View Full Version : Britons Build Manhattan Dream Home from Scratch

March 10th, 2004, 02:36 PM
Britons Build Manhattan Dream Home from Scratch

Wed Mar 10, 2004 08:06 AM ET

By Nichola Groom

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A British couple enamored of Manhattan's city living but eager to raise their children in a new house are building their dream home from scratch in New York's trendy Greenwich Village.

The four-story modern building is just the second single-family home to be built in the West Village in at least the last 14 years, according to its architect, Matthew Baird.

But it is the project's contemporary design that has raised more than a few eyebrows in the neighborhood, where residents shell out millions of dollars for stately homes that were built over 100 years ago.

"We knew that a contemporary design was going to cause a stir there," Baird said in an interview. "But it wasn't right to make something that was a fake. This isn't Disney World -- we're not making phony 19th-century architecture."

Unlike other townhouses in the neighborhood, Baird's design incorporates modern tastes and conveniences such as large, open spaces and high-tech wiring.

More importantly to some neighbors, however, the house's austere facade will be made from a single 17.4-ton piece of recycled steel -- a far cry from the red and brown brick structures surrounding it.

For Baird, the use of materials like steel, concrete and plastic are in keeping with the house's most immediate surroundings -- old warehouses that once functioned as the hub of New York's meatpacking industry.

In fact, the house's garage door will even look like a closed-down storefront.


Anticipating at least some neighborly grumblings, the publicity-shy couple invited their future neighbors over for an informal chat and preview of Baird's design -- a tactic the wife, Sasha, said made them more receptive to the plan.

"It's not that they don't like change. They just don't like to be shocked by it," Sasha, who declined to give her last name, said in an interview. "When someone comes to your house and has a glass of wine they are going to loathe really disagreeing with you."

Ultimately, several neighbors -- including local restaurateur Florent Morellet -- voiced their support of the design to the neighborhood's community board and the New York City Landmarks Commission, both of which approved the plan.

The family moved to New York from London three years ago, intending to stay just a couple of years. But Sasha and her husband, who declined to be named, soon fell in love with the European feel of Greenwich Village and set about trying to buy a townhouse in which to raise their two small children.

Little did they know they would end up building one. But in late 2002, after stumbling across a dilapidated old building that was for sale in precisely the neighborhood they were looking to live in -- they resolved to do just that.

"Who thinks that they will ever build?" Sasha said. "But when we saw the building I just knew we had to get it. It was really as simple as that."


Perhaps most surprisingly, the couple is building its dream home -- complete with a rooftop fireplace, 22-foot ceilings, and a wine cellar -- for far less than they would have paid for a fully-renovated townhouse.

A search of New York real estate listings showed the cost of buying a renovated townhouse in the West Village runs as high as $10 million.

Baird, meanwhile, put the cost of his construction at "considerably less than $4 million." Add to that about $1.6 million for the cost of the original building, and the dream home appears, by some standards, to be a bargain.

"If you walk into a brownstone you feel guilty if the bathroom has been done and it's not your taste because you've paid for it," Sasha said. "Now we can put what we want and have only ourselves to blame."

So does this mean the Britons are ready to call New York home for good?

"We don't really plan much ... we thought we'd come and then we'd be going," Sasha said. "But we're really happy here ... it's a great privilege to be able to build in one of the great cities of the world."

Construction on the house began in December. The family hopes to move in next spring, but not before the George Washington Bridge has to be shut down temporarily during shipment of the house's massive steel facade from Pennsylvania.

Baird is expecting to attach the facade this spring, and is already planning to invite the neighbors to a block party to honor the event. "Isn't it mad?" Sasha said, laughing. "I look forward to that day."

© Copyright Reuters 2004

April 8th, 2004, 07:33 PM

April 9th, 2004, 12:01 PM
The design is interesting, but a little surprising given that "Sasha and her husband....soon fell in love with the European feel of Greenwich Village." I wonder what street that is. Inviting the neighbors over was a smart move.

How much do you think it costs to close down the GW Bridge.......????$$$$

July 16th, 2005, 08:56 PM
Construction of 829 Greenwich Street single-family home. 16 July 2005.


July 17th, 2005, 11:39 PM
And what sort of abomination might they soon be competing with next door?

July 17th, 2005, 11:45 PM
Tremendous treatment and respective building. I think its even better than the similarly great Folk Art Museum near the MOMA.

July 17th, 2005, 11:59 PM
I don't understand the motivation for the big piece of steel on the front. It will block out most of the light, and I don't find it attractive at all. I feel like they could have done better to just cut up the steel and incorporate it into some sort of exoskeleton to give the building a wrought-iron feel. This just doesn't seem practical. Anyone agree?

On a side note, I like the fact that it is a modern construction and that the architect admitted the folly in recreating 19th century architecture and ending up with something fake-looking. Definitely something to be cross-referenced in other, bigger projects that try to "echo the past" with their retro designs and cheap-looking facade treatments.

