OPerAtive Representation: OPerA Studio exhibition at DUMBO Open Studios 2018

As an architecture studio based in DUMBO, with many projects completed and underway throughout Brooklyn, we are constantly inspired by the artists and designers in our community. Preparing a pop-up exhibition for this year’s DUMBO open studios was a great way to share some of our current work with neighbors as well as visitors to our corner of New York City. Titled “OPerAtive Representation,” the exhibition gave us an opportunity to explore various forms of representation in architectural design. For buildings not yet built, representation is necessary to communicate ideas to our clients, contractors, builders, and fellow designers. This takes on many forms depending on the phase of the project and the intended audience or purpose of communication. (more…)


Opera-Studio Architecture is designing the renovation of a traditional Brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. With Urban Elephant as the general contractor (atlanticelephant.com), the renovation will restore a two-family dwelling and a renter’s unit at the basement. The design intent is to retain the character and detail of the traditional townhouse while upgrading it with new systems from the inside out. The scope of work includes leveling and replacing the floors, restoring and replacing interior woodwork, designing new interior kitchens and bathrooms, integrating new mechanical and plumbing work, replacing exterior windows and doors, restoring the exterior façade, and proposing a new exterior garden space with a parlor terrace. The extent of this renovation required landmarks and department of buildings (DOB) approval.



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 previously occupied them are systematically demolished, new buildings are constructed, and with them a new context emerges. But why is this new context so unpleasant, and how could we ensure better results in the future? (more…)


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.


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.

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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.






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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