written by:
photos by:
December 19, 2010
Originally published in Young Americans

On a once-vacant corner lot in a transitional Jersey City neighborhood, a pair of local architects devised a clever prefab for a resourceful client.

Modern home facade with cedar-slat rain screen

A cedar-slat rain screen hangs on the facade of Denis Carpenter’s concrete house in Jersey City, softening its appearance and adding a modest dash of color. Carpenter keeps the awning-style windows open in the spring and summer, creating a draft that compensates for the lack of an air-conditioning system.

Photo by 
1 / 9
affordable concrete house in Jersey City

Carpenter poses outside his house, which is shoehorned into a tiny nonconforming lot among a block’s worth of older row houses and a derelict public park.

Photo by 
2 / 9
Modern prefab home with insulated concrete panels

Eighteen insulated concrete panels, each a different size and shape, were trucked to the site and hoisted into place over three days. The outlines of eight of these panels can be seen when the house is viewed from the southwest.

Photo by 
3 / 9
Kitchen dining room with salvaged cabinets

The salvaged 1950s-era kitchen cabinets by Republic Steel, covered with a new Formica countertop, represent both a significant cost savings and Carpenter’s commitment to sustainability. The kitchen opens onto a 72-square-foot deck that offers a view of the Statue of Liberty.

Photo by 
4 / 9
Expansive living area with wooden flooring

The architects used three ceiling heights in the living area, entrance vestibule, and kitchen, creating distinct spaces without building walls.

Photo by 
5 / 9
Bass recorder at home

Carpenter, a former professional musician, spends considerable time playing several instruments around the house, including his bass recorder.

Photo by 
6 / 9
Solar roof panels

A 260-square-foot solar array was installed atop a triangular section of the roof, which faces due south and is angled at 30 degrees for optimal solar collection.

Photo by 
7 / 9
Salvaged brick patio

His patio was constructed with bricks salvaged in the excavation process.

Photo by 
8 / 9
Rear deck with wooden fence

Carpenter spends a lot of time outside on his rear deck.

Photo by 
9 / 9
Modern home facade with cedar-slat rain screen

A cedar-slat rain screen hangs on the facade of Denis Carpenter’s concrete house in Jersey City, softening its appearance and adding a modest dash of color. Carpenter keeps the awning-style windows open in the spring and summer, creating a draft that compensates for the lack of an air-conditioning system.

Project 
Carpenter Residence
Architect 

In the fall of 2006, Denis Carpenter approached the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects with a challenge: Was there an architect, he asked, willing and able to design a house to fit the tiny, weed-strewn lot he had just bought in a down-on-its-luck section of Jersey City, New Jersey?

The house had to be energy-efficient and easy to maintain, he said. It had to be built with concrete and include a cat door for Miska, his five-year-old Siamese mix. And the entire project had to be done for $250,000 or less.

Carpenter is, by his own admission, “not your usual customer” for a custom-built house. A former professional oboist and public-school science teacher, Carpenter, 56, draws a modest salary as a file clerk for a pharmaceutical company. Two well-timed real estate transactions left him with a little money to spend, so he paid $45,000 for a 1,300-square-foot lot next to a derelict public basketball court in Jersey City’s Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood, far from the city’s gentrifying downtown and waterfront.“I got this idea to build a house,” he says. “I don’t know where it came from. I wanted a little more room, because I had no room for guests.”

A copy of Carpenter’s request made its way into the email inbox of Richard Garber, who runs the Manhattan firm GRO Architects with his wife, Nicole Robertson. Garber and Robertson, who live near the Hudson River in Jersey City’s Paulus Hook neighborhood, jumped at a rare chance to work on a project so close to home. They drafted some preliminary drawings and sent them to Carpenter, who hired them almost immediately.

“I had gotten some names, and a few told me, ‘No, I won’t build for under $450 per square foot,’” Carpenter says. “And I ended up with Richard and Nicole. They seemed very excited, they lived in Jersey City, and they both taught. They just seemed like 
the right people.”

The size of Carpenter’s lot—just over 22 feet wide and 56 feet deep—presented a serious challenge, but his short list of requirements also left the architects plenty of room to experiment with different designs, layouts, and finishes.

“Denis didn’t have any preconceptions about what he wanted the house to look like,” says Robertson, 37, an adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University and Barnard College. “He wasn’t someone who came to us and said, ‘Oh, I want a Tudor house,’ or something like that. He had more performance-based requirements. He wanted it to be environmentally sustainable. He had a material requirement of concrete and a budget of $250,000 or so, which he was very clear about from the beginning. And that really set the parameters for the project. For us, that made it a lot of fun.”

