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.

Carpenter Residence

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

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
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016