RKTB Architects has developed a prototype infill template for efficient construction of housing throughout New York City.
DESIGN OF AFFORDABLE housing developments in big cities throughout the United States often conjures images of plain structures with minimal functionality. However, when an architectural rm like RKTB Architects of New York City gets involved, there’s no telling how functional and beautiful these developments will be.
Partner Carmi Bee has made a career out of delivering designs for affordable and supportive housing in New York City that enrich the communities that surround his structures and support the residents who live in them.
“None of us got into this profession to become rich,” Bee says. “We all have a decent lifestyle, but primarily we’re doing it because we care about making other people’s lives better.”
RKTB was launched in 1963 by Bee’s late partner, Bernard Rothzeid. Bee joined the company in 1965 as a student, working part time in the summer. After he graduated, Bee joined the rm as an associate while also working as a teacher.
Bee became a partner in RKTB in 1977, and today he is joined by Peter Ba tis, Albert Aronov and Alex Brito as partners.
Since its founding, RKTB has specialized in residential architecture, initially designing private residences before moving into rehabilitation on properties in New York City reclaimed for nonpayment of taxes. The rm soon became one of the pioneers of adaptive reuse in the 1970s, taking commercial and industrial buildings and converting them to affordable housing structures.
Today, RKTB continues to work in the affordable and supportive housing areas, as well as education, healthcare and performing arts. Bee admits the competition among architects in New York City is stronger than ever.
With more firms responding to requests for proposals throughout the city, RKTB – even with its vast experience – can get lost in the shuffle with so many new companies in the mix.
RKTB instead has focused on coming up with its own concepts for land development and pitching them to developers who may be interested in financing the project.
“If you know developers and have an idea or know of a piece of property and you go to them, that is preferable,” Bee says. “That’s the path we take. Architects have imagination. We see things others can’t.”
One of RKTB’s most recent innovations is the development of an affordable infill housing prototype that easily can be applied to different sections of New York City where blight has become a problem.
“This is something we had been thinking about for years,” Bee says. “We thought about how we could develop a strategy for renewing neighborhoods by building new structures related to the existing physical context on vacant lots.”
The prototype was designed to fit into New York City’s grid system, which typically divides lots into 20- or 25-foot-wide sections. The four-story walk-up apartment buildings are designed to be aesthetically pleasing and functional yet affordable by designing the eight-unit structures efficiently.
For example, the structures feature one staircase and no elevator, which cuts down on overall maintenance costs. Simple design strategies like this helped cut construction costs significantly, bringing the price of each structure down to $185 per square foot.
“I would say I’m proudest of this prototype in terms of innovation more than anything else we’ve done in the last 10 years,” Bee says.
So far, seven developments have been designed using this template to produce about 400 apartment units, primarily throughout Brooklyn. All the developments have been commissioned by the Community Preservation Corp. in New York City through its nonprofit arm, CPC Resources LP Group.
“We have been working with CPC for years, and what they are primarily known for is financing renovations of low-income housing,” Bee says. “Some of our most successful work is where we come up with an idea and go around and shop it instead of just waiting for our telephone to ring and putting in proposals.”
Building the Prototypes
RKTB has delivered many of its prototype structures throughout Brooklyn. Its properties include:
• Msgr. Anthony J. Barretta Apartments – an affordable walk-up housing development with 64 units in eight buildings.
• Madison Putnam Housing – 48 apartments in seven buildings of varying widths on four separate lots.
• Maynard Co-Ops – six separate buildings made up of three prototypical units, comprising a total of 48 affordable apartments.
In order to keep projects in order, Bee says RKTB has developed a system of quality control standards. The system aims to minimize or eliminate a need for change-orders once construction starts.
“Once you’re hit with change-orders, the budget goes out the window,” Bee says. “We have learned to anticipate problems by using this ‘crystal ball.’ Sometimes we can do it, and sometimes we can’t.”
Continuing the RKTB Tradition
Since its founding, RKTB has focused on bringing in students to learn in a real-time environment and, oftentimes, hiring them once they earn their degrees. This is how Bee joined the firm in the 1960s, and today, 50 percent of his staff is represented by his former students.
“That was an important experience for me because you learn how to articulate ideas, and now I get the satisfaction of training people, as well,” Bee says.
The constant injection of youth into RKTB’s workforce will ensure the firm will continue to grow throughout the coming years. Bee envisions his company will remain dedicated not only to providing architecture that pleases the eye, but also to continue to work to improve the communities where the firm’s structures land.