Field Trip Friday

Two weeks ago, the OHNY staff and Tessa Hartley, OHNY’s new intern, took a field trip to Capsys Corp. in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. You may have heard of New York City’s micro-apartment project, which will be constructed by Capsys next year. They are receiving a lot of attention for this project, but they have been constructing modular units since 1996. Tessa tells us what she learned about Capsys and their design and production process in this week’s Field Trip Friday.



Capsys fabricates modular units in one of the historic buildings of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Many of their projects include creating townhouses, hotels and apartments which leave the factory as fully built modular sections. Once completed in the warehouse, the pieces are then transported and put together on location, cutting on-site construction time down to a matter of weeks and sometimes even days.

There were a couple of projects currently under construction in the factory during our visit, one was an 18-unit apartment complex to be installed in Brooklyn, the other a hotel in Westchester. The apartment complex includes 2-bedroom units, the largest units they have ever built, which are also the maximum size legally allowed to be transported New York. In fact, they exceed the maximum cargo width allowed in other states by four feet.


The system works in an assembly line fashion, with the process beginning at one end of the factory, with the floors and ceilings, and completing at the other end, from which the units leave the building (through a massive garage door) and are loaded onto trucks.

During our visit, we were really able to experience and see the nuts and bolts of construction and understand how the units function on a detailed level.

While it seemed bizarre at first to see a home being built in a factory setting, through the tour it became clear how functional and sustainable this type of construction is. For one, the process produces almost no waste. Because the same basic materials are used for every unit, they can be recycled from project to project, and because the shapes of the modular units such as frames and floors are the same, molds are constantly being reused.

The first step (at the back end of the factory) is the pouring of the concrete floor and welding of steel for the frame.



We saw a floor that had just been poured that morning: one level slab with a small lower section at one end, which will fit with the adjacent unit like a puzzle piece. One of the only aspects of construction that takes place during the installation is the covering up of seams with a thin, self-leveling layer of concrete. The steel rods around its perimeter have tabs at the top, another puzzle-piece feature that will fit into the base of the rods in the floor of the unit above it.

We moved down the line, seeing the units in various stages of construction. At the end, we were able to go inside a nearly finished unit, complete with a kitchen, lighting, and tiled bathroom.


In addition to Capsys, there are also other companies constructing modular housing in New York–in December, ground was broken for what will be the largest prefabricated building in the world in Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn. The 32-story building will consist of 930 modules that will be built by another modular company next spring.

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I think that it’s interesting to consider why modular housing is only now gaining ground in New York, when it has been present in other cities since the mid-late 20th century. For example, the famous Habitat 67 that was built in Montreal in 1967 and the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo in 1972.


The early examples of urban prefabricated modular housing – concrete, brutalist structures – seem to have stalled urban modular development in the last decades of the 20th century. As late modern and post-modern glass-heavy architecture came into fashion, modular housing was relegated to the sidelines of urban architecture, as it was too cumbersome and seemingly ungraceful.

In recent years, modular construction has become a trend in the New York landscape, perhaps paving the way for the current large-scale modular housing projects. There have been various temporary modular structures in New York over the years. For example, quite a few projects that used re-purposed shipping containers such as the Nomadic Museum at Pier 54 in Brooklyn in 2005, pop-up swimming pools on Park Avenue in 2010, and the Dekalb Market in 2011.

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It seems to me that the necessity of sustainability, combined with the gradual development of new ideas in modular construction design has set the stage for the current boom in modular development in New York, which is set to become increasingly present in the city’s landscape.


Last month, OHNY intern Elis and staff Jessica Mak and Jailee Rychen visited the Brooklyn Historical Society, a local urban history center, whose mission is to preserve and foster the study of Brooklyn’s 400-year history. Designed by George Post, the building features bold use of terracotta on its exterior, beautiful bronze fixtures, and a stunning library and research center.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is housed in a four-story Queen Anne style building, located in Brooklyn Heights. Architect George Post, who went on to build many of New York’s earliest skyscrapers, as well as the New York Stock Exchange, designed this neighborhood gem. Post’s preference for large, uncluttered open spaces using innovative steel support systems can be seen throughout the BHS’ interiors.

