Image of a street of row houses in brooklyn
Courtesy Iwan Baan

Only If Architecture Designs a New Look for Brooklyn Infill

The founders’ Bedford Stuyvesant home models a formula that makes the most of a narrow footprint. 

Brooklyn-based firm Only If Architecture—helmed by Adam Frampton and Karolina Czeczek—dedicates a part of its research-oriented practice to exploring the complexities of vacant, residual, and irregularly-shaped urban lots. Not only were these parcels rendered empty due to the effects of urban decay in past decades but also by the impact of more recent urban renewal, the development of larger multifamily residential buildings, and subsequent rezoning. In an exhibition mounted by Czeczek and Frampton at the 2017 edition of the Shenzhen Biennale, the duo surveyed over 3,600 irregular, vacant lots in New York City, with 600 of them owned by the city.

After winning The Big Ideas for Small Lots Competition, an open international competition hosted by the AIA New York and New York City Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), Only If was tasked with the redevelopment and infill of 23 sites in throughout the five boroughs. The firm’s own recently completed Narrow House occupies one particularly deep parcel that is roughly 13 feet wide and 100 feet long. The flexible scheme they conceived could serve as a prototype for the others. 

Image depicting a narrow house in brooklyn with someone standing on a rooftop terrace
Courtesy Iwan Baan

“Finding a vacant lot in New York City was the outcome of a six-month-long search for undervalued, unusual, or leftover spaces that could become space for living,” says Frampton. “When we found the vacant lot, we knew it had potential, but we were unsure if it could be developed as-of-right under the zoning. We had to take a risk.” 

Concerned with the home’s usability and livability before its aesthetic value, Only If designed a structure that could capture as much natural light as possible, considering the site’s depth. Due to zoning laws and the potential of new buildings flanking either side of the property, the home’s street- and yard-facing facades are entirely glazed in 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 exposures. The other walls are defined by a perforated steel stairwell that cuts across various split levels. 

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

“Because of its large format windows, the landscape has an unexpected presence inside the house,” says Czeczek. “The change of 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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Though characterized by an open floor-plan, each of Narrow House’s splitlevels help define the program. The composite concrete and corrugated metal deck ground floor—raised up from street level like many of the mid-nineteenth century brownstones nearby—contains the home’s living, dining, and cooking areas, delineated by a long, black bar. An oversized glass pivot door at the rear establishes a seamless connection to the outdoors. The matrix of floors above incorporates two bedrooms and a study. Plywood inserts placed in between contain more intimate bathrooms and closets. The structure’s reinforced concrete masonry units (CMU) lateral walls help to define its volumetric profile and contain its various functions—a true minimalist’s paradise. 

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