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Near Westside Story

Three houses in Syracuse win a sustainable design competition and reshape an urban neighborhood for $200,000 apiece.

Live-Work Home, Syracuse, New York
When he became the dean of Syracuse University's School of Architecture in 2004, Mark Robbins made a plan to help the city and, potentially, the entire country. “I wanted to see if we could build houses that simultaneously made propositions about sustainability and about the possibility of constructing houses in a city like Syracuse,” Robbins said. The result was three green homes for $200,000 each and the promise of more to come. Read more about the central New York project here.

When Mark Robbins came to Syracuse, New York, in 2004 to become dean of the Syracuse University School of Architecture, arguably no neighborhood was more emblematic of the city’s struggles—and its potential—than the Near Westside, a once-vibrant collection of bungalows and shotgun cottages west of downtown. Many of these structures had been demolished or fallen into disrepair as manufacturing jobs disappeared and residents fled for the suburbs, eroding the area’s urban fabric.

Robbins devised the From the Ground Up competition in 2008, inviting each team to submit plans for a well-designed, efficient single-family home to be built on one of three Near Westside vacant lots for $150,000. The overarching goal was to forge new models for residential infill development that could breathe new life into urban communities across the United States. “I wanted to see if we could build houses that simultaneously made propositions about sustainability and about the possibility of constructing houses in a city like Syracuse,” Robbins says.

He partnered with two regional organizations—Home HeadQuarters, which owned the land and served as general contractor, and the Syracuse Center of Excellence, which helped the architects meet sustainability goals—to construct the three winning designs. Unique mechanical and material requirements, along with Home HeadQuarters’ insistence that a basement be added to each house, nudged the price tag for each project north of $200,000. Construction was completed in the fall of 2010, and all three houses are now happily occupied by enthusiastic Near Westside newcomers.

Click here to read more on the R-House project

Click here to read about the Ted project

Click here to read about the Live Work Home project

  • sustainable house facade with fiber cement and aluminum panels

    Project: R-House

    Passive solar design, which promotes passive means of generating and retaining warmth over active—and expensive—systems, is central to R-House’s success. Solar gain—chiefly from rear-facing windows that cascade from roofline to threshold on the building’s south side—and heat generated by people and electrical equipment warm the house. A thick, superinsulated, and tightly sealed exterior minimizes heat loss, and an energy-recovery ventilation system transfers warmth from the inside air that is being exhausted to the fresh air being drawn from the outside.

  • eco house with painted red steel Pac-Clad panels

    Project: TED

    Unlike its next-door neighbor, R-House, TED wasn’t originally planned to meet the exacting Passive House standard. Onion Flats initially won on the basis of its relatively straightforward proposal for a two-bedroom house with a three-story interior atrium. The building’s green bona fides came largely from four roof-mounted thermal solar panels and a 120-gallon water storage tank that Tim McDonald, a partner at the firm, says would have met nearly all of the home’s heat and hot-water needs.

  • Shotgun house with CabFab composite board sliding doors

    Project: Live Work Home

    Richard Cook, a principal at Cook + Fox Architects, surveyed the Near Westside’s inventory of vacant structures and arrived at a conclusion that would guide the design of the Live Work Home. “The last thing in the world that the Near Westside needed was another house, whether it’s green or otherwise,” he says. “What it needed was a new prototype.” is your online home in the modern world. Join us as we follow our team around the globe on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Want more? Never miss another word of Dwell with our free iTunes app.


What a lovely home! Good for you for going green and taking care of our environment! What a beautiful homeowner and her happy dog!

This is really cool. My only complaint is that the Syracuse University School of Architecture and the SUNY ESF Landscape Architecture program should have been involved more. This could have turned into a really awesome learning experience for the local design students.