We first met Rachel Ehrlich while exploring some of the new buildings squeezing into New York City’s churchyards and around its elevated train tracks. The work of the architect, who specializes in affordable and supportive housing at Dattner Architects, is a good example of the tight spots out of which new affordable housing emerges in New York City today: complicated sites, financial constraints, layers of regulation. But from these complex equations, Ehrlich and her collaborators have been wresting comfortable homes for some of the New Yorkers who need them the most. And from walls and windows that make possible sound and serene interiors, it is a short distance to moving developers to consider climate impacts inside a building’s bubble and well beyond. Faced with overwhelming crises of housing affordability and climate, what can a building — or an architect — do? Rather than despair, Ehrlich discusses how she does the work, with care. – MM
Affordable housing construction is such a complex process, I think it’s often hard for people to understand what role architects play in making housing today.
The way that we create housing in New York City is its own ecosystem and industry. The architecture is a tiny piece of it. We think of the building as being the most important part, but the people that put together the financing think of the money as the most important part. And then the people who are providing social services to the people in these homes are like: “Obviously, caring for these people is the most important part. If we don’t figure that out, what are we doing here?” It takes so many different kinds of expertise, huge teams of people. You have to be able to coordinate and orchestrate all these different parties, create a shared vision for what we want, and then transform that vision into plans that we can build. We as architects need to know enough to get everyone working together and then make sure that in addition to meeting all of the technical and design requirements, we’re providing beautiful, gracious, welcoming homes for people.
Dattner Architects recently completed an affordable housing project which is quite a prominent sight in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Can you tell us about the kind of constraints you were responding to at Santaella Gardens, starting with the site itself?
It was a weedy lot with a disused, one-story former health clinic, bounded by the Bronx River Parkway and the elevated 6 train. The site was rezoned to increase the density to permit housing there, so we had to go through city planning and ULURP. Zoning really influenced the form of Santaella Gardens, and the Department of City Planning had some very active folks who said: “We think there should be a little bit more articulation in the facade. Can you create some recesses and reveals in addition to the setbacks that are required by the zoning?” They are planners, and they want to improve the neighborhoods where we develop. And we wanted to extend the fabric of the neighborhood across this derelict site. We also needed to deal with these strong linear forces of transportation all around. So, we’re simultaneously completing the streetscape, and being a good neighbor, and being contextual. Also, this building can be viewed as an object from almost every side, because there’s the Parkway culvert on one side and the train on the other, and it’s taller than its low-rise neighbors to the north. It had to fill a lot of roles, both as urban fabric and also a bit of an object building.
That was a tough site, but so much of what’s available now for ground-up construction of new, affordable housing relies on major environmental remediation for hazardous materials in the soil, noise abatement from different sources, or weird-shaped parcels along elevated tracks. What does it mean to design a contextual project when the context is so disparate, fractured, and contradictory? Inhospitable, even? How do we make this a home and a good neighbor?
We’ve talked about some of the neighborly aspects, but the particular demands of mitigating a somewhat extreme environment also created an opportunity to make significant improvements to the building’s interior environments and systems, right?
There was an environmental requirement to mitigate the noise from the highway and the train. To meet noise abatement requirements, no mechanical openings were permitted for ventilation, heating, or cooling, and the windows had to be extremely high-performance. Since a dense, well-sealed envelope that blocks noise also blocks heat transmission, we were already halfway to a passive-house-style design standard.
We knew if we wanted to do passive house on this project, we needed to use standard systems in an innovative way. For affordable housing in New York City, that means bearing wall construction, with block walls that you build up, like a kid would build with building blocks. You make two parallel rows of blocks, and you lay big precast concrete planks down on top, and that’s the floor. And then you lay up another set of blocks and you place the next floor. But passive house requires that you minimize thermal bridging that will cause the building to lose energy from the inside to the outside. So how do we avoid thermal bridging with a wall that is both the skin of the building and the structural system of the building?
We ended up making an extremely deep and thick wall. There’s a full nine inches from the face of those concrete blocks to the face of brick. The brick takes up the first four inches, and then the five-inch airspace in between contains four inches of insulation. Since the windows are installed in the structural block wall, it created nine-inch deep, carved-out recesses that needed to be enclosed, which was the perfect place to introduce color. So we have colorful metal panels that are pushed back to the plane of the windows, and we use the same color at the sill, jamb, and head.
As affordable housing architects, we often need to come up with design ideas that can’t be value engineered out of the project. Say you have a bunch of exterior sunshades that are attached to the buildings; someone will be like: “We can’t afford those, so those have got to go.” If that was your whole design idea, now you have a blank wall. If you’ve made your design idea an integral part of the way the building is constructed — in this case, the colorful closure pieces that conceal the wall cavity at each window — then you can’t take it out. That’s half the game with affordable housing: Your design needs to be VE proof.
