planning supervisor, warns. “I don’t think you could do this on any block.”


Web extra: Click the play button to watch a time-lapse video of PREttyFAB’s concrete panels beings assembled on site.

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