How NYC architects squeeze the most space out of a building

TRD New York /
Feb.February 08, 2014 03:00 PM

 New York City’s notoriously space-hungry real estate market is converting the cantilever – perhaps made most famous in Frank Lloyd Wright’s floating residence of 1935 – from a mere move of architectural acrobatics to a profit-generating design feature.

Driven by a “more is more” mantra, developers and architects are using cantilevers to extend the reach of a building, creating unique vistas and extended floor space in a market in which both are priced at sky-high premiums.

“In New York, development is a three-dimensional chess game,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior partner at FXFOWLE Architects. Why stop at simply building taller? Zoning codes limit how high a building can rise – especially in “landmarked” neighborhoods which abide by strict limits in order to preserve contextual heights. So, if you can’t go any higher, why not extend outwards using your neighbor’s unused airspace?

“The reason we’re seeing an increase in the use of cantilevers above neighboring buildings is linked to the complexity of finding a site that can utilize all available development rights,” explains Kaplan in a recent New York Time article. The Isis, an 18-story condominium designed by FXFowle on East 77th Street, is a prime example of this opportunistic approach. The architects incorporated two eight-foot cantilevers; one floats 17 feet above the airspace of Xavier High School; the other projects 36 feet above a north-facing courtyard.

By selling their air rights at $13.7 million, the high school was able to monetize space that it had no intention of using. Inversely, the developers – Alchemy Properties – were able to extend apartment layouts adding value to each individual unit.

“In the 1920s they used to build straight up, with wedding-cake-type setbacks,” Kaplan adds, “but with a cantilever, we can build outward as well as up, and in kind of an inversion of the wedding-cake theme, the floors are bigger toward the top, where space is more valuable.”

Other notable New York cantilevers taking advantage of unused airspace include SHoP’s Porter House (with an eight foot cantilever), Herzog and de Meuron’s 56 Leonard Street tower in TriBeCa, and the planned luxury residential tower on 224 West 57th Street which is to cantilever above the 1890s landmark, the Arts Students League, rising 1,423 feet anchored by New York City’s first Nordstrom department store.

“Some people may not like [the cantilever],” says David Von Spreckelsen, Senior Vice President of Toll Brother’s City Living, “but I think it adds an interesting modern component, and with people not willing to sell their property to you, but willing to sell their air rights, the cantilever almost becomes a necessity.”

With a seemingly endless demand for new housing stock in New York City, the cantilever adds value and aesthetics that did not exist before. The movement of intercepting shapes, as Wright discovered long ago, has created a dynamic alternative to the typical glass box. This, together with its ability to add salable square footage, makes the cantilever a viable player in a spatially-challenged real estate market.

Check out Herzog and de Meuron’s cantilevered 56 Leonard Street tower on ArchDaily.


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