Only If, a New York City-based design practice for architecture and urbanism, has completed the Narrow House. Located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Narrow House is situated on an atypical New York City lot measuring 4 meters wide by 30.5 meters deep, which is slenderer than the normative 7.6 meter [25 foot] wide zoning lot. Despite its non-conformity, the site met other specific criteria which enabled development of the vacant lot. Since 1961, the Zoning Resolution has generally prohibited new residential buildings on lots less than 5.5 meters [18 feet] in width. Although rapidly transforming, the neighborhood is characterized by a number of vacant lots that were an outcome of so-called urban renewal, including this site. In parallel to this project, the architect, Only If, has been researching residual, vacant, and irregular lots throughout New York City. A 2017 exhibition by the architect at the Shenzhen Biennale identified and cataloged 3,600 such lots, 600 of which were owned by the city. The architect was also a winner of an open international competition organized by the AIA New York and New York City Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to develop 23 city-owned vacant, irregular lots, including an identical, vacant lot directly adjacent to this one. The Narrow House represents a specific architectural proposition but is also a prototype for infill and a polemic on the greater potential for architectural invention in constrained residual urban spaces. The project was self-initiated, developed, and is occupied by the architects themselves, who acquired the undervalued land in 2015. In this sense, the project also seeks a model of architectural agency, beyond the client-architect service model, to produce experimental forms of housing. Adam Frampton, Principal of Only If, says “finding a vacant lot in New York City was the outcome of 6 month long search for undervalued, unusual, or leftover spaces that could become space for living. When we found the vacant lot we knew it had potential, but we were unsure if it could be developed as-of-right under the zoning. We had to take a risk.” On such a constrained site, the main problem in the design of the Narrow House is not form or outward appearance, but rather daylight and circulation. In fact, the zoning regulations mostly dictate the exterior volume of the building, which is primarily finished in black stucco. The remainder of the façade, facing the street and rear yard, consists of glass curtain wall, which maximizes daylight to the inside and is detailed flush to the adjacent stucco. Karolina Czeczek, Principal of Only If, says “because of its large format windows, the landscape has an unexpected presence inside the house. The change of seasons, shadows, colors, and movement of the trees keep us very aware of the natural environment, in an otherwise densely built neighborhood.” Aside from two lateral walls, the house is characterized by an absence of interior walls, rooms, and corridors. The openness—3.3 meters inside—enables daylight penetration throughout, but also an unusual lack of separation. In lieu of walls, the split-level section creates spatial distinctions between different domestic functions. The vertical void inside the central, perforated steel staircase becomes a lightwell, further introducing daylight towards the middle of the plan. The ground floor is raised slightly above street level. It provides open space for living, eating, and cooking. An 8.5 meter long bar volume, finished in black perforated metal, black stained oak, and black terrazzo, accommodates kitchen components. At the rear of the ground floor, an oversized glass pivot door opens to the rear yard, extending the living space to the outside. Upstairs, different levels provide for two bedrooms and a work study, which could be converted into an additional third bedroom. The bedrooms are separated from other spaces through a plywood volume, containing bathrooms, closets, and pocket doors for privacy. The lateral walls consist of reinforced concrete masonry units (CMU), and floors are composite concrete and corrugated metal deck. Based on the lot width, the clear span of floors is close to the maximum limit of the structure without requiring additional beams or support. Floors throughout are topped with a poured polyurethane finish, and the structure is exposed on the ceilings. Without interior shear walls, the building is braced at the front and rear façade for lateral stability. Three diagonal steel braces are also exposed behind the front façade.
Only If is a New York City-based design practice for architecture and urbanism founded in 2013 and led by Adam Frampton, AIA and Karolina Czeczek, RA. Only If’s projects span a range of different types and scales, from small interiors and cafes, to single- and multi-family residential, to larger-scale urban planning, research, and speculation. Only If’s projects have been featured in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, Frame, Wallpaper*, among other publications. In 2022, Only If’s Narrow House was nominated for the Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize. Only If has also been named part of Architectural Record’s Design Vanguard (2022), Domus 50 Best Architecture firms in the world (2020), Architect Magazine’s Next Progressives (2019), Architect’s Newspaper AN 50 (2018, 2019), AIANY New Practices New York (2018), PIN-UP’s Magazine’s New Power Generation (2017), and the World Interior News’ 2016 Emerging Interior Practice of the Year.