Can This Home Be Greened? Urban Eco: Greening a New York City Apartment

Remodeling this Manhattan apartment makes it more comfortable and livable.

| March/April 2009

  • Our projection shows how Jill and Eddie’s bedroom might look with our eco-expert’s design suggestions.
    Illustration By Nate Skow
  • Homeowners Jill Carlen and Eddie Torres
    Photo Courtesy Jill Carlen and Eddie Torres
  • A blower-door test finds building leaks.
    Photo Courtesy The Energy Conservancy
  • The living room is stuffy and overheated.
    Photo By Chris Benedict
  • Eleek offers beatiful and efficient fixtures.
    Photo Courtesy Eleek
  • The kitchen could open up to the living room.
    Photo By Chris Benedict
  • Jill and Eddie's cramped bedroom isn't peaceful.
    Photo By Chris Benedict
  • Losing a closet could expand the bathroom.
    Photo By Chris Benedict

As a New York City architect, I’ve designed many apartment buildings, and I’ve been continuously intrigued, inspired and challenged in my attempts to create eco-friendly, livable small spaces. Smaller living spaces, population density and mass transit options mean city dwellers often have smaller carbon footprints, yet it’s still a challenge to find comfort in small spaces. In 1996, when I started my practice, I made a commitment to creating restorative spaces, where people would feel better leaving than they did when they arrived. This requires considering a complex palette of qualities: delight, peace, contrast, control, comfort, stimulation, health, economy, safety, security, privacy, individuality and community. I also want to help my clients reduce fossil fuel use and water consumption, which in turn reduces foreign oil dependence, war, pollution and global warming, and saves my clients money. Good design can bring all of this together. Jill Carlen lives with her partner, Eddie Torres, and her dog, Annabelle, in a 740-square-foot apartment in a large complex in upper Manhattan. Though the space is small, it is nicely planned. They have a modest budget to update the apartment and plan to have child within the next few years.

The basics: comfort and energy

Jill and Eddie’s home has problems typical to New York City apartments. Some can be solved within the unit; some can be solved if the building’s community is willing to take action; some are beyond our control.

1. Sounds and odors

Apartment dwellers often hear their neighbors and may need to tone down their self expression to maintain privacy. It’s also difficult to control incoming odors and cigarette smoke.

Solution: An ideal apartment is built with an air barrier—a solid material surrounding the apartment—which allows for ventilation control, reduces air leaks and smells from other parts of the building, improves fire safety, increases soundproofing, and discourages rodents and vermin. Jill’s apartment does not have an air barrier, but she should attempt to tighten its envelope by sealing leaks. During her renovation, Jill should hire a professional to locate her apartment’s leaks with a blower-door test, then seal holes. It will be difficult to get her apartment as tight as new construction, but she will reap benefits from any air tightening she does.

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