The Real Deal New York

Turning a sketch into reality

Behind the scenes as architects confront design challenges on a West 18th Street condo project

March 31, 2008
By Steve Cutler

Before residents move into their glass curtain wall condos or new “prewar” buildings, before the construction starts and the sales office opens, there is an architecture firm wrestling with a concept. Often, that concept evolves and changes strikingly from the original plans.

This month, The Real Deal went behind the scenes with one New York City architectural firm to see how a project goes from the drafting board and blueprint phase to the high-end units that brokers and developers boast about selling.

The firm, Della Valle Bernheimer, is erecting a boutique 11-story condo at 459 West 18th Street, which is expected to be finished in October. Apartments at the building range in size from 1,450 square feet for a two-bedroom to 3,500 square feet for a penthouse unit and cost between $1.78 million and $6.9 million. There are currently only three units left.

Architect Jared Della Valle, 36, explained that he and his partner, Andrew Bernheimer, bought the property 18 months ago after a search that lasted more than a year.

Because the property is L-shaped and sits next to the new, all-glass Chelsea Modern condo building, the firm had unique constraints when coming up with the design.

The idea started with a back-of-a-napkin sketch (see sketch, right) and evolved through a series of revisions, including one that incorporated the financial realities of the market, which sent the team back to the drawing board at the 11th hour (more on that shortly).

Della Valle said the team working on the project, which consisted of about five people, began with 30 to 40 options before it narrowed the design down to the stark, angular black-and-white building it settled on.

According to the architect, they gave themselves a very tight four-month deadline for the design and the documentation because they were acting as both the developer and the architect.

“We treated the start of this project as if it had an immovable completion date, like a competition,” Della Valle said.

The 30 to 40 design options included many versions of the same four main designs. Della Valle categorized them like this: articulated party walls with a curtain wall cascade; articulated frame with a curtain wall canvas; a monolith with punches; and slipping or nesting objects.

As the sketches above show, the final design falls into the last category with a white, glass trapezoidal shape “slipping” or “nesting” into the black, aluminum-paneled façade.

Della Valle outlined several challenges that the project faced. First was the zoning, which requires an 85-foot setback. Second was the shape of the land. About half of the 50 feet of frontage running along 18th Street is 50 feet deep, while the other half is 100 feet deep. And third was being next to the Chelsea Modern, which has a horizontally shaped design.

“We were deliberately looking to strike these vertical lines to create this stopping point,” he said. “It’s making a vertical gesture versus a horizontal one.

“The shape we ended up with,” he added, “is actually the mathematical formula that the zoning resolution provides for.”

A design process like this almost always involves some trial and error. In this case, they tested the building with different façades, trying stone and the black exterior to see which would work better. And they ultimately chose glass “punch-out” windows, with some pieces measuring 45 feet by 8-and-a-half feet, that run along the front façade like movie screens.

The building’s last-minute revision came after they submitted the condo filing to the attorney general’s office, about two weeks before the plan was scheduled for approval. On their broker’s advice, they decided to change the mix of units to include only one unit per floor, with some duplexes, rather than a mix of smaller apartments. Their sales team said the area was about to be flooded with smaller apartments. The design changes and new documents took about 30 days to prepare.

“It was very stressful, but it made sense given our new understanding of the competition,” Della Valle said. He said the larger units were something that they had wanted to do all along, but “had a hard time committing to” because they believed there was greater appetite in the market for apartments below $1.5 million.

Once the design was finalized, the architects had another challenge. The site had very tight physical parameters that would mean there would be very little margin for error in construction. The builders decided to prefabricate elements of the glass and aluminum so they could be dropped in place by a crane once the frame of the building was erected.

The frame topped out in early March. The façade will take 13 days to install by crane. It was supposed to be installed in March, but was delayed because of the moratorium on crane usages resulting from the Upper East Side accident last month.

That is just one of the unexpected realities of drafting a condo in New York. The three units left in the project, which will include a concierge service, are going for $2.73 million, $2.85 million and $6.9 million.

Once this building is done, the 10-year-old firm will move on to the next project. Della Valle declined to say what that would be, but noted that it is “much bigger,” and it’s in Manhattan.

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