Domestic Ribbon

Armed with a masters in architecture from Columbia University and only 3 years in the field, architectural designer Alan Y. L. Chan renovated a wreck of an apartment in an early 1900s building on the Upper East Side. The second-floor walkup was just over 400 square feet, with three rooms divided by light-blocking partitions.

Chan Residence

“It was dark, gloomy, and cramped. The fixtures were rusty and the floor was slanted,” says Chan, who saw its potential, bought it and began tearing down walls. His design concept revolved around what he describes as one singular, unifying element: a concrete “ribbon” that spans the length of the apartment, beginning in the bathroom and meandering through the adjacent kitchen, briefly serving as the countertop before descending to the floor and running the length of the space, culminating on the other side as a functional window seat and desk. “The concrete ribbon is the life force that synthesizes form and function in the apartment,” says Chan. “It not only unifies the space, it elevates, descends, contracts and expands to accommodate specific needs throughout.”

With a full-time job at an architecture firm and very little hands-on construction experience, Chan dove in to the project solo, devoting every Saturday to it. He defied the mother of all renovation taboos and lived in the apartment through every excruciating moment of its reconstruction. Because the place lacked electricity, running water, and plumbing, Chan joined a nearby 24-hour gym for showers and bathroom needs, and relied on local takeout for sustenance. He utilized a barely functioning radiator to get him through the winter months, and had three air purifiers going at all times to help cut down on the ingestion of site toxins. “I taught myself to use power tools, cutting my hands with various saws; I bruised my hand with a hammer, and I even slipped and fell down a full flight of stairs while carrying materials,” Chan says. Yet he persevered, and after a year and a half—about 90 full days of work—the apartment was finished.

Chan stayed with simple materials to complement the concrete: magnesite (a material he replicated from the Schindler house) for bathroom sinks, tub and countertops; fir, birch and maple wood; untreated black steel; glass; Plexiglas and the existing exposed brick lining the load-bearing wall. He designed most everything, and sprang for faucets from Vola and Dornbracht, and Miele and LG appliances. He strove to maximize functionality wherever possible in the small space, such as in the fabricated steel plane that serves as a backsplash in the kitchen and a fixed bench on the living/dining side; a table that slides freely between the bench and the desk at the opposite end of the apartment; a light shelf that provides illumination and storage; and a Murphy bed that tucks neatly into the wall containing the closets and shelving. The bathroom and adjacent kitchen almost exist as one room to enhance the feeling of openness, separated only by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall and door with a roll-down shade for privacy. At the far end, just past the bed, the concrete finishes its journey as a seat and work surface fronted by a window wall—the main source of natural light for the apartment. The result is an ideal manifestation of the form and function Chan refers to, tied together with a very tidy, very modern, ribbon.

All told, Chan saved on labor costs, but was surprised by how long it took to complete certain elements of the project, and by the hefty price tag attached to some of the materials—especially, he says, the fiberglass insulation and the maple for the walls and floor. Through the process, he came see the project as a metaphor for something much larger: “I had no running water, no lights, nothing, but I made it through. I turned something that was in horrible condition into something beautiful. It made me realize that no matter how bad things get, it can always get better.” And when asked what advice he might give to those who are undertaking a renovation, he offers: “Be organized and have a realistic schedule. Get in shape mentally and physically—it is very demanding. Believe in yourself. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because that’s how you learn.”

To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow

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