For 10 years Tarmarkin worked in architecture in Boston. “I was perfectly in love with what I was doing, but it’s just awfully difficult to make a good living at doing quality architecture,” he says. “I was trying my best to make architecture as art.”
He split from his partner, returned to Manhattan, and founded Tarmarkin Co. in 1994 to merge his passion for the art of architecture with the lucrative business of real estate.
Tamarkin’s firm has made a name in boutique developments, converting warehouses to raw loft space apartments, and leading the residential development along the West Village waterfront. These include 140 Perry St., 47 E. 91 St., and 495 West St., which set sell-out records and won an AIA Honor Award. Tamarkin’s latest projects include 397 W. 12 St., offering five, 6,000 square-foot raw loft residences, two of which have sold, and 456 W. 19 St., with 22 spacious duplex residences and double-height ceilings. That project, a year from completion, is striving for silver LEED certification.
Let’s start with your dual career.
We’re architects and developers. We don’t generally take outside architecture work, except for the very rare occasion that something meets a certain amount of specifications which would make us love it enough to do it as a purely passionate artistic endeavor. But we take the architecture of our developments very seriously and we’re the architects of our own developments. So as well as being right in the middle of constructing two development projects in New York City for which we are also the architects, we’ve also just finished up two environmentally-friendly houses, just as architects—a house for my family in Shelter Island and one in Woodstock.
What kind of green elements did you incorporate into the Woodstock home?
The house is made of very limited palette of natural materials, which are old-growth cypress wood, all responsibly cut from previously-felled cypress trees 100 years ago down south. It’s a beautiful, very rot-resistant wood... And then there are very thin profile steel windows with all low-UV insulating glass, e-coated glass. There is also radiant heat through locally quarried natural cleft slate flooring.
What is your feeling about green design?
I have a certain belief that quality architecture is smart architecture. Aside from looking beautiful, it’s also got to be smartly designed. And that has always meant, even before the energy crisis and the credit crunch and all these things that are now happening to us, designing with the elements, primarily the sun and the wind. If you use proper solar orientation for enveloping a house, you’re going to not heat it up too much in the summer. You’re going to use shading devices to keep a handle on that. You’re going to allow the sun to come in (during) the winter...Or you’re going to keep an eye toward cross ventilation so you can think about prevailing winds and let windows open up and let air flow through, or use fans to help it out. Or we put transom lights over all windows in these houses to let air flow right through, including through the bedrooms, to make air conditioning almost unnecessary.
How do you balance the two perspectives—the green architecture with the development?
Well, it’s very tricky on me. On my right shoulder sits a little angel that talks about design. And on my left shoulder is the devil that talks about development and finance. But I’m saying that facetiously because of the fact I have a great fascination with and passion for both business and design. I sound a little trite, but I really feel that good design is good business. I’ve always felt that.
How did you manage the business side?
When I returned to New York, it happened to be the perfect time because it was the very bottom and beginning of what’s been a 14-year run-up in real estate in New York. And I found out very quickly that I was really well trained to do this because I knew my way around construction sites. I had a great passion for business and numbers. I knew nothing about what I was doing… I didn’t know if I could raise the money to do a real estate project. But I found a beautiful old warehouse building in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from my home—a 20,000-square foot building called 140 Perry St. that had been sitting vacant for five years. [I bought] the building and I had assembled a list of 50 or 100 people that I thought I could raise some money from. And thank God, four people down the list was a friend of mine who had just become the head of a major, multi-billion dollar real estate fund. He loved the project and said, “Let’s do it. We’ll finance the whole thing,” and then we were off and running.
There I was: the architect of this project. It was a bigger project than I had been doing, building in Manhattan. And if I brought in all the numbers where I said I could, I stood to participate in the profit structure, which is exactly what happened. And they made 75 percent return on their money and I made more money than I had ever seen. The next thing we did is buy a site on the Hudson River—495 West St., between Jane and 12th—and that was a ground-up 11-story building. We offered raw loft space which is what we’ve kind of become known for. That sold out at record-breaking prices and won an AIA award for the building. This kind of started the whole trend of buying a building by a river, beautiful water views.
