Personal Space

A young firm brimming with bold ideas meets a client with her own very specific vision.

It’s hard to believe that the conversation between Joan Peckolick and the partners of Freecell—Lauren Crahan, John Hartmann, and Troy Ostrander (and associate Corey Yurkovich)—ever went beyond that first day in September 2002. Peckolick was looking for an architect to renovate the two-bedroom unit she and her partner Michael Drexler had recently purchased in a prewar building at 106th Street and Riverside Drive in New York. And while she had a penchant for Arts and Crafts and a furniture collection to prove it, Freecell’s aesthetic might be described as Crayola architecture: bold colorful forms assembled in much the same spirit as a child’s fort.

“Sometimes when you meet with a person there’s the idea that these are matching personalities,” says Crahan, whose firm is best known for reappropriating industrial materials in its new economy and cultural projects. “You can see how things will play out. This was different. We weren’t at all sure how this would go. It sparked our interest but also our hesitation.”

Based on Freecell’s portfolio, Peckolick didn’t disagree. “This is not the style I want the apartment to be,” she told them, but she wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of working with them. Although she interviewed two other architects, she had been referred to Freecell through then partner Ostrander (who has since left the firm) and liked the idea of giving the project to an ambitious thirty-something trio. “I never went to graphic-design school, but I did enormously well because people gave me chances,” says Peckolick, who worked as a designer for 32 years before starting Self Chec, a nonprofit organization to educate the public about the importance of screening cancer in the early stages. “They had never done a full apartment renovation. I felt it would be a learning situation for both of us.”

Freecell’s project estimate—$100,000—was critically important. They’ve built a reputation for delivering solidly innovative work on modest budgets. But it’s a skill they’ve refined based on a judicious vocabulary of materials, which they would be forced to abandon here. From the outset the architects knew that Peckolick wanted to open up the compartmentalized 1,150-square-foot apartment, bringing in as many of the Hudson River views and as much natural light as possible. She didn’t want to lose the second bedroom, but it wouldn’t have to be as significant a space as it was in the original plan. It merely needed to serve as a guest bedroom and office. Most importantly she wanted a second bathroom.

In October Freecell visited the couple’s house in Mamaroneck, New York. “I wanted them to see my sensibilities,” Peckolick says. “I had taken a 1950s house and tried to make it look like an Arts and Crafts house.” For Freecell it was important to the process to see Peckolick’s furniture, rugs, and books. She also showed them several pieces of Art Nouveau–inspired stained glass she’d purchased on eBay and wanted to display. That stained glass became the springboard for the design they agreed on: a large living and dining area that opens diagonally into the kitchen, fusing together and claiming the views from what had previously been three rooms. The two interior walls of that main space were to be paneled in wood-framed colored Plexiglas lit from behind to animate stained glass hung there. “The dream was that we could make this beautiful play of light with these weird stained-glass-like elements,” Crahan says.

The other key element in solving the programmatic requirements was humble: a bathtub. The original plan had a guest bathroom leading from the living room and a master bathroom entered directly from the bedroom. But before they were able to begin construction, they ran into a major stumbling block. The co-op board’s managing agent rejected the plan they submitted because of the second bathroom. “When we bought the space the agent told me that she thought we could add a bathroom,” Peckolick recalls. “But when we finally got into the apartment—once we had paid for it—we had to fight for that.”

No one in the 76-unit building had ever gotten approval to extend wet areas—rooms with plumbing—over dry areas. “Adjacency is a huge issue in New York,” Hartmann says. “The rule exists for the neighbors. Yeah, a burst pipe doesn’t affect you that much, but it leaks down.” Freecell proposed putting a catch pan made from pool liner beneath all the wet-area fioors. There was also the added load on the building’s pipes; if the board approved one addition, they would potentially have to approve 75 more. The building’s age—it was completed in 1927—was an asset here. Not only was it built with extra capacity (an added expense that wouldn’t be assumed under today’s cost-conscious industry practices), but contemporary low-flush toilets use half the water of older models. “We anticipated their concerns and ran the calculations,” Crahan says. “If everybody added a full bathroom and new dishwashers and so forth, then there would still be a small percentage of extra capacity. As long as you addressed the water issue and kept your major fixtures over the original wet area, it should be okay. It was in the board’s interest to approve this. They were trying to sell some of these apartments, and they weren’t up to today’s standards.”

