Formal Explorations


As Brooklyn residents and architects working primarily in the borough, we’ve observed the results of redevelopment in areas of the city which have recently gone through zoning changes designed to increase the local building stock. Over time, the developmental tension between high maximum floor to area ratios on the one hand and small lots and preexisting buildings on the other, yields a scenario wherein sites are combined, the buildings which occupied them are systematically demolished, new buildings are constructed, and with them a new context emerges. But why is this new context so… bad? And how could we ensure better results in the future?

Two examples are illustrative:

The stretch of Myrtle Avenue between Washington Park and Bedford Avenue, primarily in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, was rezoned from a predominantly R6 district to an R7A district in 2007, raising the district’s residential F.A.R. from 3.0 to 4.0. Prior to rezoning, this stretch of Myrtle Avenue was lined predominantly by three story mixed use buildings with a commercial base and residential units on top. It should be noted that this building stock as it stood was already under-built per its previous R6 designation. The remaining available floor area was not sufficiently large to justify the expense incurred in expanding these buildings.

Over time after Myrtle Avenue was rezoned, adjacent lots were aggregated and developed to the maximum allowable floor area and a very different type of building stock emerged. The scale, rhythm and texture – along with the intangible feel of neighborhood – of the previous context have largely disappeared, rendering the distinction between incremental development and tabula rasa redevelopment ambiguous in this context.

Brooklyn Builds Presentation_Draft_170313_Small7

Similarly, 4th Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and 15th Street, which demarcates the border between the Park Slope and Gowanus neighborhoods of Brooklyn, was rezoned from a predominantly R6 district to an R8A district in 2003. In 2006, the R8A district was expanded further south to 24th Street. As with Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill, 4th Avenue was defined by four story mixed use buildings with commercial ground floors and apartments above. With the R8A district rezoning, the F.A.R. was increased to 6.02 and a maximum height of 120 feet. This resulted again in the aggregation of sites and the creation of large apartment blocks bearing no resemblance to the pre-existing context.

That 4th avenue became the site of large developments was intended. Part of the impetus for the rezoning of 4th Avenue was to shift development away from Park Slope in order to preserve that context. That 4th Avenue, formerly known as the Grand Parkway, would come to be known as the Canyon of Mediocrity, was not – one would hope – intentional.

How did this happen?

Zoning Handbook

Both Myrtle Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, after rezoning became subject to the provisions of the Quality Housing Program – note the letter suffixes of their district designations. Residence districts with a letter suffix – A, B, D or X – are what are known within the New York City Zoning Resolution as “Contextual Districts.” In 1987, as a response to public backlash against the modernist tower-in-the-park developments of the 1960’s, the Quality Housing Program was established. It mandated maximum distance between street wall and sidewalk, minimum and maximum street wall heights, and minimum and maximum building heights. Through these mechanisms contextual districts were intended to maintain and restore the urban fabric of the city. However, beyond an antiseptic prescription of built form, what we are not quite sure of is what “contextual” is actually supposed to mean – it is not defined in the text of the NYC Zoning Resolution. But we take it to mean that buildings are supposed to fit in – either with each other or with existing context. And while the diagram itself allows for some degree of flexibility, the housing developments that it generates fit into a rather narrow array of possible outcomes.

Indeed, the narrow array of possible outcomes is due to the, frankly, dumb process by which these buildings are laid out. Floor area is increased as a building is planned by maximizing lot coverage, increasing floor count, increasing building height, increasing base height and minimizing setbacks. Floor area is decreased by introducing courtyards, lowering base height, increasing setbacks, introducing double height spaces. All of these mechanisms are negotiated around a maximum allowable F.A.R. for a given district, to produce a non-specific volume which is then subdivided into a mix of apartment sizes appropriate for market conditions. This configuration may even change after construction begins and newer market information becomes available over the course of the development of the building. This configuration is, in effect, an empty vessel which allows for a limited variety of formal outcomes, which functions as a delivery method for commodified real estate. The outcomes tend to be surprisingly retrograde. They produce urban environments which are every bit as stultifying as stultifying – albeit in a different way – as the suburbs of the postwar period.