It's also interesting that this is a much cheaper alternative than buying an existing townhouse. No doubt, the value of this house will go up a lot within a few years, but I can't help wondering: Why don't people do this more often?

July 18th, 2005, 12:06 AM
I don't understand the motivation ...

Wrought-iron although attractive would be an inappropriate and out of place treatment for the building here, the building is in the meat packing district and the weathered expanse of steel is held in place as an abstract and sculptural representation of the hood'. The fact that it is held by modern and refined features makes it an even bolder architectural statement.

July 18th, 2005, 12:13 AM
Yeah that giant wall of steel is weird. In the rendering it looks like its rusted over. It looks pretty cool though in general.

Does anyone know what's getting built next to it?

July 18th, 2005, 12:14 AM
I totally get the idea behind using the weathered steel in the building. I didn't mean to literally use wrought-iron, but instead to use the same kind of steel throughout the building's facade in a more practical way. It's modern and it's bold, no one's arguing that. But how practical is it?

July 18th, 2005, 12:26 AM
I totally get the idea behind using the weathered steel in the building. I didn't mean to literally use wrought-iron, but instead to use the same kind of steel throughout the building's facade in a more practical way. It's modern and it's bold, no one's arguing that. But how practical is it?

Its not practical at all. And as a general rule I believe in the tenets of form follows function, but for this building I simply indulge in its imagery. Much as people indulge in Calatrava’s sculptural forms and the implied modernism of the Seagram Building. I addressed such in an artistic statement:

"I am not satisfied with the simply conventional, or am I by the delusionary haphazard. That said, I am not a fan of frills and I believe form follows function, and art and architecture are intertwined in that they must engage an audience, yet serve practicality. I do love the completely abstract, because that serves a function in itself, its function is mesmerizing, it is entertaining. Although art cannot be abstract without reason to it, it must be the product of the artists passion. In architecture the abstract serves a purpose if the space acts as environment, if it captivates its audience, whereas if the space is unused, and even though it is justified as art, if it does not serve the public, I can only see it as a wasted art."

July 18th, 2005, 03:00 AM
They did a nice job on the building next door (compared to that b&w render)

July 18th, 2005, 01:41 PM
Do you have a photo of it or something, asohn?

July 27th, 2005, 02:02 AM
A New Yorker mention:
Issue of 2004-01-19
Posted 2004-01-12

Here’s a way around the city’s increasingly impossible real-estate market: build your own house. Granted, it’s the road less travelled—if indeed it’s travelled at all. (In the last thirteen years, according to Buildings Department records, only one new single-family house has been built in the West Village.) Last month, however, construction began on a town house at 829 Greenwich Street—a small patch of land that sits on the dividing line between the West Village and the meatpacking district.

The owners of the property are a young English couple with two small children who moved to New York in the spring of 2001. “We looked at brownstones in the West Village,” the wife said recently. “But we didn’t have the budget to buy a four-million-dollar house.” Two years ago, on the evening of her birthday, she and her husband walked out of Pastis and passed a decrepit, partially collapsed Federal-style town house. The windows were mortared up, and the brick façade, which was slathered with stucco, bulged out as if at any minute the whole house would fall in on itself. A sign said that it was for sale. “I just knew,” she recalled. “I looked at my husband and said, ‘This is it.’ ”

Shortly after signing the contract, they hired the architect Matthew Baird. Baird is a well-spoken man in his late thirties who bears a faint resemblance to Liam Neeson. It took him a week to come up with a design. The interior, he said, borrows from the Federal-style homes of the West Village, but the over-all effect of the house is ultra-modern, taking its cues, Baird said, “from minimalist art and the tough industrial feel of the meatpacking district.” The façade is a massive plate of recycled steel, three stories high, that will be bolted onto the front of the building. The back wall is made almost entirely of glass. There is virtually no ornament anywhere. It could hardly be less characteristic of the Village.

Though his clients were thrilled, many of the neighbors were not; and so they showed up at community board meetings to complain, as unthrilled neighbors will. “It looks like a cineplex,” Bill Cornwell, the treasurer of the Horatio Street Association, said.

“They wanted it to look like Colonial Williamsburg,” Baird said.

One person’s avant-garde, though, is another’s antique. One of the meatpacking district’s better-known businessmen, Florent Morellet, the owner of Florent, the sleek Gansevoort Street diner that is popular with both cross-dressers and corporate financiers, began to speak out in support of the house. Alarmed by the brushfire development around the Gansevoort Market, Morellet helped push to have the area designated a historic district (a proposal that just passed), yet he also praised the plans for 829 Greenwich Street, calling the use of steel building materials “authentic” to the history of the neighborhood. Last spring, when Baird and his team presented their design to the Landmarks Commission, the board voted unanimously in favor of it, and last February the old place was finally demolished.