However, keeping the major fixtures over wet areas meant going back to the drawing board to reposition the guest toilet, kitchen sink, and dishwasher. There was a limit to how far the toilet could move from the waste pipes in the western wall; because the floors are concrete and plumbing relies on gravity, the angle at which feeder pipes could be positioned was constricted. “You have a certain amount of depth before you’re in another person’s apartment,” Crahan says. “Because one of the bathrooms had to be handicapped accessible, you can’t just add—as you would find in a lot of walk-ups—a step up into the bathroom to allow you to run the pipes at a greater angle. And there are chase walls containing infrastructure adjacent to every kitchen and bathroom, which prevented us from locating doors and tubs and toilets wherever we wanted.”

“It created a tight puzzle in which the options become limited,” Hartmann says. “You begin to see that things can only fit a certain way. The guest toilet is now wall-hung with a back outlet that gave us a few more inches above the ground.”

The process delayed the project for four months, but the result was an improved plan, where the guest bathroom is no longer a tangled series of spaces snatched from the kitchen and master bath. “I’m not sure why the managing agent initially told us no, but it gave us an opportunity to really do our homework and come up with a better plan,” Crahan says. The bathrooms now parallel each other, meeting in back at the tub. This time Freecell requested permission to present the plan before the board, where they were able to directly address concerns and answer the building engineer’s technical questions. They were persuasive: eight other tenants are now adding second bathrooms.

As they entered construction and Peckolick began specifying her appliances, fixtures, and materials, it became clear that she wasn’t willing to settle for anything less than high-end: a Viking stovetop, Toto and Porcher toilets, a Fisher & Paykel dishwasher. So with each specification the apartment became more a product of Peckolick’s tastes than Freecell’s architectural vision. The most consequential change was to the stained-glass-inspired panels in the living room. “She thought the panels were too strange and dedicated to the pieces and not to the residence,” Crahan says, explaining Peckolick’s decision to lose the Plexiglas in favor of a more traditional Arts and Crafts version with red oak and green-tinted glass. Instead two of the original stained-glass pieces were set in doors that separate the entry foyer from the living room, and another was built into the wall between the kitchen and bathroom to pull light through.

By nature residential projects are intimate. The space is personal, and clients typically get very involved. So what does it mean when client and architect are aesthetically mismatched? “It’s not the sort of art project that I thought it would be—stained glass hanging in space where everything is refracted and reflected light,” Crahan says. “For people who didn’t see the first plan, I have a hard time showing them what we did there. It was difficult to tell myself that it was okay that doing a good plan, good follow-through, and getting the bathroom approved were the success of the project. It’s hard for me to be an executor, but that’s really what she needed. I gave her a harder fight than she deserved, but I felt it was my job to provide her with other alternatives. It probably wasn’t necessary. She knew herself already.”

“We’ve controlled so much of the work we’ve been lucky to make,” Hartmann says. “Visually it has such enormous impact. Our moves are relatively blunt and strong. They’re big colorful shapes, big moves. A residential space is just quieter. It was hard for us to know how to use a subtle language. That was the compromise in this project. The trump card in any residential project is that the client can say, ‘I have to live here.’ The apartment looks really good, really livable.”

It’s a pale flexible envelope for Peckolick’s belongings: two handmade wood chairs with eccentric floral inlays, William Morris–esque rugs, a formidable armoire, a quarter-sawed desk, and a Tiffany-style lamp. “I wanted a sort of modern space to put all of this history in,” she says. Peckolick moved into her apartment in November and loves the space. “I walked in here after the windows had been cleaned a few weeks ago. I’m not religious, but I had a religious experience. I started to cry because you see the sky, the water. I didn’t expect all of this. There’s no way that this apartment would have become what it is without Freecell.”

Since the moment Freecell invited me to sit in on their client meetings for their first full apartment renovation, firm principals Lauren Crahan and John Hartmann have been unguarded about their work. Not only are they frank about the process, but also—as “Personal Space” illustrates—remarkably open to client Joan Peckolick’s needs. During our interviews, they spoke of larger residential issues, including the invisible costs of liability, the role of style, and how everything affects the budget. Following are some excerpts from those conversations.