How to develop an R8

How To Build The Diagram
How To Develop A Building in 8 Simple Steps

The urban environments which result from these developments are objectively lacking many of the characteristics which work together to create the urban environments we cherish. While it is tempting to default to familiar historical styles in an attempt to revive what has been lost in contemporary development, it is imperative that we identify the formal and spatial devices which operate independent of aesthetics, so that we are equipped to design delightful urban conditions, whether futuristic or historical in their appeal. Some of these devices are porosity, scale, texture, rhythm and identity.

Multiple versus single entry points, stoops and front gardens versus flat street walls, balconies and entry courts: all are devices which conspire to dissolve the barrier of the building envelope into an occupiable border between the privacy of the interior and the publicness of the street. This matters in a city as dense as New York because it modulates the relationship of a resident to her neighbors – it allows strangers a glimpse just beneath the surface of our private lives and affords the passerby the reassurance of the watchful eye of his neighbors.

Good Qualities

To be sure, contemporary building practices are partially responsible for the absence of these articulate conditions in the examples of Myrtle and 4th Avenues. Curtain walls, and more commonly among residential developments, rain screen systems are thin assemblies which are hung from a building’s frame. Rain screens utilize a thin cladding material with an airspace in front of a primary waterproofing membrane. This method of assembly tends toward a a least common denominator of wallpaper architecture, where the building’s facade presents a flat, graphic image of a building without any true three-dimensional tectonic quality. This contrasts with the architecture of beloved old neighborhoods which, because of the building practices of the time, could not but acquire depth and articulation, cast shadow and shape space.

Old building practices, in addition to prompting volumetric articulation of facades, also lent consistent material palettes to the neighborhoods where they were deployed. True enough, there is a certain serenity to a scene of material uniformity, especially when juxtaposed with the garish cacophony characteristic of new developments. However, this material consistency itself fades from attention, allowing the spatial and formal qualities of a building to stand out. These two qualities of old building practices are therefore mutually beneficial and self-reinforcing – the limits of masonry construction prompt a fine-grained three-dimensionality, and the uniform materiality of masonry construction throws that three dimensionality into yet sharper relief.

So how to negotiate these two realities – the flatness of contemporary construction methods and the obsolescence of the provisions governing bulk within Contextual Zoning Districts?

Given a reasonable understanding of the zoning code, market forces, a neighborhood’s needs, and of the devices mentioned above, it is no doubt possible to design inspiring urban environments. City Planning worked very carefully with the local community and their district councilman, Rafael Espinal, to create a plan that is both a development opportunity and which thoughtfully engages the existing community’s needs. While this plan includes a tactical overview of projected development sites, we are interested in testing the limits of the zoning diagrams in the context of what an extensive build out over the coming decades might look like. What we are seeing now on 4th Avenue has been a decade in the making. For this experiment, we have taken the area between Hendrix Street to the east and Bradford Street to the west and modeled out its potential as-of-right development with the goal of testing the limits of the current zoning diagrams. What kind of architectures and neighborhoods can be built-out that will respond to the existing and the future contexts of this district? The neighborhood includes existing assets such as Glenmore community gardens, several local churches, schools, daycare, a fire department, and J/Z/A and C train subway stations. While existing East NY may appear un-developed compared to the potential up-zoning, every block of the district has a rich community fabric. How can we image building out the as-of-right FAR and Zoning in this diverse district while maintaining architectural and urban relationships to the existing forms while at the same time anticipating the extent of developments that will take place over the next decade?  We modeled out the maximum density for each street and then zoomed in to articulate the results. Within the mandates of the Quality Housing Program, the difference between the maximum envelope and the maximum floor area allow us to terrace the building masses as the different districts converge between main avenues and side streets. Further facade articulations are utilized to create exterior courts, more human-scaled building massing and highly porous facades.