You’ve subsequently applied these techniques at other projects. But if more sustainable or lower energy systems aren’t required, and are more expensive, how do you make the case to builders?
Local and state agencies provide funding in the form of low-income housing tax credits; to qualify for that, your housing projects have to meet agency standards. This has been a major driver of how affordable housing is produced in New York City, because if you want your tax credits, they may require you to, say, build 15 percent better than required by the energy code. The question that our clients always ask is: “If HPD, for instance, is going to require an all-electric building, then is the funding they provide going to meet those higher first construction costs? And have they increased their subsidy to reflect the increased operating costs of running an all-electric building?”
If owners don’t feel like they’re going to be sufficiently compensated for these more expensive, high-tech systems, then it becomes really hard to make the case that they should include ERVs. Energy recovery ventilation is the secret sauce of passive house. All passive house projects have to be mechanically ventilated, so they’re not only exhausting the stale, humid air from inside the apartments, they’re piping in fresh, filtered air. Instead of just dumping hot and humid, or cold, dry air straight from the outside into your apartment, it goes through an energy recovery ventilation system, where you’re grabbing the energy from that exhaust air and tempering the incoming air with it.
Energy recovery ventilation is not cheap. These are large, expensive machines. It requires a lot of duct work to supply fresh air to every room in every apartment. It’s costly and takes up space, and I find it to be the single factor that a developer or builder might say: “Oh no, we can’t do passive house because those ERVs are just a bridge too far. We can’t afford them.” There are other elements that can create a premium: having all-electric heating, enhanced building envelopes that are more high-performance and eliminate thermal bridging. I feel like the agencies are catching up, acknowledging that if they want to lead the market in these technologies and systems, they need to find a way to underwrite it. And some of our clients are mission-driven and feel a responsibility to address and mitigate climate breakdown.
There are the external costs and benefits of reducing energy consumption and emissions, but these systems also translate into internal benefits for residents. How do health and equity intersect with heating and cooling and ventilation?
One of the most striking features of a passive house project, when you walk into it, is that it is quiet, and the air feels fresh. In your apartment, you have a comfortable home that has even temperatures throughout. You’ve reduced the draftiness with high-performance windows that keep the sound out. The indoor air quality of these homes is really striking. It’s a health benefit, especially in neighborhoods that have been subject to so much pollution from trucking, fossil fuel power plants, and highways, where there’s high levels of childhood asthma. You have this fresh, filtered air that allows you to keep your windows shut, so you don’t have dust, allergens, and other pollutants blowing in, you don’t have the noise from the train or the traffic, or whatever street noise is there. It really gives you a healthy, sanitary, serene environment. High-performance buildings also reduce residents’ energy bills, which are a disproportionately high part of the budget for lower-income households.
It seems that, on the one hand, the building’s design is oriented to its surroundings, to how the massing and facade allow it to be a good neighbor and respond to the urban fabric, however complex that may be. At the same time, in seeking to achieve a certain level of resilience for the building’s systems, for the interior environment it can provide, it’s almost like an ark, or a cocoon.
When you drive down energy demand significantly with a high-performance building, you can meet more of the building’s needs with onsite renewable energy — solar in this case. But in addition to being more self-sufficient and resilient, even when the power goes out and the building is not energized, the envelope itself is so well insulated that you can shelter in place comfortably without heat in that building. Just the heat of bodies in an apartment is going to keep you comfortable in your home if the power goes out. People often say: “If it’s electric and there’s a power outage, how do you heat the building?” They don’t realize that even gas-fired systems require electricity to circulate hot water. We’re all in trouble if the power goes out. But if your building is resilient and offers you those kinds of added resiliency features, that’s another way that we’re extending wellness and security to underserved people.
When we first spoke about your recently completed 102-unit project on the site of the historic St. James Church Fordham in the Bronx, you talked to us about a “comfortable, safe, gracious, trauma-informed home” as the standard you want to design to. How does trauma inform affordable housing design?
The idea of trauma-informed design is to acknowledge that everyone experiences trauma in their lives, in some form or another, but some people, for different reasons, are not able to recover as quickly from it, and they have long-term traumatic stress in their lives. In this case, trauma is shorthand for the consistent and persistent hauntings of an initial crisis. That could be an individual occurrence like a car crash, or a natural disaster, or a war, or some abusive situation, or it can be institutional and systemic, like racism and sexism, homophobia, transphobia. It could be homelessness, it could be environmental. We can understand that people who are struggling to access affordable housing in New York could have been subjected to any or many of these different factors.
As architects, we have a growing awareness of how our first relationship is with our physical environment. For a lot of people who we design homes for, we have to understand that there is a physiological stress response that they have when they enter a space that has a traumatic trigger in some way. Those triggers can be disruptive sounds, like a fight, someone having an episode in the apartment next door, door slamming, footsteps. It could be unpleasant scents, like cooking odors, or cigarette smell, or perfume, body odor, all these things that we address by having fresh, filtered air and quiet apartments.
