Thursday, January 8, 2015

Apartments for Better Living

This post will focus on apartments in New York City because that is where I have worked most of my professional life, and I thoroughly enjoy designing them. 

The issues related to apartment design can be generally classified into 3 categories: design, technical, and permit related. The broad subject of design is influenced by personal predilections, functionality, and the building's architecture. Technical issues range from how to deal with heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC), placement of the plumbing fixtures, audio-visual, lighting, and electrical considerations. While obtaining a construction permit is a must, coop or condo board approval is equally important for buildings in NYC.  So ample review time must be part of the project's schedule.

Apartments in NYC range the gammut of design expressions and functional needs, so it is very difficult to make general observations that can be applicable to most, if not all, cases. Typically, NYC apartment buildings are classified as pre-war or post war. Pre-war buildings are much sought after since they tend to have higher ceilings, and spacious rooms for kitchens, dining, and living. These rooms articulate their walls with crowns, wainscots, and base mouldings. Post-war buildings tend to be more utilitarian with lower ceilings and undifferentiated spaces where the living, dining, and kitchen are sometimes combined. These spaces also tend to have minimal moldings. 
Pre-war apartment

Post-war apartment
Most NYC apartment buildings are framed in concrete which sometimes yields irregularly spaced beams and/or columns particularly when there is a transfer beam. Transfer beams occur typically at building setbacks, and penthouse setbacks for terraces. These exterior building issues can have an effect on the apartment's interior. Other exterior building conditions such as mansard roofs can also affect the apartment interior.
Mansard roofs may affect the interior

Transfer beams may affect the interior
When considering HVAC, it is not enough to simply provide the necessary BTU's to heat and cool the rooms. Careful attention should be given to noise and dew point issues. NYC has a noise ordinance which states that noise due to the operation of a circulation device, not exceed an overall noise level of 42 dBA, as measured a distance of 3 feet inside an open window (or door) of a residential dwelling. This can impact the location of a mechanical room, thereby impacting, to some degree, the interior layout. Since most "post war" apartment buildings have low ceilings, dropping a ceiling for air conditioning equipment is not an option.  In those cases walls can be widened to hide the ducts and air grills may be located over door frames.
AC grill over transom door
Dew point issues are of particular importance in older buildings. These were typically built with exterior load bearing walls composed of several wythes of brick or terracota masonry units. In this type of construction, the dew point occurs within the hollow bricks or terracotta units. A result of modern energy codes is that the building's management usually requires insulation added to these exterior walls. When that happens the dew point is typically moved to the inside of the apartment and unless this is properly dealt with, it can lead to mold and the eventual deterioration of the interior finishes. Several combined strategies can be used to deal with this such as: using semi rigid insulation instead of batt or rigid, using low cellulose structural board in lieu of regular sheetrock, and providing as much ventilation within the wall cavity as possible.

Great apartments are invariably the result of a successful collaboration between the Owner, Decorator, Contractor, and the Architect (plus all the other consultants that make up the design team such as engineers, lighting consultants, acousticians, AV consultants, exterior envelope consultants, and the building architect). When done well, apartments can be a source of joy for the occupants for years to come in addition to potentially increasing their property's value.

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