How To Work Within The Diagram

But the gravity of the lowest common denominator cannot simply be ignored when market forces are harnessed as the driver of development. Of course we could also see what’s possible if we change the rules of the game. The parameters of the diagram produced by the Quality Housing Program require a formal consistency amongst all contributors, and therefore they tend to create context through their similarity and repetition. These regulations fall short, however, of creating the possibility for a real urban design. OPerA Studio and OPA have taken on the project of expanding the rules or creating altogether alternative series of rule sets that can create similarly contextual districts using East New York as a testing ground. The eight diagrams below show expanded rule sets for zoning regulations which create radically different urban and spatial experiences. For instance, what would happen to the streetscape if buildings featured large, mandated voids? If the roofs of buildings were required to continuously ramp from street level to the highest point of the building, how might street life climb up the new landscape of the street? What potential does an avenue of slim, clustered and interconnected towers have to surprise and delight? OPerA and OPA are interested in how incentives for developers like increased F.A.R. and height limits – the same found in Quality Housing Districts – can be paired with parameters that create inspiring urban conditions.

How To Break The Diagram

East New York was recently rezoned, most prominently along Atlantic Avenue from primarily C8-2 and M1-1 commercial and manufacturing districts of 1.0 to 2.0 F.A.R. to an R8A district of 6.02 F.A.R. As part of a continuing topic of research, OPerA Studio and OPA presented alternative zoning diagrams at the New York Build 2017 Expo on March 17th, and will present further findings in the future. The change of zoning which provides the setting for this research and exploration are an extreme change. In the near future, East New York will not look as it does today. The only question is, can we prevent it from becoming another canyon of mediocrity?

Brooklyn Builds Presentation_Draft_170313_Small67



Thomas will join Vincent Appel, founding partner of Of Possible Architectures to present a joint research project concerning the recent upzoning of East New York this Wednesday at the New York Build Expo. The presentation will begin with an analysis of similar upzoning in Brooklyn and its result in terms of character, community and livability; and will examine possible futures for East New York by rethinking building typology, methodology and planning guidelines. The talk will take place at 2:55p in Conference: Stream B. Register for free here.

Southeast Corner Aerial


OPerA Studio Architecture is excited to announce that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved the addition of a penthouse to the historic townhouse at 576 Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn. The 299 sqft addition – part of a newly renovated duplex apartment w/ private roof terrace – will crown the newly renovated and restored building which was designed by the architect Timothy Remsen and built c. 1891.

Across Vanderbilt Aerial

The addition to the building was designed as a contemporary take on the mansard roofs found on some Romanesque Revival style buildings in the Prospect Heights district. The rhythm of the penthouse’s glazing is derived from 576 Vanderbilt’s facade, and the dark bronze and teak material palette will elegantly complement the existing building and its context.

Northeast Corner Aerial

In addition to the penthouse, OPerA Studio Architecture has designed the restoration of 576 Vanderbilt’s facade which will include repairing the cornice, restoring its storefront glazing, repairing the brick and stone on the building’s facade and restoring the windows and doors to their original wood mullions and molding.

Street Sign



OPerA Studio is currently designing several extensions and alterations of existing two and three story townhouses in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. Each project involves a change of use from either a one, two, or three story residence to a six family multiple dwelling. With five such projects underway, each one presents its unique challenges. A thorough understanding of the building code, zoning, and multiple dwelling law requirements is required to successfully execute these projects. In this post, I’ll outline several of the key points, which I’ll expand upon in future posts.


Vertical extensions: adding floors – structural and code issues:
The first question that comes up is: how to build it. Can we simply add cold-formed steel stud walls to the top of the existing brick bearing walls? The answer is yes, under certain circumstances. At 308 Eldert Street and 163 St. Nicholas Avenue, we are adding one floor with steel stud framing, with minimal additional framing to distribute load back to the footings. This is possible when the alteration is filed under the 1968 building code. If the addition is limited to one floor, seismic requirements allow limited extensions to avoid seismic design requirements and the installation of a new moment resisting steel frame.


