New York House: Why did you decide to remodel instead of rebuilding?
Eran Chen: When I bought the property the plan was to demo it. I actually didn’t pay any attention to the existing structure when I bought it. This was a very old structure, and I had this thought of creating this beautiful, modern, contemporary and environmentally friendly building. This is something that I thought of doing for a while. But like everything else that we do in ODA, The process is really governing everything and as I started designing it I realized that it’s just the wrong thing to do. The existing house was there for about thirty years and when I bought it it was neglected for about five. Nature and the power of nature had started to take over. It almost felt like the structure of the house that was left became a total part of the nature and the landscape. Walking/working around it and reviewing the details of It and the relationship between how the landscape absorbed it, it felt like the house was telling as strong story as everything around it. At that point I think I had decided that whatever I do I am not going to demolish it, there is something very environmentally unfriendly about just dismissing it and building something else.
NYH: Do you have any previous experience with eco-remodeling/building?
EC: I have to say that everything we do in our firm, to some degree, considers the issues of the environment. I can’t say that every project is green but I think people see green design like a guilt sort-of-thing, you got to do it to do the right thing, and they miss the whole point. The whole point is that really good design and the most natural thing to do is green. Some decisions that you make are more environmentally friendly and they are better for the people who are living in the space. People think “oh let’s do something green, lets demo everything else and rebuild” yet some of the most environmentally friendly things to do are to reconstruct what is already there.
A lot of our projects at ODA are urban projects; residential, hotels, and stuff like that, but especially in New York City we always advocate first to evaluate the existing structure and see if we can come up with something that includes the existing structure and not a full demolition of it.
NYH: What sustainable attributes did you decide to include in the Lake House?
EC: I believe that green design has to do designing aspects that involve air-flow and light and energy and exposure to light, that has nothing to do with the specific features ,just has to do with correct design. So in the house for example, one of the first elements, besides keeping the existing structure, was the circulation of air and, as you know, hot air rises so I created openings at the top of the roof, small vents, that create suction of air and natural circulation of air through the house to minimize the amount of air conditioning in the house. We don’t have air conditioning in the house at all, it’s really unnecessary because the air that comes from the lake and the natural movement of air through the house created by the openings and the vents, take care of ventilation and fresh air.
The other thing that we’ve done is the orientation of windows and the way that light is coming in. That has to do with the landscape around us, the orientation of the southern exposure being blocked by trees and the big openings are actually facing north, which we are lucky that also the view is there, but that allows us to control energy consumption.
The other portion of green design has to do with the actual element and materials you bring in, and the choice that we’ve made. We choose a kitchen manufacturer that does two things. Firstly, everything is locally manufactured. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find a contemporary design kitchen that is made in the US. And in our case [Bazzeo] is made in New Jersey. The other thing is that all of the panels are from aluminum frames to minimize the usage of wood and therefore it’s a very unique system. Ninety-five percent of it is recyclable, and made from recycled materials.
On to the rest of the house, the floor is the original floor, when we saw it was horrible it was dark dark brown, bitten floor. We sanded it, and we revealed the original floor which actually was gorgeous and we re-stained it. That was a great surprise. The wood cladding on the wall, all of this wood is a re-claimed wood that I found in a local wood shop. We have taken the reclaimed wood, sanded it, and re-stained it. All the wood cladding in the house is all reclaimed. The other element which I thought was important is the porch, originally an open porch, with mahogany floor. When I decided to close it, I choose to use a steel frame system, and again using steel, raw steel, is a much better way than either wood or aluminum windows in a sense that it is a natural material and recyclable material to use.
NYH: How have your ideas about sustainable design changed since doing this project ?
EC: I think it really reiterated a lot of our principles at ODA, which has to do with smart design and environmentally conscious design or green design is a smart design. We don’t come with a preconceived notion of what it’s going to be. We go through a process of unfolding and revealing existing elements, and so the end result is very surprising. And I think the fact that I started off by thinking I’m going to do one thing and then ending up doing something that is extremely different, reinforced the ideas of how we treat every project in the office.
NYH: Did you come across any obstacles or challenges during the re-model?
EC: Absolutely, the systems were very old. The water supply was coming from a well, a local well- which I love. But we had to treat the well and replace the pump. We had a choice, in this area we could potentially reconnect to the water line, but we choose to keep the well. Other systems, like the septic system, had to be redone. There’s a lot of challenges when it comes to heating systems, because you want to do the right thing and sometimes it’s not the obvious choice.
NYH: Do you have any suggestions or advice for anyone who’s considering a similar project?
EC: People totally miss the point when they think about redoing a house, or even buying a property and rebuilding a house. Usually they would hire an architect, look through some plans, and the amount of attention that is given to the existing- not only the environmental landscape but also the structure- is minimal. By doing that they are not only losing a huge architectural potential. The outcome is so much more unique and true to the place but also they are spending a lot more money. One of my biggest suggestions for people would be to really re-think, with designers and architects, the value of the existing [property/structure]. Spend more time evaluating lights and sun direction and landscape on the existing site. Unfortunately I think a lot of suburban living in the US is when people come with preconceived notions. They come to the table with a preconceived idea of certain style or size or plans and it is a missed opportunity. The outcome of every design we do is surprising and unexpected and by that I think much more unique. People would gain if they’d embrace a different process.