Out of the Attic

PARA-Project crafts an airy retreat in a most unlikely setting.

Sometimes small projects need big ideas. Such was the case when the architects at PARA-Project were asked to transform the low-ceilinged attic of a house in Syracuse, New York, into a writing area and guest room. It was a job that required quite a bit of spatial ingenuity. “It was incredibly tight,” says Jonathan Lott, an architect who runs PARA-Project with Brian Price. “Only under the apex of the roof did you have enough room to move around.” The partners ultimately found their inspiration in a lowly material—reclaimed cardboard tubes that had been destined for the trash heap.

Lott and Price created two zones—for writing and for sleeping—at opposite ends of the 450-square-foot attic, and a stairwell in between to divide them. To keep the space, which was completed last October, from feeling claustrophobic, they installed a glass wall in the guest room and a mirrored bookcase in the writing area. A set of operable skylights—one above a desk, the other above a reading nook—helps expand the sitting experience. “You’re right up against the edge of the roof,” Price says. “But you can open the roof up, and your head almost pops out the top.”

The cardboard tubes that the architects acquired for free, however, were perhaps the single most important—and certainly the most resourceful—element of the design. “We were looking for a material with three primary goals,” Lott says. “It had to have an acoustical function, add to the thermal performance, and create a sense of continuity throughout the space.” After considering other inexpensive wall finishes, such as felt and wood blocks, the pair stumbled upon a factory that made high-strength nylon fabric for reinforcing automobile tires and simply wanted to get rid of the leftover tubes. “The client was a little skeptical about putting industrial tubes on their wall,” Lott says, “but we built a mock-up, and they thought it looked beautiful.” That’s because the material has been utterly transformed. With staggered tubes of varying diameters painted white, the effect is similar to a set of heavy curtains frozen in place. The installation’s depth and uneven profile also help buffer sound and temperature.

Reclaiming a manufacturing by-product wasn’t only a big idea for this commission; it will also inform future projects for the Empire State–based architects. “In New York, there are many different types of industrial production,” Price says. “Those are the places that have the greatest products, even if they’re usually seen as landfill.”

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