Big Space, Little Space: adaptive re-use of a masonry garage in Buffalo
Big Space, Little Space is an adaptive re-use of a masonry garage built in the 1920’s transformed into an apartment dwelling and workshop for a couple, tucked away in the middle of a residential block in Buffalo, New York. We turned a general contractor’s former office space into a small apartment dwelling, in an adaptive re-use that treats space as constantly evolving and ever-changing.
Over time, most spaces stray from their original programs and develop lives of their own. While the role of the initial occupant/owner is reduced in the process, the role of a building, by contrast, becomes more prominent, generous and unpredictable. Buildings can often be seen hosting unexpected uses and formal reinterpretations. Even in the short time span of a single year, spaces can offer changing and distinct qualities that require users to engage with them in different ways.
Big Space, Little Space, takes this transformative nature of space as its premise. Rather than dictating specific uses for designated spaces, a variety of spaces that can trigger unexpected uses are offered. These encourage formal re-interpretations and continuous construction by the various inhabitants over time.
The square plan of the space offered few windows in relation to the overall floor area. One strategy was therefore to treat the roof (concealed 30cm beneath a parapet) as a 5th facade, and insert ten operable skylights and a roof hatch for natural light, ventilation, and roof access.
Instead of clearing out the building and designing the interior from scratch, We reinterpreted the existing forms/spaces. An existing, partitioned area within the garage space that was recently used by a general contractor as an office was retained. This “Little Space” was seen as the overlap between two bigger, existing spaces: the fenced garden and the garage/workshop. The “Little Space” can be read as part of both, – it can extend into both. The reading of the plan flickers between these different configurations.
Big Space, Little Space does not dedicate spaces to traditional uses. Instead, the project offers spaces that are seasonally responsive and in flux, where inhabitation can retreat into the warm insulated Little Space in the harsh winters, and can spread into the “Big Spaces” – the generous garden, workshop, and roof deck in the warm seasons. In this sense, the living area can be anywhere between 45 sqm to 500 sqm. There is no stationary plan. The spaces are rather offerings for temporary and informal uses. The objective was to create spaces that are useful for everything and where the meaning and usefulness of each space renegotiates with each new user.
The “Big Space” had a small budget and the “Little Space” had a bigger budget, two-thirds of the entire project budget was invested in the Little Space. The Little Space has fully insulated perimeter walls and is heated with a single radiator. New radiant heating in an exposed new concrete floor was also provided for the bathroom. Five operable skylights offer additional natural light and ventilation to the Little Space. The big workshop, in contrast, has untouched and uninsulated walls. It is updated with five new skylights and a roof hatch with staircase to access the big roof. It is heated with an existing gas garage ceiling heater that is able to temporarily heat up the Big Space when needed in short time. The big garage/workshop acts as a climatic buffer space to the Little Space. The garden is fully fenced, making it feel like a room without a ceiling. The door opening to the garden was enlarged and a 7m wide retractable awning was installed, with a 4m foot cantilever, transforming the big garden into an exterior room and providing more privacy. CorTen steel shutters give the Little Space more security during long periods when the occupants are traveling.
We avoided any materials that might read as “residential” so that the space would not prescribe a specific use, but rather, be open for all sorts of different uses. The kitchen, for example, reads more as a technical, abstract grid/frame than a residential kitchen. The most residential element might be the curtain, but its large, almost institutional scale blurs the domestic connotation.
The resulting wide range of finishes and materials, from the raw, cut bricks at the entry door, to highly refined surfaces and materials like the white oak cabinetry, creates an open, transient and generous space where the intervention integrates with those of the past as well as ones that will surely come in the future. The space is seen here as an animate thing with a lively past and an unknown future, where the intervention is just one of many. The space was not ‘remodeled’ to eliminate its messy past, but rather added to in a similar way to participants in the surrealist game, the Exquisite Corpse.
Photograph showing building exterior; building, formerly a taxi repair shop, dates from the 1920's and is nestled in the middle of a residential block in Buffalo, NY, USA.
Photograph showing building exterior with retractable awning extended, creating a transitory intimate space outdoors for the apartment inhabitants.
Photograph taken from the interior, showing the existing window with two privacy screens, a curtain (inside) and perforated corten steel shutters (outside). Since the occupants travel often, and since the
Photograph showing main bedroom space with new toplights, conceived as a "his and hers" skylights (circle and square shapes cut into the roof decking).
Photograph showing main bedroom space with new toplights. The original structure - the joists - were not cut for the skylight installation.
Photograph showing the bedroom partitioned off using two wardrobes on casters. All furniture for the project was designed to be able to accommodate the occupants' basic needs, and also be able to move to o
Photograph showing a millwork detail in the oak-framed wardrobes. The notch in the frame ensured that the wardrobe doors would close aligned even when sitting on the original, 1920's uneven concrete floor.
Photograph showing the infrastructure zone for the small space - a wall-hung kitchen area sits directly in front of a bathroom and laundry area. The utilities are condensed into the smallest area possible
Photograph showing the entry to the bathroom, bathed in natural light from a skylight directly aligned over the shower area. The tiny square footage of the spaces is compensated for by the generous vertica
Photograph showing a view from the rough, un-climatized workshop, into the apartment space. Through-views (from the workshop, through the apartment, into the garden) are deliberate and intended to counter-
Photograph showing a thin steel-framed stair designed to provide access to a new, domed roof hatch. The roof hatch is another source of natural light for the workshop space. The rungs of the steel stair fr
Photograph showing a view taken from the roof, looking across one of the new domed skylights with the "his and hers" cutouts, into the residential neighborhood. Though the building typology differs so much
The “Little Space” (c) was seen as the overlap between two bigger, existing spaces: the fenced garden (a) and the workshop (b).
Spaces are seasonally responsive and in flux, where inhabitation can retreat into the warm insulated Little Space in the harsh winters, and can spread into the “Big Spaces” in the warm seasons.
Tucked away in the middle of a residential block in Buffalo, New York.
The door opening to the garden was enlarged and a 7m wide retractable awning was installed, with a 4m foot cantilever, transforming the big garden into an exterior room and providing more privacy. CorTen s
Roof acts as a 5th facade, and insert ten operable skylights and a roof hatch for natural light, ventilation, and roof access.
Stephanie Davidson, Georg Rafailidis,
John Banaszak Engineer of Record
Stephanie Davidson, M.Arch, B.E.D.S., B.F., Assistant Prof. RSID Toronto, Canada
Georg Rafailidis, Dipl. Ing. fh., M.A., Associate Prof. State University of New York at Buffalo
Emerging Voices Award Architectural League of New York // AZ Award, Canada // Best of Canada Design Award // Blueprint Award // Architectural Review House Award Finalist // American Architecture Prize AAP // Architizer A+ Award // DETAIL Prize Finalist // Mac Dowell Fellowship // Storefront for Art and Architecture StreetFest competition winner // Reinventing the Strip Mall Competition Winner // Arch+ competition Simple Systems-Complex Capacities Winner
Publications print (exerpt)
Domus, Arquine, Bauwelt, DETAIL, AIT, Architect’s Newspaper, Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, Deutsche Bauzeitung, Frame
RSID Toronto // Peter Behrens School of Art Dusseldorf // University of Toronto // State University of New York // RWTH Aachen University Germany