In some ways New York City can be seen as a city purposefully designed for a life lived amongst others. Compared to so many of the nation’s residential communities that physically enforce separation, the density and closeness of this city encourage social and personal spheres of life to become unavoidably interwined. Yet unlike most other metropolises worldwide, there is remarkably little accommodation for smaller-sized housing units that would make practical and economic sense for the patterns of life in New York City.
Historically, New York City has been home to a particular housing model rare in this country: single room occupancy (SRO) apartments – individual living and sleeping units with shared kitchens and / or bathrooms. Once numbering over a hundred thousand units, well-meaning attempts to eliminate them from the city fabric in favor of studio apartments have reduced their number to fewer than 40,000. As outlined in a recent NYU Furman Center report in parallel with this reduction, SRO units have come to be seen as a housing type of “last resort” that is more of a “safety net” than a desirable option.
But the vital role that SRO units play in keeping New Yorkers housed is recognized by legislation that requires the city’s Department of Housing Preservation Development to provide a Certificate of No Harassment to any applicant for a building permit that affects existing SRO apartments. Also, the previously negative attitude towards smaller housing units with shared facilities is now being revisited due to ever-rising housing costs. As the affordability crisis in New York City’s housing stock becomes more and more stark, the rehabilitation of aging SRO buildings has become a new priority for building management companies, especially in the non-profit sector. UAI has recently been involved in the architectural and construction administration side of this work on recent projects, each of which has provided its own specific challenges.
Communication is key – as with any work that is performed with the building occupants in place, it is more than typically critical to keep residents informed and provide sufficient notice for upcoming work. Architects and general contractors engaged in this work to support the Owner or Property Manager more intensively and the responsive than normal, as they interact with tenants to address their concerns.
Realistic scheduling is one of the most difficult aspects of the work. As with any construction work in a big city, timing and planning are subject to unexpected changes but certain deadlines must be held to avoid cascade delays. UAI’s experience has been that delays due to tenant reluctance to change the status quo are close to unavoidable at the start of these kinds of projects, but that once things are moving and more trust exists between tenants and the development team, things begin to go more smoothly.
All members of the design team must be aware and able to contribute towards the planning of the project’s phasing, in order to ensure that structural, mechanical, plumbing, fire protection and electrical work can proceed smoothly through the various phases, minimizing any duplicative work. These types of considerations can even influence what building systems are selected.
Often existing building services must be modified in order to keep functioning to serve the tenants as new elements are introduced in parallel, thus the sequence of installation becomes especially important.
In existing buildings, accessibility requirements are typically limited to only those items that are replaced, unless the scope of work approaches that of a gut renovation. SRO rehabilitations do not result in a change in occupancy type which, as a rule, brings more stringent accessibility regulations to bear. However, given the reality of aging urban populations, providing greater accessibility in terms of accessible routes and layouts that allow provision of future accessibility wherever possible is a wise choice.
While the newer box style takes up a lot more room, with some forethought these easier-to-use mail compartments can be integrated into the common spaces of the building.
Sustainability is not often thought of in relation to preserving existing housing, but the repair and renovation of deteriorated buildings offers an excellent opportunity to upgrade building systems. Even within tight confines, the addition of insulation at the building’s perimeter, inside existing walls, can reduce thermal transfer and allow the heating system to function more effectively. Window replacement can offer a straightforward way to improve thermal efficiency, especially when older buildings typically contain incompletely sealed, outdated windows, sometimes even still single-paned within wood frames.
Plumbing fixtures can also provide a way to save water and decrease waste – effective, durable low-flow fixtures are now readily available and provide a significant upgrade over existing ones that are frequently leaky or inefficient.
The cost of working around tenants in place while doing significant work cannot be underestimated, especially if it’s not possible to fully vacate a building which is typically the case with SRO rehabilitations. Budget shortfalls can end up being especially costly down the line if work is poorly installed or if quality must be compromised due to lack of funds.
Additionally, care must be taken to avoid losing more time than can be afforded at the start of the project as rushing to completion often results in funds being expended less efficiently than they otherwise would.
These five elements of communication, phasing/timing, accessibility, sustainability and cost form a framework to evaluate the success of any SRO rehabilitation. Working on these kinds of projects provides challenges unique to each building, but the benefits of providing homes for more New Yorkers is real. The challenge is to provide the compact living space of single room occupancy units with the amenities needed to live a full life. Shared common areas and features that facilitate friendly and respectful space-sharing are critical to the ongoing success of these buildings.
The sense of community fostered in a well-run SRO building is intangible, however design and construction work play an important role in creating a comfortable environment where this is possible. While a single room occupancy unit may look quite different than the so-called “American dream” of a detached house with driveway, it has equal value to larger kinds of residences in providing its occupant with a home.