Carpenter wanted an open layout for the main floor, where he expected to spend most of his time. So Robertson and Garber, 38, an assistant professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, started with a split-level design, stashing both bedrooms and the bathroom in the basement. Upstairs, they used three different ceiling heights—12 feet in the kitchen, eight feet over the entrance vestibule, and 18 feet in the living area—to define distinct spaces without building walls to separate them. Their design called for a 72-square-foot cantilevered deck to be built off the kitchen, offering a view of the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

The architects ran into the first of several obstacles early in the process when it became clear that they would need “a slew of variances,” as Garber puts it, from the city’s zoning board. Carpenter’s property was only about half the minimum lot size. More critically, Garber and Robertson needed to find a way around a requirement for a 30-foot rear setback, which would have shrunk the footprint of Carpenter’s house to an unworkable 378 square feet.

Garber and Carpenter met with Claire Davis, the city’s supervising planner, and Viola Richardson, who represents the neighborhood on the city council, to assuage their initial concerns that the building’s footprint was too large for the lot and that its concrete-and-cedar facade would clash with the older clapboard row houses on the block. With their support, the project won unanimous approval from the zoning board.

The insulated concrete panels that Garber and Robertson used for the exterior presented another set of problems. Their initial plan to pour the concrete 
on-site proved too expensive and labor-intensive, so they embarked on a long, frustrating search for a company that could cast the panels in a factory, truck them to Jersey City, and assemble them on the lot. After a few false starts, they focused their efforts on Superior Walls of South Jersey (now North-east Precast), a Millville, New Jersey, company that specializes in prefabricated foundation walls.

“We got in touch with them and described the project, and they were just, like, ‘No way. Absolutely no way,’” Garber says, laughing. “But we were really convinced they could do it. We made an argument that we were determined to put the time in to work out the details to collaborate with them. It wasn’t something where we were just going to give them the plans and say, ‘Figure this out.’ We established a relationship with them where they were really part of the process of sorting it out.”

“We just kept on bothering them, basically,” Robertson says. The company’s owners relented and then threw themselves into the project. The 18 panels—rectangular, triangular, and trapezoidal, many with apertures for windows—were delivered to the site and hoisted into place with a crane over three days in late October and early November 2008.

Radiant heating coils embedded in the concrete basement floor and beneath the bamboo floor on the main level keep the 1,360-square-foot house warm in winter. The awning-style windows stay open in the spring and summer months, creating a draft that, with help from a pair of ceiling fans, compensates for the absence of an air-conditioning system. A 140-square-foot loft above the living area opens onto a small bed for a green roof that Carpenter plans to plant with sedum and blueberry bushes.

The pitched roof, which faces south and angles 30 degrees, houses a 260-square-foot solar array. Carpenter receives monthly credits from his utility company for surplus energy that he sends back to the grid. Garber estimates that the system, which cost $8,000 after tax incentives, will pay for itself after about five years.

With money running short, Carpenter found creative ways to save. Instead of buying new kitchen cabinets, he paid $300 for a set of white Republic Steel cabinets from the 1950s that he found on Craigslist, and covered them with a new black Formica countertop. The rear patio was built with 500 bricks that Carpenter salvaged from an old foundation unearthed during the excavation process. Construction was completed in August 2009 for about $252,000, just $2,000 over Carpenter’s initial budget.

Cedar-slat rain screens, mounted on the front and rear of the house, soften its appearance. (“Putting a concrete bunker in a neighborhood like this would send the wrong message, I think,” Garber says). The building’s facade was conceived as a modern riff on a two-family building down the block, and the house doesn’t clash with the other structures on the street so much as it complements them by putting a 21st-century spin on the venerable city row house. Garber and Robertson have come to see the house 
as a model for urban infill redevelopment—a system that can be “mass customized” for specific settings while leveraging the cost savings that go along with the use of prefabricated components.

For Carpenter, though, the house isn’t a system or a concept. It’s home. The light-rail stop where he catches a train to work is a short walk across the basketball court and down a hill, “past all the weeds and the garbage,” he says. The house may not quite have the utilitarian “warehouse look” that Carpenter initially said he wanted, but it is open, airy, and comfortable, and his utility bills are low. His music caroms off the concrete in a pleasing way, and rosemary and sage from his garden add flavor to his meals. And Miska comes and goes as she pleases.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's 2016 Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Rare green AD65 radio from Ecko.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016
gable game austin texas cantilevered home facade windows upper level car port
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to indoor/outdoor living. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
June 18, 2016
Modern prefab lakeside home in Bloomingdale, New Jersey
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
June 18, 2016
Rectangular bento glass table with compartments.
These top-notch projects by design students earned a spot on our honor roll.
June 18, 2016