Local unglazed terracotta was used on the entire exterior of the building. The second-story façade, sculpted by Olin Levi Warner, depicts various American flora and heroes of the arts, like of Guttenberg and Shakespeare, as well two great heroes of American history on the front of the building. Can you guess who they are?

The interior of the building is just as stunning and has been carefully preserved. Much of the original Minton Tile floor can still be found in the building today, as well as some of the most beautiful custom made bronze hardware designed by Post. Original 1880s period lighting fixtures can also be found throughout the building. In 1991 the building received several landmark statuses, including recognition as a National Historic Landmark in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library is among the few interior landmarks in Brooklyn, designated by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Hand-carved, black ash wood bookshelves and iron columns enclosed in wood, support the balcony. However, on the second level, the ceiling is not suspended by the bookshelves, but by a truss system using iron trusses on the roof, that mirror the design of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. Among the society’s collection are rare books, manuscripts, artworks, and maps.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is currently undergoing interior renovations, only the second since its opening in 1881. The first renovation, which lasted from 1991 to 2003, involved restoring the façade and removing an elevator from the lobby to restore the original open lobby and stained glass skylight. The current renovation project, expected to be completed by 2013, seeks to transform the Brooklyn Historical society’s ground floor and lower level into a quality public forum. State-of-the- art facilities will be used for exhibitions, public programs and private events. It will also restore the building’s historic entrance as the main entrance.

Our thanks to Cristina Garza at the Brooklyn Historical Society for the in-depth tour. We look forward to another visit when the renovation project is complete!

Brooklyn Historical Society

128 Pierrepont Street

Brooklyn, NY

A few weeks ago, intern Elis and the OHNY Staff visited the construction site of the future home for Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Designed by renowned architect Hugh Hardy and being built by Sciame Construction, the building is at once simple yet elegant, and dynamic, yet intimate. A LEED certified building with a 35-foot high space and reconfigurable stage, TFANA’s new home is sure to be a new theatre for the modern audience.

Founded in 1979 by Jeffrey Horowitz, Theatre for a New Audience is a New York City performing arts organization devoted to the vitalization and study of Shakespeare and classic drama. Its move to Fort Greene is doubly exciting for TFANA, not only because it will become a part of the BAM Cultural District, but also because it will be the organization’s first permanent home.

Formerly a parking lot, the site is quickly on its way to becoming a stunning LEED certified, 27,500-square-foot building. Exterior green features, include triple glazed windows on its front façade, and rain screens on the building’s side and rear.

TFANA’s glass front and open lobby will create an engaging space on multiple levels. While inside, visitors will be able to gaze out onto the bustling neighborhood without ever feeling closed in. Interior design features also include cantilever balconies anchored only at one end, which enhances and further opens up the space. These over hanging balconies, made possible by receded H-frame columns, make it so visitors on the highest balcony never feel disconnected from visitors in the lower lobby, creating a feeling of intimacy.

TFANA’s auditorium is designed for equality, enabling a more dynamic use for the space. With a deep trapdoor and 35-foot ceiling (twice the height of off-Broadway theatres), the stage will certainly allow for surprising entrances from above and below. Depending on the production, stage and orchestra level seating can be rearranged into four different configurations – proscenium, thrust, runway, or in the round. Each set-up will provide a different level of interaction with the audience. Behind the mainstage will also be an additional space that when opened, can be used to increase stage depth. When closed, the space can be used for performances and rehearsals.

Three levels of seating galleries wrap around the orchestra, but a sense of intimacy is never lost. Even from the highest level, the stage never feels far away. Inspired by the British Royal National Theatre’s Cottlesloe Theatre, TFANA’s adaptable space explores what a theatre can be.

Theatre for a New Audience’s ribbon cutting and first performance will take place in October 2013.

Our thanks to Anthony Frontino from Sciame Construction and David Haakenson, project architect at H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture for providing this tour for us. We look forward to a return visit when the theatre is completed!

