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Innovative Public Housing Brings Light Of Hope To Homeless

 

The Brownsville section of East Brooklyn generates some notorious numbers. Rates of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and child welfare problems are among New York City's highest. With America's densest concentration of public housing, more than half of Brownsville's residents live below the poverty line. And the housing that is available is often cheaply made, uninspiring, and somber.

But in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Common Ground, a non-profit working to develop supportive housing and end homelessness, is challenging this grim scenario. As illustrated by the organization's latest creation - The Domenech - Common Ground's goal is more than simply the creation of new and affordable housing units. The Domenech's seven stories of brick and translucent Kalwall curtainwall shed new light, both literally and figuratively, on what has been until now a sorely neglected category of residential construction.

The Domenech is permanent housing designed for formerly homeless and low-income elderly, including those released from mental health facilities who are making the transition from temporary shelters. Named for local resident and community activist Irving Domenech, the building's 72 mostly one-bedroom apartments are shoehorned into a narrow but deep lot in a space-saving U-shape that embraces an inner courtyard open to the sky. “There are some days,” says project architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld of Jonathan Kirschenfeld Architect PC, “when the milky blue-and-white checkerboard pattern of the Kalwall merges with the clouds and sky to give the courtyard a soft, almost ethereal sense.”

Common Ground chose the Manhattan-based firm for its impressive portfolio of urban housing, childcare centers, and recreation and performance facilities. Kirschenfeld adds he has “always been intrigued by the translucent possibilities and high insulation values of Kalwall”. Space is at a premium within The Domenech's narrow footprint, and the self-described “Kalwall fan” knows it's the thinnest external material with higher thermal value than any traditional curtainwall product. The curtainwall at Domenech is also thermally broken, creating more usable occupant space close to the exterior walls. These two factors combine to maximize the width of all residential units. Translucent Kalwall curtainwall also fills each apartment with cheery daylight, even on overcast days. The effect on residents who had previously endured substandard housing and care can be profound and transforming. In addition, seniors often experience vision problems, but see better under Kalwall's even, glare-free, and shadowless museum-quality daylightingTM.

Looking up into the night sky. Photo by Philippe Baumann The Domenech's courtyard is designed to coax residents from their apartments into a beautiful, bright space where they can feel secure. Called the “Garden Mews”, the courtyard is surfaced with ashlar-patterned, pre-cast concrete pavers and includes benches and planters as well as lighting for evening gatherings with an urban character. At the far end are gardening/planting beds where residents can raise vegetables. On the rear terrace, a fountain and a long bench facing south provide residents with a sun-lit social gathering space, even during the colder months. Other public spaces include a library with expansive fenestration facing both ways into the courtyard, part of a continuous ambulatory connection through the public spaces at the second floor. And at every other floor's elevator landing, a double-height lounge offers residents a place to meet or just sit and relax while looking out into the serene courtyard.

As part of its global approach to restoring the overall well being of residents and the communities in which they live, Common Ground's three-year Green Campaign raised $4.3 million to build sustainability into every possible aspect of the non-profit's housing projects. At The Domenech, the use of green materials and finishes protects indoor air quality and the health of those who live there, many of whom suffer from chronic physical and mental ailments. Common Ground estimates substantial savings in reduced water usage and energy savings alone. And Kalwall's ability to cut HVAC costs with high insulation values and reduce the need for artificial light by harvesting daylight is no small part of the effort. For The Domenech's 9,808 square feet of curtainwall, a U-value of .10 (thermally broken) and solar heat gain coefficient of .12 was specified, yielding an eight percent light transmission rate.

A green and sustainable product itself, Kalwall is an ingenious combination of lightweight and high strength, with no waste in materials or energy to manufacture. The panels' glass fiber, aluminum and FRP sheeting are all recyclable when cost effective to do so and most of the raw materials are derived from recyclables, thereby not clogging the landfills. The use of Kalwall will help The Domenech win a minimum LEED® Silver certification, a basic requirement of all Common Ground construction, but the project, says Kirschenfeld, is “going for the Gold”; notification of final certification is pending.

Too many people today are in desperate need of public housing. But why, Kirschenfeld wonders, can't it be high quality? When first presented with the design, the HUD reviewers were wary of the departure from the traditional “match box” design. Now that HUD realizes some of the benefits of green design elements, there are likely to be more progressive projects like this in the future. At a recent AIA symposium sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Kirschenfeld spoke to a capacity crowd (primarily of architects) about The Domenech and how Kalwall has contributed to this innovative public housing design. What we need, Kirschenfeld observes, are more architects and clients willing to engage and take design risks for a population that is generally ignored.

The Domenech
East Brooklyn, NY
Architect: Jonathan Kirschenfeld Architect PC

Kalwall Specifications:
Kalwall Curtainwall System: 9,808 square feet (911 square meters)
U-factor: 0.10 thermally broken
Solar Heat Gain Coefficient: 0.12 (Ice Blue exterior/White interior), 0.13 (Crystal exterior/White interior)
Light Transmission: 8%
Interior face: .045 White
Exterior face: .070 Ice Blue SW-C and .070 Crystal SW-C

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