And we did a series of projects. We did a building called 206 W. 17 St., which was the old Barney’s administrative building and warehouse. We did 47 E. 91 St., a new building on the Upper East Side in Carnegie Hill. And we’re doing two new buildings right now. That’s a kind of history. And in all that time, I turned down many architectural commissions until the house up in Woodstock.
So you go from single-family homes to full scale developments.
Yeah, 19th Street is 55,000 square feet, 22 apartments. And 17th Street is a 72,000-square-foot building.
Is one more fulfilling than the other?
No, because the same passion that was put into the house for architecture is put into the buildings. I have a fantastic staff of very talented architects and so I spend half my time working on design issues with equal love and attention to detail that house would get. And then the other half of my time is spent analyzing new deals, looking at new properties, thinking of how the business is going to continue in this crappy market. It’s not that one is more fulfilling. One generates more money than the other one. And every second of every day can’t be spent thinking about how you’re going to make money…We’re not your typical gruff, tough, get-it-done-as-soon-as-possible-and-get-it-done-as-cheaply-as-possible developers.
Is that how the development world is?
Oh yeah… An architect’s job is to make it as beautiful as you can. You’re supposed to keep within the budget; you’re supposed to keep it on schedule. But if it doesn’t work out well as a piece of architecture, you haven’t done your job. A developer’s job is to make money on the project. That involves a lot of fighting with contractors, a lot of wrestling over details, the way things are built. And one of the things that sets us apart as developers in Manhattan is that we care so deeply about the quality of the buildings. I mean, we use real steel windows on every project. No developer in his right mind would do that.
What green elements are in your current projects?
On 456 W. 19 St., we are going to achieve a silver LEED rating. And there’s all sorts of stuff that we’re doing to achieve that: proper solar orientation, keen eye toward cross ventilation and low E insulated glass, proper building envelope insulation... On top of that, to build this building, we’re being very careful to use regional materials, using less transportation… the same thing that everybody does: low VOC materials and wide plank hardwood floors that are all FSC certified. There’s filtered water in every apartment, filtered air in every apartment.
What’s the state of green architecture in New York?
I think the good news is that it’s becoming green [in] everybody’s minds, not just architects. That environmentally sustainable design is a good thing, even more than a good thing—it’s just mandatory. It’s something that we all need to do for the health of the planet. And that’s become painfully obvious. What I’m concerned about is the PR aspect of it, because it’s become awfully trendy to use that as a marketing tool in the development world. I think that’s dangerous, because I know that you can use these LEED points and you can noodle your way around them to get points for things that are maybe less important than other things. The same way that luxury became a term that brokers and developers threw around until it was meaningless, that’s what I’ve been nervous is starting to happen with green.
You said there are so many ways to noodle around LEED points; do you think LEED will eventually mean less?
Yeah; I can put a 6 x 6 piece of carpet in the superintendent’s office in the basement and check off that I’ve used carpeting in the building, so that becomes kind of meaningless. Does it become fashion or is it just a really smart thing to do? I totally believe in it as a smart thing to do. I’m kind of annoyed by people that see it as a way to charge extra money for their apartments. Believe me, developers are doing that.
What sets your buildings apart?
When you build boutique buildings that implies non-cookie cutter apartments. That’s the thing I’ve always said for 14 years: I’m happy to be selling fewer apartments that are each much more unique because I think in New York City there is and will always be an audience that gets the difference. So instead of going for 95 percent in a mass way of the audience, I think we go for five percent, the people that get the difference between steel windows or copper flashing or custom molded bricks, or Roman bricks, or things that are architecturally driven.
On the other hand, we also don’t design our buildings to kind of scream out for attention… I think there’s a good side and bad side to that as well. Using internationally-known celebrity architects is good in that it drives up the bar a bit for New York City residential architecture, but also everybody starts screaming for attention: “Look at me. Look at how I can make a folded glass wall.” It’s kind of all these crazy buildings that is not really what New York is about.
I’m really into classic, timeless, beautiful design, which I think is very hard to do. I feel like that’s a noble enough endeavor. What we try to do is just beautiful classic stuff that’s unique… It’s about great space.