written by:
October 8, 2009

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.

The apartment, measuring just over 400 square feet, opens into the kitchen, which architectural designer Alan Y. L. Chan outfitted with a <a href="http://www.dornbracht.com/en/">Dornbracht</a> faucet and a sink of his own design. The black steel backsplas
The apartment, measuring just over 400 square feet, opens into the kitchen, which architectural designer Alan Y. L. Chan outfitted with a Dornbracht faucet and a sink of his own design. The black steel backsplash doubles as the back of a built-in bench on the other side. A concrete “ribbon” serves as the main design concept and the countertop, and continues throughout the apartment. A built-in LG refrigerator is located just across the concrete floor at right. Image courtesy Brian Riley.
1 / 9
Chan completely gutted the apartment—which had been divided up into three dark, cramped rooms—and utilized the existing footprint for the bathroom and kitchen, but left them open. He also uncovered many layers of paint to find the original exposed brick.
Chan completely gutted the apartment—which had been divided up into three dark, cramped rooms—and utilized the existing footprint for the bathroom and kitchen, but left them open. He also uncovered many layers of paint to find the original exposed brick. It took Chan a year and a half to complete the project while working full time at an architectural firm and devoting his Saturdays to the apartment. Image courtesy Alan Y. L. Chan.
2 / 9
The kitchen has a <a href="http://www.mieleusa.com">Miele</a> cooktop, oven and hood, as well as a small seat before a double-hung window, one of very few natural light sources in the apartment. The concrete ribbon continues into the adjacent bathroom, be
The kitchen has a Miele cooktop, oven and hood, as well as a small seat before a double-hung window, one of very few natural light sources in the apartment. The concrete ribbon continues into the adjacent bathroom, becoming part of the bathtub and counter. Image courtesy Brian Riley.
3 / 9
A view of the bathroom and kitchen from the main living area; the front door is at left. At right is the bench of fabricated steel, from Master Kitchen Supplies (212-533-2356). Set into a recess (with <a href="http://www.hafele.com/us">Häfele</a> hardware
A view of the bathroom and kitchen from the main living area; the front door is at left. At right is the bench of fabricated steel, from Master Kitchen Supplies (212-533-2356). Set into a recess (with Häfele hardware) separating the maple flooring and the concrete ribbon, near left, is a table that can be used for dining, or rolled across the apartment for use as a work surface. Chan left some exposed brick on the load-bearing wall to retain what he could of the apartment’s original character. Image courtesy Brian Riley.
4 / 9
Floor-to-ceiling maple sheathes the storage cabinets and the bottom of the Murphy bed, at right. The concrete ribbon continues as a window seat before becoming a desk.
Floor-to-ceiling maple sheathes the storage cabinets and the bottom of the Murphy bed, at right. The concrete ribbon continues as a window seat before becoming a desk.
5 / 9
The Murphy bed in its pulled-down state is backed by mirrors from <a href="http://www.sergisimages.com">Sergi's Images Mirrors & Glass</a> to help bounce light from the north-facing windows around the apartment. A cabinet hung at the upper left provides m
The Murphy bed in its pulled-down state is backed by mirrors from Sergi's Images Mirrors & Glass to help bounce light from the north-facing windows around the apartment. A cabinet hung at the upper left provides more storage.
6 / 9
When rolled across the apartment, the table serves as an extension of the concrete desk, partially tucking underneath to extend the work surface and create an interplay of materials. “Each part must serve multiple functions,” says Chan.
When rolled across the apartment, the table serves as an extension of the concrete desk, partially tucking underneath to extend the work surface and create an interplay of materials. “Each part must serve multiple functions,” says Chan.
7 / 9
Chan outfitted the bathroom in marine fir plywood from <a href="http://www.rosenzweiglumber.com">Rosenzweig Lumber</a> for its resistance to high-moisture environments. The fixtures are from <a href="http://www.rosenzweiglumber.com">Vola</a>; the bathtub,
Chan outfitted the bathroom in marine fir plywood from Rosenzweig Lumber for its resistance to high-moisture environments. The fixtures are from Vola; the bathtub, countertop and sinks are of magnesite. The full-height glass is stationary except for a sliding door at left, and a curtain can be rolled down for privacy.
8 / 9
The new, open floor plan, with the concrete ribbon highlighted in pink, incorporates much-needed storage along one entire wall, and highlights the introduction of the moving table, the improved flow of space and the simple yet architecturally harmonious l
The new, open floor plan, with the concrete ribbon highlighted in pink, incorporates much-needed storage along one entire wall, and highlights the introduction of the moving table, the improved flow of space and the simple yet architecturally harmonious layout.
9 / 9
The apartment, measuring just over 400 square feet, opens into the kitchen, which architectural designer Alan Y. L. Chan outfitted with a <a href="http://www.dornbracht.com/en/">Dornbracht</a> faucet and a sink of his own design. The black steel backsplas
The apartment, measuring just over 400 square feet, opens into the kitchen, which architectural designer Alan Y. L. Chan outfitted with a Dornbracht faucet and a sink of his own design. The black steel backsplash doubles as the back of a built-in bench on the other side. A concrete “ribbon” serves as the main design concept and the countertop, and continues throughout the apartment. A built-in LG refrigerator is located just across the concrete floor at right. Image courtesy Brian Riley.
Project 
Chan Residence
Architect 

“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.”

Chan completely gutted the apartment—which had been divided up into three dark, cramped rooms—and utilized the existing footprint for the bathroom and kitchen, but left them open. He also uncovered many layers of paint to find the original exposed brick.
Chan completely gutted the apartment—which had been divided up into three dark, cramped rooms—and utilized the existing footprint for the bathroom and kitchen, but left them open. He also uncovered many layers of paint to find the original exposed brick. It took Chan a year and a half to complete the project while working full time at an architectural firm and devoting his Saturdays to the apartment. Image courtesy Alan Y. L. Chan.
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.

A view of the bathroom and kitchen from the main living area; the front door is at left. At right is the bench of fabricated steel, from Master Kitchen Supplies (212-533-2356). Set into a recess (with <a href="http://www.hafele.com/us">Häfele</a> hardware
A view of the bathroom and kitchen from the main living area; the front door is at left. At right is the bench of fabricated steel, from Master Kitchen Supplies (212-533-2356). Set into a recess (with Häfele hardware) separating the maple flooring and the concrete ribbon, near left, is a table that can be used for dining, or rolled across the apartment for use as a work surface. Chan left some exposed brick on the load-bearing wall to retain what he could of the apartment’s original character. Image courtesy Brian Riley.
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.

The Murphy bed in its pulled-down state is backed by mirrors from <a href="http://www.sergisimages.com">Sergi's Images Mirrors & Glass</a> to help bounce light from the north-facing windows around the apartment. A cabinet hung at the upper left provides m
The Murphy bed in its pulled-down state is backed by mirrors from Sergi's Images Mirrors & Glass to help bounce light from the north-facing windows around the apartment. A cabinet hung at the upper left provides more storage.
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

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

in the mix antwerp belgium warehouse renovation live work space lounge area cushions dining table kitchenette borge mogensen cabinets
An artist and an architect build their home, studios, and an exhibition space inside an Antwerp warehouse.
February 13, 2016
senses sight products kinetic wire sculpture alexander calder mobile
A phenomenon of light and visual perception, colors signal a language of their own.
February 13, 2016
beach weathered seaside retreat sagaponack new york pine walls aluminum furniture
Balancing texture, proportion, and found objects lends unexpected sophistication to a seaside retreat.
February 13, 2016
Concrete floor, white walls, Bend sectional sofa, Metropolitan chair by B&B Italia, and Arper pouf in living room of Rhode Island family vacation home by Bernheimer Architecture.
Create comfortable areas to lounge, sit, eat, and entertain with these designs.
February 12, 2016
São Paulo apartment dining room with local wood floors and HAY chairs
From concrete to wood, these South American homes enjoy nature inside and out.
February 12, 2016
Custom cabinetry and trim in Chicago apartment renovation.
The Second City is second to none when it comes to inventive modern architecture, from Louis Sullivan to the present day.
February 12, 2016
Kitchen of 1956 midcentury modern Palm Springs home.
Celebrate Palm Springs Modernism Week, which runs from February 11–21, with a look at some of our favorite modern desert oases.
February 12, 2016
Gustav bicycle by Coh&Co
Designmuseum Danmark unveils a permanent collection highlighting new developments in Danish design.
February 12, 2016
A Seattle studio's courtyard
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 12, 2016
Chalet in the French alps
An innovative glass addition adds contrast to a timber mountain lodge in France.
February 11, 2016
Aumas' assorted collectables.
Bright colors and vintage furniture are abound in these French homes.
February 11, 2016
Kogan designed a number of the built-in furnishings, including the headboard and cupboard in the master bedroom.The cupboard is deliberately reminiscent of a mid-century stereo speaker. The vintage lounge chairs are by Percival Lafer.
Need to relax? Make your bedroom an oasis from the rest of the house.
February 11, 2016
Modern Florida seaside home with corian island, dornbracht faucet, cees braakman combex chairs and marble knoll table in the kitchen
Read more about Knoll's impressive career here, but in the meantime, explore just a few of her works in these contemporary homes.
February 11, 2016
Modern small box home in Mexico
Letting the warm climate indoors is a common thread through these diverse dwellings.
February 11, 2016
Modern white cabinets under the stairs with skylight above
What could be better than a modest-sized house in a quaintly historic city?
February 11, 2016
dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016