262 Ashland Place
Fort Greene, Brooklyn


Renderings credit: H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture
Photo credit: Elis Shin



On October 6th, during the 2012 OHNY Weekend, OHNY intern Elis got to climb 149 steps to the top of the Jefferson Market Library Tower. Designed by Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux, this Venetian Gothic tower, provides unparalleled 360° views of Greenwich Village. The tower, usually closed to the public, was an exclusive OHNY Weekend site this year.

The first time I noticed the Jefferson Market Library was on my first Halloween night in New York City in 2009. I had walked to Sixth Avenue for the Halloween Parade, and remember looking up to see a giant, castle-like building almost entirely hidden by scaffolding cover. Dark and billowing in the chilly October wind, I remember thinking that the scaffolding made the building look like it was wearing its own Halloween costume. But what really captured my attention that night, was a giant white spider climbing up and down the wall of the 172-foot tower. I later learned that the spider, is a regular Halloween Parade fixture puppeteered by Basil Twist and his team since 1995. I eagerly looked forward to the performance again the next year, and was disappointed when, the spider did not make an appearance  because of continuing renovations on the clock tower.

Since late last year, I have once again been watching the Jefferson Market Library, but not for the spider. With renovations finally completed,  I have been watching the removal of the scaffolding as more and more of the incredible Victorian Gothic building is exposed. It’s not too hard to imagine how this was once voted  to be one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America by a poll of architects in the 1880s.

Built between 1875 and 1877, the building was originally a courthouse with civil and police courts, court offices, jails and a prison. Some of the most notorious local trial of that time were held here, including Harry K. Thaw’s 1906 trial for the murder of architect Stanford White (of McKim, Mead and White) and the 1909 trials of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers who had gone on strike over poor working conditions (that prefaced the 1911 factory fire).

The four faced clock tower at the corner of 10th Street and Sixth Avenue was also part of the original building.  Local fire watchers once stood on its balcony and rang a large bell in the tower to call volunteer firemen.

In 1945 due to redistricting, court cases stopped being held at Jefferson Market. Ownership switched hands several times, and the Police Academy is said to have been the last tenant who used the building for riot training before abandoning it in 1958.

Jefferson Market was set to be demolished in 1959, but local village residents including E.E. Cummings and Lewis Mumford rallied behind Margot Gayle to save the building. They did so successfully and in 1961, Mayor Robert F. Wagner announced that the building would be converted into a public library. This adaptive reuse effort was undertaken by architect Giorgio Cavagelieri, best known in the neighborhood for converting the Astor Library on Lafayette Street, into the Public Theater.

Climbing the Jefferson Market Library tower requires going up a series of narrow and winding spiral steps (climb too fast and you risk getting vertigo!). After 149 steps to the fire watcher’s balcony, the view at the top is really impressive. Unlike popular lookout spaces in New York City, there are no sweeping views of Central Park or the city’s many skyscrapers. What visitors do see, is an intimate birds-eye view of the West Village and its low buildings, the Hudson River, and the Freedom Tower. From the top of the tower, I was able to spot Bell, Book & Candle’s aeroponic roof garden, shops and restaurants I regularly visit, and other great local gems.

On my way up, I came upon an old fire watcher’s bell, and to my utmost delight, the giant spider, which sleeps in the tower during the year and comes out on Halloween. This year was the first time since 2009 that the spider would make an appearance. However, due to Hurricane Sandy, the spider will continue its long sleep for one more year.

The library is open to visitors Mondays through Thursdays, but the tower is closed to the public, except when it opens its little door during OHNY Weekend. If you missed it this year, don’t miss the opportunity in 2013! Brave the line, climb the steps, say hi to the spider on your way up, and take in this rare view of the Village.


Jefferson Market Library

425 Avenue of the Americas (at 10th Street)
New York, NY


Photo Credit: Gilbert Rodriguez, Nicolas Lesmery Nantel, and Elis Shin

This past Thursday, Jailee took a break from the OHNY office to join Archtober’s tour of the building of the day: The Whitney Studio. This temporary 2-story structure was designed and built by LOT-EK and sits in the South sculpture garden, one floor below the ground level. The tour of the Whitney Studio was led by Ada Tolla, one of the principals of LOT-EK. Find out what Jailee learned on her visit to see this intriguing addition to the Whitney’s Upper East Side space.