To celebrate the groundbreaking, Baird threw a party at Florent just before the new year. Baird and the woman who owns the house (her husband was out of town) strolled amiably among the guests. Hanging in the restaurant’s entryway was a large computerized rendering of the house. People commented on the huge steel façade, which, if it is trucked into the city, will necessitate a temporary shutdown of the George Washington Bridge.

“It weighs seventeen tons,” a man said.

“Is it really cheaper to build than to buy?” someone else wanted to know.

The owner said, “In a market where nice brownstones are selling for between four and six million, I think it’s fair to say this is being built for considerably less.”

Baird nodded. “I visited a brownstone recently that was in terrible need of work. It’s the same size as the Greenwich Street property, and the asking price is only slightly less than what the total cost of our project will be. Now, that house needs a tremendous amount of work, and when it’s done it won’t have state-of-the-art structure, insulated windows, built-in data, telephones—all the bells and whistles that we have in modern houses.”

When the Greenwich Street house is done (the estimated date is the spring of 2005), it will have five bathrooms, two fireplaces, a library, a wine cellar, a vertical garden with climbing hydrangeas, a hot tub on the roof, and a drive-in garage. “It was a bit of an urban no-no, in my opinion, to add the garage,” Baird says. “I learned in school that the automobile was the death of the city. At the same time, I can relate to the convenience of it, the luxury of being able to pile your kids in the car and just go. At least it’s not a big garage. You can’t fit an S.U.V. inside it.”

July 27th, 2005, 02:22 AM
It's so nice to see a building turn out better than the rendering - it's really quite beautiful. I'll venture to suggestion that the steel is both intentionally rusting and intentionally opaque (for privacy).

July 27th, 2005, 08:01 PM
It's so nice to see a building turn out better than the rendering - it's really quite beautiful. I'll venture to suggestion that the steel is both intentionally rusting and intentionally opaque (for privacy).
Hmm... I'd like to see a piece of steel that is not opaque...
Typically, when we think of the West Village, we think of dignified brownstones. However, as the article points out, this is right on the border with the Meatpacking district. There, it will blend right in.

July 28th, 2005, 08:45 AM
It blends, but there is a certain limit to that.

Are they so ashamed of the area that they do not want any sight of the surrounding neighborhood? It looks to me like the built a jiant steel and concrete box that they will live in (I also believe that that was a sketch on a British comedy back in the late 70's.... They redesigned the whole town and accidentally called for their own house to be covered with a huge block of concrete.....)

Anyway, the other thing that will not work will be the rust stains on the sidewalk and street. We have a copper roofed building here in Hoboken where the architect did not design gutters that were large enough to handle the water-shed during a storm. Result? The concrete below has green drip marks reminiscent of some sort of industrial waste.

Form does not always have to follow function, but the functions I see for this wall are not "art", and the rest just ignores functionality altogether....

(PS, I have seen worse, but this is no winner in my book)

April 22nd, 2007, 05:54 PM
My friend and I just happened to pass this the other day, and he pointed it out. I've never even seen it and walk over there all the time. That steel slab actually can have the effect of hiding the place from you, in my opinion. But once I looked at, it's the slab I am the most impressed with. It's stunning, and the whole process is quite admirable, from the politics with the neighbors to managing to build it for half the price of buying. I think the slab definitely works better at integrating with the character of the meat packing district than any new structure I've seen over there--which mostly amounts to sleek trendy restaurants and clubs for which I have little taste (although Markt is a good place).

New York boards like the Horatio one and block associations are often the most impractical people you could ever hope to find or not. Often purely territorial, and I know from having friends on my street in these associations. If you've lived there a long time, you're 'better' than if you haven't, which is normal, but still they can take it too far. The Chelsea one just prevented the Episcopal Theological Seminary from building a tall enough high-rise to pay for renovations on their venerable old buildings inside the seminary,which is truly the tranquil oasis of Manhattan, there's no other like it. So now, they will build a low one, but still have not got the funds to do their repairs--if they are willing to take chances on the ETS somehow losing the most pristine and beautiful gardens in town, they are just short-sighted. Hopefully, this won't happen, but ETS is 200 years old and Chelsea Square wouldn't really continue to exist at all without them. A house next to me on West 13th Street renovated and build extra floors on top, only to find screaming block association people telling them that was illegal even though it blocked nothing substantial from view (this was a project undertaken by a Briton too, by the way, but he's long-gone.)

But I'm pretty 'old-fogey' too, and find very little that truly interests me in the new developments on West Street and any of the riverfront areas. 829 Greenwich is the first new structure that really does blend with the old aspects beautifully. The Meier glass apts. on West Street are spectacular, but they are predictable enough, and they seem to be one of the reasons Charles Lane has gradually been left a ruin. I'm worried about what's going to happen at Jackson Square though.