Manhattan Transfer: Geothermal Technology in the City

Tapping into the constant temperature 1,200 feet underground, a Tribeca architect pioneers the use of geothermal technology to heat and cool his rock solid, energy efficient family home.

| January/February 2003

  • This stairwell is made of recycled glass slabs. Stainless-steel mesh made for industrial use replaces a far more expensive handrail for the staircase. Low-toxic acrylic paint, made by Fine Paints of Europe (, coats the walls.

  • In addition to this simply designed bathtub by AF Supply, this bathroom hosts intriguingly textured wall tile from Artistic Tile and a hemp robe and slippers for a complete tactile experience.

  • This kitchen pioneers the use of Marmoleum on the cabinets through a deal the homeowner negotiated with Bulthaup. Though it is a high-end project, he made the most of small and natural features adaptable to many budgets.

  • St. Marc’s French Limestone from Amarlo paves the Petrarca’s floor. The pillars in the doorway were salvaged from the previous derelict ­building and then blackened.

  • New York architect John Petrarca invested not only money but also much time into his Tribeca home. He even hand blew the glass bowls on his coffee tables.
    Photos by Paul Warchol

  • The homeowners themselves completed all the plumbing, heating, and carpentry for this project.
  • The Petrarca’s son, Ian, whose room receives plenty of natural light through the wall-sized window, enjoys textiles from the Land of Nod ( The cabinetry, desk, and rolling drawer set are from LEMA home furnishings.
  • In summer, heat from the building is discharged back into the colder ground.
  • The geothermal heat pump relies on a system of underground pipes that reach the earth’s constant internal temperature of fifty-two degrees at a depth of 1,200 feet.
  • In winter, pipes full of liquid pull heat up into the building via heat pumps.

Yes, it’s big—especially by Manhattan standards, where closets often pose as bedrooms and bathtubs can be found in kitchens. And yes, it’s grand—although its owner, architect John Petrarca, has some sage advice about scoring designer finishes at bargain-basement prices.

But before you dismiss this five-story, 6,000-square-foot home and office space (4,000 square feet are for John and his family; 2,000 are for his five-person office) in New York’s historic Tribeca neighborhood as too big and too grand to be green, consider the innovation and imagination that went into lessening this urban infill project’s impact.

In the early 1980s, when Tribeca (short for ­Triangle Below Canal Street) was still an urban wasteland full of derelict, vacant buildings, John and his wife, Sarah Bartlett, bought a 1,600-square-foot, four-story house on Reade Street, which they renovated themselves. “We did all of the plumbing, heating, and carpentry ourselves,” John remembers. “And Sarah mixed about 100 bags of cement.”

The couple also bought the industrial loft building next door and, a few years later, the former butter factory next door to that. Eventually, he and Sarah sold the home they had renovated and went to work on a new home as well as four speculative townhouses. And in the process of developing his Reade Street empire, he’s also created what he calls “the greenest house in Manhattan”—a castle of sorts—for his family.

They chose limestone and oiled wood floors, low-toxic paints, natural linoleum, and natural wood finishes that wouldn’t outgas harmful chemicals.

Steel, foam and concrete

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