An Eternal Malleability – Brooklyn Mass Timber by Schiller Projects
Brooklyn Mass Timber by Schiller Projects is a family home located just outside Manhattan, in Clinton Hill. Contained within one of the city’s coveted 1800s carriage houses (a type of heritage brick building originally constructed for horses and carts), this project is a powerful paradigm for sustainable design and construction. Not only does it test the bounds of adaptive re-use, but it is also the first mass timber single family residence in New York City, simultaneously setting an important precedence for housing in urban environments and exploring the potential of this environmentally conscious construction method.
As Schiller Projects Founder Aaron Schiller’s own home, which he shares with his wife, Anna, and two young children, the project was an experimental labour of love. However, Aaron and Schiller Projects’s Partner and Studio Director Colin Cleland’s intentions were clearly defined from the outset. They sought to use a carriage house as the vessel for a radical project employing mass timber or, more specifically, glue laminated timber, as the primary construction material. As Aaron explains, “Brooklyn’s famous brownstones are all built of wood, which prevents structural innovation, whereas carriage houses are old brick buildings with freestanding walls.” He adds, “we needed that native structure so that we could work with mass timber, add additional storeys and open it up to achieve the kind of volumetric light and air that I think is typical of our designs.”
While the brick structure provided the all-important foundations, mass timber is the bedrock of this narrative. The building’s newly inserted frame, structural floor and staircase are all mass timber components prefabricated locally from Douglas fir. Not only does this champion the use of a renewable, low embodied carbon building material in a domestic setting, these elements are designed to be disassembled with zero waste. As Aaron says, the staircase could be “unbolted and the parts carried out the front door by two carpenters.” Colin adds that, importantly, the project “is a prototype” in response to the current and widespread housing and environmental crises. “It’s rethinking how you can modify an existing masonry shell – historic or not – and how we can potentially replicate or extrapolate this model for infill housing at a larger scale.”
The extent of this innovation is barely perceptible from the street. First impressions are of a grand and neatly restored red brick façade featuring characterful, timber framed arched windows with black trims. Given its location within a historic district, the façade is protected under a landmark preservation scheme (governed by a commission that, interestingly, only came into effect in the 1960s following the untimely destruction of the former Pennsylvania Station – a building Aaron likens to the city’s famed Grand Central Terminal in terms of architectural significance), and as such, the intention was for a sympathetic gesture in keeping with the vernacular.
The bespoke nature of this outcome speaks to Fisher & Paykel’s design flexibility, which is also reflected in its considered detailing and integration capabilities.
Inside, the impressive extent of Schiller Projects’s response is gradually revealed. The sculptural staircase corkscrews through the centre of the home, and a Japanese maple is planted at its base. Bathed in dappled rays from the skylight above, it nods to the studio’s affinity for biophilic design principles and helps to defy the challenges typically associated with carriage houses by bringing natural light and greenery deep into the plan. The kitchen and dining table open onto a courtyard at the rear, and the negative space around these elements gives the staircase and maple room to exist.
Aaron and Anna’s evolving needs as a young family directly informed the kitchen’s layout, and Fisher & Paykel’s ability to support these nuanced design solutions proved invaluable to the outcome. Specifically, Aaron has been long-term fan of the CoolDrawer – he recalls installing one in the library of a client’s Tribeca apartment solely for champagne – and he was eager to include one in his own home. Located on the “family side” of the island bench, as opposed to the “chef side” adjacent to the back bench, the CoolDrawer has emerged as one of the family’s most-loved appliances, proving particularly useful for their little ones. “We put the kids’ snacks and juice boxes in there, so they have their own little low-down kitchen to themselves without getting in the chef’s way.” Also, given its proximity to the dining table and outdoor entertaining space, it makes for an ideal wine cooler when Aaron and Anna are hosting.
Aaron and Anna’s evolving needs as a young family directly informed the kitchen’s layout, and Fisher & Paykel’s ability to support these nuanced design solutions proved invaluable to the outcome.
The bespoke nature of this outcome speaks to Fisher & Paykel’s design flexibility, which is also reflected in its considered detailing and integration capabilities. As Colin says, “we didn’t see holes in Fisher & Paykel’s offering, and there was nothing we really sacrificed. They were able to deliver a curated approach that allowed for integration and malleability that made the design ours as well as the clients’.” Several appliances such as the refrigerator, freezer, CoolDrawer and dishwasher are discreetly concealed within the joinery, allowing for a rationalised aesthetic, while the oven is visible, providing “an opportunity to celebrate it,” Colin offers.
The rest of the home is divided into places for living and sleeping. On the second floor, the street-facing living room features large windows and the existing timber beams, which have been repurposed as floorboards, stretch out underfoot. Pleasingly, there is a visible tapestry of old and new. Colin shares, “as you walk up the building, you see the story of the existing brick, the plinth that we had to create to allow for the new walls and the intersections of timber and masonry.” He reflects, “I get so much enjoyment out of this because I know how hard these details were to pull off, but it also allows for a sort of historical documentation so that someone who isn’t myself or Aaron can see what unfolded here.”
Given the home’s tight thermal envelope and the efforts behind the locally manufactured timber window frames, the quality of sound and air is notably high (the traffic below is barely discernible – a major feat in New York City) and natural light floods in from several aspects. Up above, the main suite is a sanctuary with a sunken lounge and a private roof terrace that offers unimpeded views of the cathedral across the road. This pocket of space is entirely open to its surrounds, yet the prevailing feeling is of privacy and seclusion – another rarity in one of the world’s most densely populated cities and a sentiment that has come to define this project.
Brooklyn Mass Timber conjures many powerful takeaways, but what is possibly most compelling is its newfound ephemerality. Though grounded in permanence and solidity, this 150-year-old building has a significantly broader future with thanks to Schiller Projects’s innovative use of mass timber. Today, it is Aaron and Anna’s beautiful family home, yet its next iteration many years from now could be something else entirely – a notion that extends the lifecycle of this building and illustrates a persuasive multiplicity in design and construction.