Whitney Studio

As most readers probably know, the Whitney Museum of American Art will be moving soon to a new space in the Meatpacking District, just adjacent to the High Line. Because of the move, the museum has started to consolidate and has lost much of the space that they used for programming and studio art classes. The museum wanted to continue to provide these programs during the transition but needed a new space to do so.


The museum decided as opposed to renting space, they would like to create a new, temporary space to conduct their studio art classes. They needed it fast and they needed it to be as cost effective as possible. That’s when they contacted LOT-EK architects. The firm is well-known for re-purposing industrial materials, most notably shipping containers. The museum identified the south side of the sculpture garden located below ground level as a space that was under-utilized and asked LOT-EK to develop a design plan.


Ada Tolla explained to the tour group that the space measured about 24 feet by 21 feet. Since shipping containers come in two sizes – 20 feet long or 40 feet long – the architects immediately decided to use small sized containers for the structure. Because of the height of the available space, the architects also decided to create a 2-story structure. Therefore, the completed design consists of 6 shipping containers boxed together.


Another important requirement laid out by the museum was to not have a closed, boxed up space. They wanted the studio to create a dialogue with the building and visitors coming through the museum. To address this, the architects developed a diagonal cut through the containers with large glass panels color treated in yellow. This allowed the structure to have some transparency without creating what Tolla described as a “fish bowl effect.” The cut is oriented towards the museum (not towards the street) and also provides a skylight so as to let natural light into the studio.


Tolla talked about how much the firm adores the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer building. The architects felt that the cut harmonizes well  with the strong geometrical elements of Bruer’s modernist design. Tolla also mentioned how fabulous it is to view the Whitney Studio from the inside of the museum on the lower level with the repeated reflections of the distinctive light fixtures of the Breuer interior. And I have to agree!


Here is Tolla inside the Whitney Studio explaining the complicated process of installing the Whitney Studio. On Vimeo you can view a 3 minute video demonstrating how the project began and how it was installed. Much of the structure was pre-fabricated off-site and then installed at the museum over two weekends. Because the containers are a tight fit in the space, the installation required lowering two containers down at a time and then rolling them back into place. The interior was finished once the containers were in place. The inside was designed to be as functional as possible and all of the structure of the Whitney Studio is exposed.

On the top left of the photo above you can see some piping. Luckily for the architects, a utility closet is located just behind the Studio wall inside the museum. Therefore, the architects could easily tap into the electrical and water lines to service the temporary space.


The most impressive part of the project for me was the incredibly fast turn around. Tolla explained that the Whitney approached them beginning in October of 2011 and the installation began in February 2012. Wow! A contributing factor in the streamlining of the process was both the unseasonably nice winter, which allowed the architects to progress quickly as much of the construction was done outside, and also the Whitney’s large building project downtown. Since the Whitney was already involved with another project, they had the people in place to make quick decisions and to get fast approvals.


When asked what will be the fate of the Whitney Studio once the museum moves downtown, Tolla smiled and said that she is not sure but it has always been part of the plan to make sure that the Studio has a continued life, whether it stays with the Whitney, becomes part of the space used by the Metropolitan Museum (the Whitney Building will be run by the Met in 2015) or is given to another institution.

She coyly added that the small-scale model of the project (that you can see in the photo further above on the table) was designed in the same scale as the Renzo Piano model of the new museum building that the Whitney has put on display in hopes that the Whitney Studio might eventually be part of the museum’s new home.


The Whitney Studio can be viewed from the ground level street entrance of the museum and will be there at least until the Whitney Museum moves out of the space in 2015. After my tour, I forgot to ask if museum visitors can enter the Studio with museum admission but it seems as though they leave the door open as long as there are no classes taking place. Even if you just happen to be walking by, make sure to take a look!

The Whitney Studio
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street