Even within the constraints of a top floor in a six-story brick structure on a tight Manhattan site, it is possible to create an expansive interior environment through the deft manipulation of light and space. Kathryn Dean, principal of the New York firm Dean/Wolf Architects, achieved this feat in her design of the Garden Light Loft for Dr. Bradley Schiff, his wife, Jen Roff, and their two daughters. Reworking and expanding the sixth level and the roof of a 1920 brick-and-timber former warehouse in Tribeca took ingenuity and daring.
A stair twists up to the rooftop gardens and sitting area. Photo © Paul Warchol
The interior of the 25-foot-wide, 95-foot-long space, with double-hung wood sash windows at its narrow ends, was tunnel-like and dark. Roff says the couple turned to Dean, who had designed their previous apartment, because it was “so comfortable and beautiful.” Exploring the new property, Dean saw there was one small existing skylight and decided that extensively deploying this architectural element was the way to go. To illuminate the spaces she conceived for the main floor of the duplex—the living and dining areas, kitchen, three bedrooms, and two baths—Dean created four polygonal skylights of varying sizes. And to connect to the roof, where Dean placed a planted terrace and kitchen garden (Schiff is an avid horticulturalist), plus a penthouse containing a sitting room and small guest room, she devised an open stair that allows light to filter down to the hallway and dining area through a large window wall.
On the roof, Kathryn Dean designed a glazed sitting area overlooking the terrace and polygonal skylights. Photo © Paul Warchol
Achieving the appropriate effect was not easy: any architect without a strong interest in geometry and construction might want to avoid this challenge. But Dean, aided by a can-do engineer and a willing contractor, seized the opportunity to create a complex roof structure containing the skylights. At first she thought it should be steel; her engineer sold her on lightweight concrete.
On top of that, Dean wanted the concrete to be contoured in certain areas to better bounce the light into the interior. “We turned to ruled surfaces, particularly those conceived by Felix Candela for inspiration,” she says, referring to the Mexican architect famous for his thin-shell structures. She adds that Bendy Ply formwork facilitated the curves. Two of the skylights bend accordingly, as does the long structural beam that shifts from a horizontal to vertical plane as it skims over the dining area and twists up to provide an opening for the stair.
Dean’s engineer and contractor, who had both worked with the firm before, were familiar with “our extensive design process,” says the architect. “They seemed confident that we knew how to build—certainly enough to get this to work.”
The resulting assemblage of concrete beams of various dimensions—some deep, some shallow, some upturned—now spans the original brick party walls. Suspended from the armature is the stainless-steel open-riser stair with wood treads.
If the construction sounds complex, it is. And the effect is surreal. Skylights of different shapes and sizes bring daylight into the central hall, extending from the main bedroom past the dining area to the living room, as well as to the two bathrooms and the kitchen. The apertures and smooth surfaces amplify the ambient quality of light as the eye travels up and out to glimpses of the rooftop and even the city’s towers looming above.
The living room (1) opens onto a long hall with contoured ceiling surfaces (2 & 3). The soft sheen of aluminum-paneled storage walls gives the interior an evanescent quality. Photos © Paul Warchol
The choice of materials and finishes enhances the ineffable, dematerialized nature of the spaces: gray and white oak lines bedroom walls; elsewhere, sanded-aluminum panels give the storage walls in the hall, living, and dining areas a soft sheen. Ipé decking and precast-concrete pavers cover the roof terrace; concrete and white oak sheathe the floors inside. The muted tones of the setting highlight spare Midcentury Modern chairs by George Nelson and Hans Wegner and the cocoon-like suspended fireplace in the penthouse sitting room.
A suspended fireplace keeps the interior of the penthouse structure warm when needed. Photo © Paul Warchol
The structural acrobatics—which included raising the sixth-floor ceiling slightly but keeping the penthouse structure low, to conform with zoning restrictions on building heights—are impressive. The overall result makes the experience of moving through both levels a memorable reminder of the benefits of all forms of natural illumination in urban confines, no matter how daunting the effort.
Click drawing to enlarge
Click drawing to enlarge
Dean/Wolf Architects — Kathryn Dean, principal in charge; Chris Kroner, associate partner; Nash Waters, Michael Stinnett, project team
Hage Engineerng (structural); CGM Engineering (mechanical)
AEC Consulting and Expediting (zoning)
Dr. Bradley Schiff and Jennifer Roff
3,000 square feet
Hanover Roof Pavers
Ipé Wood Deck:
Plytech Bendy Ply