Playing it cool in New York

Sian
Monday 17 Feb 2014

A Brooklyn brownstone receives a successful Passive House makeover

Retrofitting older buildings for contemporary use is a vital part of architectural practice. In the book, Old Buildings New Forms by Monacelli Press (2013), author Francoise Astorg Bollack makes the case that today’s best innovations in architecture are not in new construction but in the reuse of older buildings.  By inserting, wrapping, and weaving new life into older structures one can get transformative results.

The Tighthouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn is one such project that makes the case for the remarkable transformation that can occur by reusing older buildings. Designed by Julie Torres Moskovitz  of the environmentally-focused practice Fabrica718, Tighthouse is one of the greenest homes in America and the first certified Passivhaus in New York. 

In 2012, Torres Moskovitz transformed a 1920s brownstone into an energy efficient and modern machine for living by encasing the exterior walls of a rundown traditional 3-storey brick row house with a new high performance wrapper that has 20inch-thick insulation and an outermost layer of grey stucco, making the formerly 'leaky' house air tight.   

New triple glazed argon gas Schuco windows add to the buildings already aggressive energy performance while giving the traditional brownstoner a decidedly modern look and remaining sympathetic to the original structure in its detailing and the proportioning of the openings. Inside, each window on the parlor level is sealed with an Intello Plus membrane and Tescon Profill tape. Torres Moskovitz told Dwell magazine, which recently featured the house, that what she has done is akin to 'gift-wrapping'.

The interiors of the house are sparse, in part the aesthetic choice of its 'iPhone' generation owners, but also because the construction dollars were spent on crafting the house’s energy efficient envelope.

At the rear of the house are large north facing windows - generally an energy-loser in this part of the world - but the energy modeling for the house, which weighs options and trade-offs, allowed the windows to be used with no loss in overall performance and with the additional benefit of directing natural light deep into the core of the house, making for a cheerful interior.  

The house was completed in 2012. After the first year of occupancy the family of four’s annual heating and cooling costs ($512) are almost a fifth that of similar homes in New York.

With Tighthouse, Torres Moskovitz pushed the envelope to deliver unprecedented energy performance in a region that is cold and dark for much of the year while her iPhone-generation clients pushed her to achieve these remarkable results. 

Prior to meeting her clients, Torres Moskovitz reportedly knew little about passive house standards. Now she is a convert and an expert - being one of the few certified Passive House professionals in North America and the author of The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design published by Princeton Architectural Press (2013). 

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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