There are few things more quintessentially to New York City neighbourhoods than the ubiquitous brownstone. Long considered the primest of prime real estate, these elegant walkups – named for their sandstone exteriors – were built in the late 19th Century and have become synonymous with the well-heeled and urbane. Despite their omnipresence in the city’s imagination, not all are of the luxurious variety found in, say, Sex and the City (or Sesame Street, for that matter).
In fact, when architect Shane Neufeld was asked to transform a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood, the site was long divorced from its original charm. The interiors had been destroyed. Its layout had been heavily altered, and what was once a single-family house had been converted into a rooming house. Plumbing and electrical infrastructure needed replacement. For Neufeld, who runs his architecture studio out of Brooklyn, this was a gold mine.
It was an opportunity for his firm L/and/A “to rethink what a townhouse in the city could be.”
Called the Switchback House, Neufeld developed a layout that inverts the typical row house typology to employ a new spatial layout that prioritizes dynamic visual connections. While most vintage townhouses are dark and segmented, the three-storey renovation resulted in a 2,700-square-foot interior filled with natural light. The 20-by-40-foot floors are still narrow, but they seem much more open and spacious due to daylight streaming in from above.
Neufeld redesigned the house around two central features: a 14-by-six foot Velux skylight, which filters light down three levels, and a staircase volume. Both work in tandem. By incorporating a switchback staircase – a U-shaped set of stairs joined by a landing, which frequently works well in small spaces – he was able to remove the second-floor hallway.
That punched a 32-foot-high void at the centre of the house, creating a sun tunnel.
The opening, however, had structural implications. To accommodate the insertion, three wide-flange beams were added to each floor to help reinforce the original joists. The rooms orbiting the staircase were given interior-facing windows that provide a sense of transparency while allowing sunlight to filter in.
The staircase itself, which joins white oak treads and a slender steel hand rail to a drywall guard rail, was also built with visual access in mind. The amount of transparency throughout the house, Neufeld says, eliminates the need for artificial lighting during the day. It also adds postcard views of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Finishings were mindfully chosen to accentuate natural light. White oak was used on the floors and cabinetry, and the original brick walls were painted white. The kitchen is outfitted with a Wolf cooktop, Miele dishwasher, Subzero fridge. Fixtures are by Hansgrohe, Cifial and Toto.
Here is one the original sketches for the house: