An aluminum rain screen and locally-sourced brick articulate a two-part program.
The Brook, developed by Common Ground and designed by Alexander Gorlin Architects, is part of a new wave of affordable housing communities popping up all over the United States. Unlike the public housing projects of the mid-twentieth century, which focused exclusively on housing and tended to suffer from a lack of routine maintenance, The Brook, located in the Bronx, combines apartments and support services under one roof. This duality is manifested in the envelope’s contrasting material palette—dark grey brick for the residential spaces, raw aluminum over the community facilities. “The idea of the exterior was to symbolize, as well as reflect, the internal program of Common Ground as supportive housing,” said Alexander Gorlin. “It’s inspired in part by Le Corbusier and his idea of expressing the program on the facade, and expressing the public functions as a means of interrupting a repetitive facade.”
The Brook’s communal areas, which are clustered at the corner of the 92,000-square-foot, six-story building, are marked on the exterior by ES Tolga Dry Seal System aluminum panels from Allied Metal. In addition to articulating the change in program, the metal facade “represents coming together, creating a landmark for the neighborhood as well,” said Gorlin, who noted that Common Ground “liked from the beginning marking the corner as a special symbolic place.” The metal-clad corner also functions “urbanistically, to break the building into three parts, break down its scale,” he explained. A series of inset terraces interrupt the grey aluminum walls with splashes of red. “At one level it’s a bright color to be cheerful and optimistic,” said Gorlin. “In China, red is a symbol of good luck. It also symbolizes the heart of the program and the community.”
The Brook’s 190 studio apartments are distributed to either side of the community facilities, along wings punctuated with square and rectangular windows. “We decided to vary the window placement so it would create a more lively asymmetrical pattern. It’s not just a simple grid,” said Gorlin. The designers clad the housing areas in locally sourced dark grey brick. “Brick is a very noble, ancient material,” observed Gorlin. As a good insulator, it also contributes to the building’s LEED Silver status. Other sustainability strategies include a green roof, a special boiler system, building management technology that turns off the lights when a room is not in use, and the use of recycled and non-offgassing materials.
The Brook was erected on a vacant lot in a neighborhood once known for pervasive blight. Early in the design process, said Gorlin, the architects and developers discussed installing bars over the lower windows. “It was determined very consciously not to do it, even though there’s glass on the corner,” he explained. “We decided not to put bars up or make it look in any way prison-like. In fact, by not doing so it’s been maintained in perfect shape. People in the neighborhood think it’s a high-end condo.”
Gorlin calls Common Ground “a miraculous kind of client in terms of what they do and the manner in which they deal with the community.” The Brook, he said, represents a new approach not just to affordable housing, but to homelessness. “To actually build permanent housing for homeless people” is a unique opportunity, he said. “It’s not just a shelter, but a place to start over in life.”