"Architecture, in some ways, is paying too much attention to just the aesthetics, and it should really be solving some of the crises the building industry has created."
By Joann Plockova
In Brooklyn’s once-industrial Gowanus neighborhood, local design studio CO Adaptive Architecture recently transformed a 1902 former metal foundry into a low-carbon development and rehearsal space for theatre artists. Despite the existing building’s chopped-up rooms and lack of light, both the client (the Mercury Store) and CO Adaptive alike saw its potential.
“I feel like anything, [even] the ugliest structure, has something there that you can work with,” says Ruth Mandl, co-founding principal of the studio along with her partner and husband, Bobby Johnston. “And I actually really enjoy that conversation with what is there. It's really fun.”
Mandl originally hails from Austria and Johnston is a native of Santa Ana, California. The couple has made reworking existing building stock into low-carbon, high-efficiency spaces homes, offices and cultural spaces the focus of their firm. In part a response to working in a dense city where space for new builds is limited, their choice is fueled by a passion for “working with these structures that have so much history,” says Mandl, and what she describes as a “treasure trove of embodied carbon.”
“Seeing the city as a material mine, and using those [materials], we don’t always reuse them in our own projects. But upcycling them, finding homes for them so they are not going into landfill, that’s definitely a passion,” says Johnston.
Although Northern European-inspired aesthetics are part of the package, the now seven-person-strong studio prioritizes building performance over form, solutions over appearance and adaptability over stasis. “Coadaptation is a term in biology used to describe the process by which a bee adapts to a flower, just as the flower adapts to the bee,” Mandl says. “For us, the name gets to the core of our goal for architecture as a process, rather than something static, which must continuously adapt to the planet we live on and the people who use it.”
Mandl and Johnston met during their graduate studies in architecture at Columbia University. While Mandl’s focus was sustainability and Johnston’s performative architecture, the two agreed “that architecture, in some ways is paying too much attention to just the aesthetics, and it should really be solving some of the crises the building industry has created,” says Mandl. Those include greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and material health issues that directly impact the health of both people and the planet.
Founded in 2011, CO Adaptive’s accomplishments showcase a variety of typologies. The firm has transformed a former 1950’s bank building into the headquarters of a Swiss freight logistics company in Long Island and reconfigured a 675-square-foot apartment into a material rich, two-bedroom family home for a client in Brooklyn.
In particular, CO Adaptive has embraced the passive house principle, including robust exterior insulation, triple-pane windows, operable exterior shades to mitigate solar heat gain, and airtight, vapor permeable ‘membranes,’ in effort to reduce operational energy, or the energy required to run a building over its lifetime, since the start of their practice. This includes Mandl and Johnston’s own family home: a converted three-story 1889 Brooklyn townhouse that is producing more energy that it can use, Mandl says. Yet their focus is shifting to include more of the other side of the equation.
“What we really want to make sure our clients know is that you have to focus on operational energy, but in that equation you can't leave embodied carbon [the carbon emissions associated with the extraction, processing, transportation, maintenance, demolition, and disassembly of building materials] to the wayside because it's a big part of that equation, says Mandl.
For the pair, the Mercury Store project exemplifies the embodied carbon side of things. One of the first commercial buildings in New York City to incorporate CLT (cross-laminated timber), the 12,700-square-foot, double A-frame building was opened up to expose its mainly timber and brick bones.
“We were looking for a low carbon solution that would not change the existing construction class of the building,” says Johnston. Using a Gantry crane, the low-carbon CLT panels were inserted to support the structure, including original trusses that were exposed. Any building materials that were removed, including joists and bricks, were repurposed as new architectural features (guardrails and lining for acoustic panels in the main studio space) or, in the case of the former, taken to a like-minded lumberyard that repurposes the materials into flooring and other applications.
“It just goes to show that we're surrounded with this stuff that shouldn't be considered waste,” says Mandl, who together with Johnston feels that both waste and carbon should be taxed in some way. “There should be a cost associated with tearing something down and getting rid of all that material, because it’s valuable.” As Gowanus is in a low-lying flood area, CO Adaptive, in collaboration with a theatrical set fabricator, designed a modular floor system that can be easily disassembled and then placed on higher ground.
“[The Mercury Store] was one of the first projects where we really started to work with designing for deconstruction [and demountability],” says Johnston. “It's something that we're really getting involved with now in our practice.”
In their new office in Brooklyn Navy Yard, CO Adaptive has incorporated a small workshop where they are developing a prototype for a demountable wall panel that will be made of wood and natural materials, including wood fiber board insulation and cork.
“We have hopes that this demountable wall panel we are developing will help bring the cost down of retrofitting existing buildings to a high performance, standardizing and modularizing passive house for retrofits,” says Mandl. “This is the long term goal for the prototype we are beginning to develop now, and something we are passionately working towards.”
As with the Mercury Store and a new passive house project they’ve started working on in Astoria, the studio is exploring a new material health-focused approach where they are carefully deconstructing projects and reusing materials as much as possible.
“The operational energy and the embodied carbon are almost diametrically opposed, in the sense that, when you do a passive house, you typically have to gut renovate a building so you can get all the systems in,” says Johnston. “What we’re trying to do more now, for example with the project in Astoria, it’s kind of the lightest touch we’ve done. We’re leaving floors in place, and walls, and really trying to minimally deconstruct things that need to be removed in order to get the systems in. We’re trying to keep as low of a carbon footprint as we can while making it as energy efficient as possible.”
In an ideal world, it’s marrying both [the operational and embodied], Mandl says. “It's sort of designing for adaptability and demountability and reusing materials, and in doing so, retrofitting for high efficiency.”
Along with their holistic approach to the design process, CO Adaptive believes that it’s the responsibility of architects to understand that every move they make and the associated cost is part of a holistic system.
“We would like to see our profession as sort of this collaborative effort in which we all try and solve this big, massive problem we have on our hands. And we'd like for architects to share resources,” says Mandl. “That's something that's very much apparent in the passive house community already. I would love it to become sort of a wider architectural phenomenon. That we're sort of all building towards the same goal and sharing resources along the way and realizing that architecture is a collaboration.”