The idea is not cutting off and creating an antiseptic environment, but filtering and creating sensory boundaries to these different triggers. These are things that we appreciate in good design. When you understand how they help your body feel safe, and secure, and like you’re in control, we can design for that as a goal instead of having that be just an afterthought.
St. James Terrace is 100 percent supportive housing, so it was all one-bedroom and studio apartments. The client was Concern Housing, a non-profit agency that develops housing with onsite, individualized support services. Concern wanted to give the residents more individual control over their heating and cooling because that fosters comfort and wellness. They have less upset residents if people can have air conditioning 365 days a year, or heating for that matter.
In addition to comfort and control over individual spaces, supportive housing developments offer space for additional programs. What kind of design considerations come into play in these shared spaces?
Supportive housing is a form of housing that acknowledges that for some people to thrive and succeed in their new, hopefully permanent home, they need other forms of support. In many cases, it’s onsite medical and psychological support: case managers that help people access benefits, there might be a part-time physician that comes to the building. It is so much more cost effective to provide services for people and keep them in their homes than to deal with homelessness on an emergency basis.
HCR, which is the New York State Department of Homes and Community Renewal, has new resiliency and sustainability requirements that apply to supportive housing. For anyone living with special needs, and that includes seniors, there needs to be a place of refuge in the building. So, they can go to a common area, and there’ll be heating, air conditioning, emergency back-up power, and water for people to stay on site, because they may not be able to go a family member’s house, or have the money to go somewhere else, or have a car to drive out of the city. These spaces have a dual purpose of providing amenity spaces for people to use together and also become an area of refuge if there is an extended power outage or weather emergency that requires residents to shelter in place.
The St. James building has a computer lounge/library and a multipurpose room. It has a couple of terraces, with one accessible from the social services suite so that case managers and clients can go outside and meet together. There’s a separate roof terrace up on the main roof for smoking so that people who smoke won’t negatively impact the nonsmokers.
We want these spaces to be layered so that you can choose how much connection you want to have with other residents. We have more individuation in the common areas, so that people have more privacy, and more control over the level of engagement they want to have. This is something that we all sort of take for granted, but when you’re thinking about how you’re going to design one hundred or two hundred units, how are all these people going to share space together?
The work we’ve been discussing incorporates a significant amount of advocacy. You also hold elected office. Your work seems to offer a very thorough answer to the common question of what kind of agency architects can ultimately have in the built environment. Have you always been working in parallel as architect and citizen, or did practice at a certain point push you to also get into politics?
I’m a volunteer elected official on my borough council in Madison, New Jersey. So much of a small town’s concerns pertain to infrastructure, capital projects: What are we going to build, and where are we going to build it? I wish more architects would run for public office because architects generally are trusted as professionals but have both the generalist perspective and also, a long-term vision for the future.
It has given me an opportunity to be a climate advocate. We recently adopted climate goals in our town of 17,000 people and are working towards cutting carbon pollution and increasing resiliency to mitigate the effects of climate change that are already here. Now, we’re going to other towns in the area and saying to our neighbors: If you’re interested in doing what we’re doing, we have a template for you. It’s a natural fit to have architects who think about these things to apply that on a planning board, or a zoning board, or in elected office. We have to be visionaries if we want to do the kind of work that we do. New construction of affordable housing projects takes years, and the wheels of government turn slowly. You have to have an appetite for delayed gratification and have a vision for the future that is prosperous, and beautiful, and better than what we have today. That same philosophy and mission that we have in our profession is needed in our governments.
I’m finishing my fourth year now on Borough Council. I didn’t get into electoral politics, though, until the 2016 election, which is when so many people came out of the woodwork. Before that, I was, sadly, really not engaged in civics. The longstanding effect of that election will be people like me, who never thought about politics before, who have taken the fight to our local communities, to try to make the world a better place.
On that note, can I ask if you are optimistic about the future? We’ve talked about some of the insights and technologies that we have at hand, but we also have to acknowledge that New York City’s housing crisis and the global climate crisis can easily feel intractable.
The thing that helps me fight climate dread is the work that my colleagues and I are doing in housing, and especially the high-performance, high-efficiency housing that we try to design. That is good work to do in any case, right? That is useful work that is worth committing your life to. If you can find a way to have a life where you’ve figured out what you’re good at, and figured out what brings you joy, and figure out what part of the climate problem you’re trying to solve, and if you can spend as many minutes of your life working in the center of that Venn diagram of those three things, then that will propel you to keep working.
The work itself becomes both what we have to do and what we need to do, just to keep going. It’s a good way to live, and it’s a way to work that gives life meaning and reminds us that when we pool our efforts and lend our voices to movements, we amplify our impact. I feel really lucky to be working in a field that feels like it is part of the solution. And once you know what those solutions are and that we can do them. . . I guess optimism is no longer the controlling factor or the thing that we strive for.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.