The Lab team, in conversations with partners, developed the spring 2020 research into a multi-part business plan: “(Re) coding Walkups.” The business plan lays out an integrated case for innovative and feasible interventions in the existing stock of New York City, with a focus on existing walkups that do not receive subsidies but that house low-income households.
More than half of New York City’s multifamily units are in walkups built between 1901-1930, yet over three-quarters of these buildings have not had any major alterations since construction. An initial Lab project traces an ambitious reform – New York’s 1901 ‘New Law’ that regulated light and air for tenements – into findings relevant for contemporary work, part of which was visualized in GSAPP’s participation in the 2020 Venice Biennial. Across the four chapters of the business plan, the interdisciplinary team identified under-examined markets and overlooked space of innovation in design and planning. The interventions deliver substantial improvements for thousands of households–and the city and climate–at relatively little cost.
The business plan has four interlocking components: (1) Transforming buildings through a set of design and financial cases for adding and strengthening ‘space for survival’ along a spectrum of code shifts (2) Activating a network of shared area amenities for resiliency, financially sustained by a set of buildings (3) Demonstrating new models of financial feasibility for more units and (4) Sustaining maintenance and inclusion through possibilities of limited-equity co-ops.
Each of these project areas developed in close conversations with developers, non-profits, design firms, and city officials and aim to showcase possibilities for new ways of working in housing. The lab prioritizes these conversations and partnerships as crucial to ensuring the relevancy of the lab’s work to practice and larger systemic change.
Housing for Survival
Housing ‘for survival’ emerged as a concept in early 2020 to focus the Lab’s perspective on climate and socioeconomic equity on the most pragmatic and immediate: what about housing will help households simply stay alive in particular amidst climate change and disasters?
Housing can and should do more, but survival is the starting point. Launching our thinking of housing and space as a right for individual well-being and the collective also drew strongly on the tradition of progressive reform from New York at the turn of the last century, when the right for adequate private space with light and air to combat disease drove the new tenement law (1901), zoning resolution (1916) and multi-family dwelling law (1928). The lab’s work this year seeks to re-center housing again as decent places to survive and live, carrying forward the tradition of these codes, and also provoking change and experimentation in their contents and concepts.
While COVID-19’s impacts only have underscored the importance of our central inquiry of this year: how can we feasibly and imaginatively intervene in the ‘overlooked’ stock–existing unsubsidized walkup multifamily buildings–to expand inclusion, resilience and access?
In cities under quarantine lockdown, the ways that we live and work compress and stretch into new arenas of time, air and meters, and housing is even more visibly at the center of physical survival. Doubled-up and crowded households isolate, work and get sick together. Twenty-four hour occupation transforms the usage and meaning of units and made urban life only more unequal. The networks of spaces and people across buildings and neighborhoods that also form part of ‘home’ are suspended; ‘stay at home’ excludes parts of the home outside the unit. Access to services, food and help is exponentially localized, highlighting and deepening geographic inequalities. Rent or mortgage payments, paid or forgone, compound on tenants and owners. Is anything about housing the same anymore?
Yes: the particularities of the housing crisis continue under brighter contrast. The Lab’s focus on framing housing in terms of access, inclusion and resilience – and the understandings of how housing intersects with climate change – have only become more clearly urgent over the last months. The tangible Lab outputs of this spring – a set of integrated proposals to transform the ‘overlooked’ multifamily walkups of New York City – now have higher stakes, as a result in many ways; most obviously, the affordable, unsubsidized, crowded tenements are also centers of infection, death and economic hardship.