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Parsons Students Transform a Rooftop in the Bronx

February 17, 2009

By Tim McKeough

At least one New York rooftop is about to get a lot more productive. This spring students from Parsons The New School for Design will put the finishing touches on bronXscape, an urban rooftop garden and outdoor kitchen in the Bronx for young adults transitioning out of foster care. Completed under The Design Workshop, the school’s elective design-build studio course, the project tops a new building run by the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, a nonprofit organization that will provide low-income housing and education for 46 residents.

Students from Parsons The New School for Design designed and built bronXscape, an urban rooftop garden and outdoor kitchen for young adults transitioning out of foster care.
Photo courtesy Parsons The New School for Design
Students from Parsons The New School for Design designed and built bronXscape, an urban rooftop garden and outdoor kitchen for young adults transitioning out of foster care.

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The project presented numerous challenges from the beginning: the roof of the building wasn’t designed to carry much weight, so structural elements could only touch load-bearing walls; materials would have to be hoisted directly to the roof from the street; students were required to navigate New York City’s sometimes bewildering permit process. “It was a classic New York project,” says David Lewis, workshop director and principal at Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis. “It involved a tight schedule and basically pulling favors to do something that’s relatively straightforward. It’s a rooftop embedded within a really complex permit process.”

The challenges did little to deter the 15 graduate students. After developing individual proposals, participants combined their ideas into a single scheme through a series of meetings with the client and school critics. The 4,500-square-foot space includes a covered pavilion for food preparation and communal meals, a tool shed, greenhouse, open-air planters, green walls, and benches. The pavilion’s frame also supports a net-metered photovoltaic array that will produce more energy than residents can use as well as a rainwater collection system.

The students then worked with steel, polycarbonate, and black locust wood to manufacture the vast majority of the structure in a Parsons studio. “We had time in the studio to figure out how things were going to be connected, so we could refine it as we went,” says student Jon Schramm.

Prefabrication—and the on-the-fly ingenuity it allowed—ended up being vital to the project’s success. After the students’ initial application for a building permit was denied, they received final approval less than three weeks before the end of the course.

The Design Workshop is now in the process of selecting its next project. However, even free design services can be a tough sell in the current economic climate. “Non-profits are not immune from the economic challenges,” notes Lewis, “and construction projects have been postponed for that sector as well.”

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