On working with a good contractor:
John Hartmann:
We’ve been lucky that we’re working with a good contractor. He’s been really great to us and to our clients, and he’s willing to work within our stringent budgets. He said $100,000 for this project; everybody else said $160,000-$200,000.

Lauren Crahan: We advised the client that it’s customary to go with the middle quote. We were a little nervous, because our client had also worked with other contractors before. We asked her contractors to give us prices, which were all almost double what our contractor quoted. We were concerned that her expectation for quality appliances and so forth would follow through to her expectation of the craftsmanship of the work. Fortunately, the contractor that we went with did a great job.

But just looking at 8.5- by 11-inch sheets of paper with numbers, we were nervous that we and she were speaking different languages.

On balancing the interests of the client, contractor, and architect:
That tripartite relationship is not unlike the federal government. It’s a very delicate system of checks and balances. We have to keep the contractor happy so he does a good job and finishes the job. Everybody needs to watch out for one another. We can’t run a business where we try to pinch the contractor to the point where he’s bankrupt, because then he walks out on the job.

LC: Or does a really bad job.

JH: Or you find that it’s not drywall that he installed, it’s painted chip board, and you didn’t notice it until he was gone. We have to make sure that everybody’s interests are balanced.

On the demands of contemporary appliances in older buildings:
The whole electrical thing became an issue. We started with a bathroom that had just lights in it and a kitchen that had a refrigerator and a gas stove. Now, the bathroom has a steam shower and the kitchen has two dishwashers, a microwave, a combo electrical oven, a gas range, and a steam shower. So the amperage on the apartment shot way up. We had to run new jumper lines in the basement and make sure the wiring was sufficient in the apartment. All of that had to be redone.

LC: Kitchens like these are no longer just about cooking dinner, but rather kind of an image thing. A lot of kitchen appliances are modified industrial appliances, so power-wise, it follows that it’s not just a matter of buying some new appliances for your kitchen, but [making sure you have enough power for them, too.]

Something great about this building was that the way they sized the pipes, built the floor, and ran the conduit to the basement allowed for electrical increases. It’s expensive to oversize things, and I think today most people would opt not to provide for future additions.

On their preferences vs. the client’s:
In the budgets that we work on, a sink made by Gerber is just perfect for us because it’s other stuff that’s making the statement. But for Joan, finding that beautiful handcrafted dishwasher from New Zealand was important. I had a problem with that and I carried it throughout the project. I think that’s my disappointment.

JH: The trump card in residential design is that the client can say, “I’m going to live here.” In commercial work, you say, “Well, the customer is going to respond to this, or the client is going to respond to this.” You can try to represent somebody you don’t know but who you can imagine. Your client can agree or disagree with that. In a residence, the client can simply say, “No, I’m going to live with that.” It was hard to come to terms with that.

LC: This might come across as saying that we want our signature to always be present, but it’s more about knowing why we’re the ones to help you. I’m used to leading you to things you haven’t thought of.

JH: It’s just not as heroic. We have to come to terms with the fact that it might not be that statement that we expect. If it works well for our client, then that’s the goal.

On contractor liability:
One misconception people have is that if this tile costs $5 per square foot and that one is $19 per square foot, you just need to come up with the $300 extra in material cost to have the more expensive one. But what people don’t realize is that the cost of labor to install the expensive tile is three times more than that of the cheaper one. The tile is thicker and heavier, it’s a more expensive material. The contractors know that if they put in a $20-per-square-foot tile, it has to be perfect; that’s the expectation. Plus if you break one, it’s not as cheap to replace, it’s hard to find, somebody will steal it off the job site. There’s liability.

LC: With Joan, for instance, the contractor broke one sink. It was a $600 sink.

JH: Something like that happens on every job.

LC: The contractors had been really careful. They were working with horizontal wall-mounted fixtures, and had never even seen the fixtures until this project. They mounted them so the things were sticking straight down; they wanted to know how you tell when the taps were turned off. So they had to redo all the handles and the faucet. The faucet fell into the sink. It was perfectly wrapped, everything was protected. It was not like they were making huge mistakes. But it caused a stress crack.

It was a Lefroy Brook sink. They only make like four sinks total, and they ship them in from England every three months. So it was a $600 sink. Without knowing what the appliances are, the contractors don’t know what kind of s*** they are in when something breaks.

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