Study - Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures

Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures

Curated by Aline Chahine | 
January 4, 2022
| Est. Reading: 3 minutes
Project Details:
Year: N/A
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MESH Architectures designed the restoration to a single-family house, salvaging antique woodwork, while bringing the house up to passive-house standards. The result is a home full of 19th-century detail that is stingy with energy use and full of fresh air. 

Exterior of the house - Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures
Exterior of the house | Photograph © MESH Architectures

The Program

This house, in the middle of historic Harlem, had declined to a broken-up three-family dwelling. The owners, a college professor and corporate consultant with four children, wished to restore it to a single-family dwelling, while repairing the extensive original woodwork around the windows, doors, stairs, and fireplaces. At the same time, they wanted to introduce transitional modern elements where appropriate. After learning about the passive house standard that dramatically reduces energy use through insulation, air sealing, and efficient heating and cooling, while providing constant fresh air, it became part of the program as well.

Custom-built kitchen - Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures
Custom-built kitchen | Photograph © Frank Oudeman

The Design

The house is large by New York City standards: a cellar plus four stories. The kitchen and dining room are located on the ground floor (English basement), leading out to a garden in the rear. The living room and library are on the parlor level. The master bedroom and home office/guest room are located on the 3rd floor, with four daughters in four bedrooms on the fourth. The cellar, which was previously a mechanical space, was excavated and renovated into a home gym and media room.

Living room - Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures
Living room | Photograph © Frank Oudeman

Once the rooms were laid out, the house’s historic fabric was catalogued for restoration and, in some cases (doors), relocation. Fixtures are a blend of transitional and historical. The kitchen was designed by the architects and built by a local millworker. The decorated stucco facade (known in NYC as “brownstone,” because it is colored to resemble actual brownstone) was completely restored by specialists, Edson. 

MESH principal, Eric Liftin, says, “This house is an integration of old and new. It is airy and clean, and it responds directly to the needs of a modern urban family. We emphasized the social space of the kitchen/dining room/yard, while making a special effort to preserve the historical elements of the house. The house is full of recent building science technology, yet it feels like a serene, historic Harlem row house. We were happy to learn that the clients had already learned about passive house construction before we met them.”

Dining room and garden - Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures
Dining room and garden | Photograph © Frank Oudeman

Passive House

The facades and roof were air sealed and insulated with ample blown-in cellulose insulation. The windows are passive-house standard, triple-glazed from Zola. The gas line to the house was capped, and an efficient electric heat pump system heats and cools the house. An ERV (energy recovery ventilation) system brings in fresh, outside air after conditioning it with the energy of the exhausted, stale air. This all adds up to very low energy use and an exceptionally comfortable and healthy environment. The owners chose not to pursue passive house certification, as it is the performance, not the certificate, that they desire.

Door casing detail (original to house) - Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures
Door casing detail (original to house) | Photograph © MESH Architectures

This house is one of a growing number of old houses retrofitted with the latest energy-efficient technology, demonstrating that passive house is not only for new construction. These renovated houses can preserve the look and feel of a classic row house, while providing healthy air, saving energy, and emitting no carbon (or other pollutants). As energy generation becomes cleaner in the decades to come, houses like this one will approach a zero-emissions footprint.

Project Credits:
Principal in charge: Eric Liftin
Staff: Cathryn Core, Mitchell Hartig, Aleksandra Nikitin, Cameron Kucera
Structural Engineers: Kathleen Dunne, George Ozaeta
MEP Engineer: P. A. Collins 
General ContractorNoranda Special Projects
Interior Designer: John Eric Sebesta

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