If a two story vertical extension is planned, seismic requirements kick in and the additional portion of the building is required to have a moment resisting structural frame. This is basically like creating a building within a building. At this point, the best way to proceed with the design is to re-frame all floor levels of the building and file it with the Department of Buildings as a 2014 code alteration. This strategy helps us deal with another factor: providing the required number of means of egress.


Exits: new fire escapes or not?
Per the building codes and the multiple dwelling law, two means of egress are required from every apartment in a multiple dwelling, and from each floor of a residential building.  In an alteration filed under the 1968 building code, fire escapes are allowed as a second means of egress from each apartment on existing buildings. However, the fire escape is an unsightly and costly addition to the project, and can be avoided.

Elderl-Rendering     Eldert-Close-Up

If a residential building is four stories or less, under 2000 s.f. In footprint, and built of non-combustible materials (no wood framing), one interior egress stair may be provided. This is a good reason to remove all of the existing wood floor joists in this type of renovation. In a two-story addition with a new moment frame, it is hard to salvage the joists while installing the steel. In a one story vertical extension, the cost of replacing wood joists with steel is less than the cost of providing new fire escapes, when taking into consideration that the existing joists will also need to be levelled, repaired, or replaced in areas.
Elevators and handicap accessibility:
The next factor that figures into the configuration of the building is the elevator. In some instances, the zoning analysis for buildable square feet allows for a massing that creates a five story building. At this number of stories the NYC building code requires the installation of an elevator with minimum dimensions to accommodate an emergency stretcher. Therefore, a fifth story should be avoided since an elevator is not a cost effective use of a small floor plate and is not deductible from zoning floor area. In massing the building, a four-story configuration should be the goal, with the exception of a penthouse at the roof. Penthouses that occupy no more than 1/3 of the footprint of the roof are exempt from the definition of a ‘Story’ and therefore a building with four stories plus a penthouse is exempt from the elevator requirement.



Where does this leave us with regards to handicap accessibility if there is no elevator? Per the new york city building code, residential buildings that are otherwise not required to have an elevator are only required to have an accessible entry and features on the lowest level of residential use. This may require the provision of an access ramp or platform lift of the existing first floor of the townhouse is raised above grade. This can be a challenge for many properties that have a small or no front yard, since the code only allows for a 44 inch projection past the lot line to accommodate access to the first floor of existing buildings. Other required features on the lowest level of apartments are the NYC type B adaptable bathrooms and clearances at all doors.
Rooms in basements:
If one of the habitable floors of the building is the basement level, then this floor must comply with certain provisions of the multiple dwelling law for rooms in basements or cellars. This requires, amongst other things, that the level of a rear yard or court be at or below the level of the basement floor. At 163 St. Nicholas Avenue, this required digging out the rear yard to meet this requirement


Existing wood frame townhouses:
There are many existing wood frame party wall townhouses in Brooklyn with expansion potential to significantly increase their size. The issue is that the wood frame construction type is not permitted for a multiple dwelling building of three or more stories. Therefore this type of conversion, while maintaining the wood frame, is not possible. Another factor is the 110% rule of the 2014 building code. This rule states that any alteration with more than 110% of new or replaced horizontal surface area is required to comply with the 2014 building code, which does not permit wood frame buildings within the fire district that encompasses all of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The solution to this is to take down all of the structure except for the existing foundations and shared wood frame party walls. Then, a new vertical structure is built within the existing party walls, including new floor framing and facades. At our project at 452 Harman Street, we are building new concrete block bearing walls immediately adjacent to the wood party walls. This structure provides the fire rating separation required between different buildings on the same lot.
Sprinklers: Yes, the installation of a sprinkler system will be required in any modification to a residential building.




Thomas and David had their final review for their fall 2015 studio at NJIT entitled: Unorthodox Modernism: Upcycling the Tower in the Park.  The third year graduate studio explored strategies for augmenting existing modernist housing developments exemplified by the tower-in-the park typology. These developments typically situate a series of towers within an undefined green space with a limited number of single entry access points and a dependence on the elevator and corridor for circulation. Often turning their backs on the neighboring context and ignoring the texture and scale of the surrounding cities, these projects represent a failed modernist urbanism. The studio asked the question: can this massing be incorporated into a system of urban space and fabric that creates more meaningful public spaces, stitches it back into the city, and fosters a greater community environment?

