Like most practicing architects in Lower Manhattan, Richard Garber, a professor at NJIT’s School of Architecture and Design and his partner Nicole Robertson, have seen their fair share of oddball requests. So when Jersey City native Denis Carpenter showed up three years ago at their office, GRO Architects, deed in hand, to a 22-foot-wide by 54-foot-deep, undersized lot, Garber and Robertson didn’t flinch. That the lot was a vacant, derelict piece of land, overcome with weeds and locked away in a corner of Jersey City’s Greenville section, didn’t matter either.
Nor did they falter when Carpenter, a 55-year-old bachelor, shared his vision of grandeur: How together they would somehow construct on this tiny parcel, a 1600-square-foot, pre-fabricated, super-sustainable concrete and modern single-family house. And, it was all supposed to cost, including construction and design, under $250,000. The lot, not included in the figure, had separately run $60,000.
“Budget restraints, energy efficiencies, even design specifications, we could meet,” said Garber. But getting Jersey City to sign off on the approvals and variances on such an undersized lot was another story. “If we couldn’t work out the rear setback based on allowable rights, the house would have to have been only 17 feet by 20 feet,” he said. “That’s not a lot of space, no matter how creative you are.”
Another potential problem was the look of the whole thing. The client did not want his house to resemble any other on the block of undistinguishable, two-story, once wood frame, now aluminum-sided, structures. “It’s always a challenge when you come in with plans for a house that looks like nothing else on the street,” Garber said.
Luckily, Garber was wrong. Jeff Wenger and Claire Davis in the Jersey City Planning Department immediately saw the benefit of using the house as a prototype to unravel the problems of empty lots in single family neighborhood, which exists throughout this city and others. Councilwoman Viola Richardson was also asked to pass muster on the visual role of this newcomer in the neighborhood. Happily, she jumped on board, too.
The upshot is that after almost three years of hard work, the homeowner moved last month into a new and notable, architect-rendered 1600-square-foot home featuring a footprint of 17 feet by 40 feet. To the delight of all, construction costs and design work came in exactly at what the client had hoped—around $250,000.
A modular green roof—used for heat dissipation and to slow the drainage of water—sits over a portion of the structure. Another segment of the roof has been optimized for solar collection and sports a 260-square-foot photo-voltaic array, which cost $7500 out-of-pocket after state incentives and rebates. A battery was installed that allows additional energy produced to be stored. Garber estimates that his client will start paying back energy costs in five and a half years.
Garber and Robertson worked with a pre-cast concrete fabricator in southern New Jersey to design and form the 18 unique and high-performance panels that make up the s exterior of the house. Through the coordination of digital files, the panels precisely fit together, and were craned into place over a period of three days. Additionally, a cedar rain screen at the front and rear softens the look of the exposed concrete panels.
Inside, the multi-story design includes two bedrooms, an open kitchen, living and dining areas; as well as a mezzanine which both accesses the green roof and serves as the rehearsal space for Carpenter, a musician who plays the recorder.