The focus for the studio was a ten building complex in Chelsea, NYC, between 23rd and 29th street called the Penn South Towers. It was built as a cooperative development in the 1960s and continues to operate today. The existing buildings only utilize 50% of the available zoning floor area for the site, and much higher densities can be achieved. Students were left to program the site as they saw fit and to make an argument for the appropriate amount of added bulk and program.












Footings have been poured and foundation walls are being laid for the 3 story extension and renovation of the townhouse that we designed at 297 16th Street in Park Slope. The three story addition will be framed out with parallel 8” reinforced concrete block bearing walls and 24 foot span steel c-joists. The framing of the existing two story wood framed portion of the house will largely remain, but the building will be completely gutted with new cladding and windows.


The rear façade of the existing house will be removed as the superstructure for the addition goes up, connecting the old and new portions.






Upon completion, the house will be a new two family dwelling with a three story unit facing the rear garden with floor to ceiling steel framed windows. Upon entering, a sunken living and dining area will feature a polished concrete slab with radiant floor heating, offsetting the wood clad wall adorning an open steel stair.






This fall, Thomas taught a fourth year design studio at NJIT, which wrapped up with a final review on December 4th.

Paucinac, Tabares, Valencia_ProtoFinal_12

The studio, titled “Core and Shell or Palazzo Degli Uffizi” was a study in the tall office building typology. The starting point was a consideration of the core and shell typology which is repeated internationally and has become an industry in itself, a culmination of a series of standard systems and parts that work together to create the basic real-estate commodity of open plan leasable office space.


Final_Perspective Section

A common theme in each of the projects was a reconsideration of the nature of the work space, with a shift from formal and flexible environments exemplified by the open plan to a series of more program specific shared and common spaces, as well as a series of more flexible informal spaces that accommodate the nature of contemporary office work environments.

Cutrona, Idrovo, Shah_04

All of the projects explored a structural scheme that shifts from the paradigm of the central shear resisting core + exterior skin, and proposed situations in which the structural configurations of the buildings created deep shifts in the building’s logic.


Following the initial prototype development phase of the studio, each group split up to explore the instantiation of their building type on three different urban sites in New York City. The systems were therefore tested against specific urban conditions and its’ behavior modified accordingly.

shah,tejas (3d drawings) (4)

Comfort_Scoccimarro Greiner Final Prototype Model 1

Cutrona, Idrovo, Shah_05

final 4

Coulombe, Eteson, Sharrief, Final Model 01








In September, Thomas brought the Atlantic Yards exhibit to NJIT for a second showing. The exhibit was accompanied by a lecture presentation at the school. Thomas, Farzana Gandhi, Joshua Zinder, David Cunningham and Rob Cody each presented their schemes.



The presentations were followed by a discussion moderated by NJIT faculty.




On June 5th the exhibit “5 Proposals for the Future of the Atlantic Yards,” organized by OPerA Studio, opened at the Warehouse623 gallery in Brooklyn.  Hundreds of people attended the event, including press and representatives from Forest City Ratner.



The Atlantic Yards site presents a major opportunity to create a significant piece of architecture and urbanism at the center of several Brooklyn neighborhoods. In the exhibit, five architects presented their alternative proposals to Forest City Ratner Company’s approved master plan. Each scheme provided for the 4,278,000 square feet of housing and 156,000 square feet of retail space provided for In the Ratner plan for phase two of the site. The projects are inherently critical of the ‘tower-in-the park’ typology of the Ratner master plan, which will have the effect of creating a series of enclave towers with residual urban space that is ignorant of the fabric and urban space of the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods.



OPerA Studio’s proposal, titled “The Garden in the Machine”


Presentation boards by Amoia Cody Architects


Sectional model by Matthias Altwicker and Farzana Gandhi





The exhibit catalog showcases each of the projects and is available from OPerA Studio for $39.00