Q&A with Mike House from raad studio

Over the last year, I have been working closely with Mike House, Architectural Designer & Partner at raad studio in NYC.  If you are a Curbed reader like I am, you have likely seen this week’s press about his studio’s upcoming hotel in Williamsburg.  I sat down with Mike for a Q&A and learned some interesting things about him, including his past as a squatter (homesteader) in an East Village building (and how he was able to buy the building along with his fellow homesteaders), his involvement in the world’s first underground park, The Lowline, and his recommendations for creating a healthier, more sustainable environment in our current homes.

You graduated PRATT less than 5 years ago and you are already a partner at raad studio.  Tell us about your path to where you are today.

raad studio was started by my partner, James Ramsey, about 10 years ago. I joined four years ago, right out of school, as an entry level person.  Very quickly my work style meshed with James’ style and I was promoted to partner last year.  I now work in collaboration with partners James Ramsey and Kibum Park, who is also a design director.  I feel very lucky that I was able to find such a great fit right out of school.

In this warm yet ultra-modern kitchen, the brick honeycomb wall serves as wine storage. A shark skeleton floats above the dining table.

In this warm yet ultra-modern kitchen, the brick honeycomb wall serves as wine storage. A shark skeleton floats above the dining table.

How old are you?

32

You were involved in the homesteader movement, which some people call squatting. What was that like?

There is a long history of homesteading in the Lower East Side.  It all started in the 70s when there were hundreds of vacant and city-owned properties that people would move into. I grew up in NYC and got involved with homesteading in high school. At the time, Giuliani was trying to liquidate all city-owned assets as a way of raising money for the city, so hundreds of properties were being transitioned by the office of Housing and Preservation Development to private ownership. As part of that deal, we teamed up with a non-profit developer named The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and they were able to broker a deal where we renovated the buildings and brought them up to code, and then the title was transferred to us. Now we run them as regular coops.

My fellow homesteaders installing a staircase to bring the building up to code. Photo Credit: Ash Thayer

My idea of “squatters” has always been one of junkies living in abandoned buildings, but that doesn’t at all sound like the case here?

There are definitely those types of squatters out there but the world that I came from is much closer to the European model of squatting and we call it homesteading because it’s not about finding a place to crash for free, it’s more about a community-minded way of living, a collective way of living. There is a rich history of organized homesteading in Germany, London, Amsterdam, Spain and many other countries. These highly organized collectives wherein people would band together and all contribute collective energy and resources to establish alternative ways to inhabit the city were a huge influence on our movement.

You were a teenager when you did this. How did you know about construction to renovate the buildings?

I learned on my own. There were a lot of people who shared their skills. It was a collective living environment, very similar to the way SoHo was pioneered by artists.  People would slowly do the work using discarded materials from constructions sites.  We all learned from our neighbors while everyone pitched in. It was a very collective-minded atmosphere and that is what got me interested in design and especially in pursuing renovation.

How did your experience as a homesteader affect what you are doing today?

A lot of what I learned in the Lower East Side was about how to deal with small spaces because the buildings we lived in were tenement buildings where there were 4 apartments to a floor – very traditional early 1900 tenement buildings. That experience got me thinking about efficient ways to live in small spaces and this got me interested in pursuing architecture; I thought either I could continue doing construction work or I could pursue architecture, so I started school at 22. Now a lot of the work I do is on luxury residential developments but the same skill set applies because our clients in New York have the same types of constraints that we dealt with when I was homesteading in many ways. We had to deal with the historical context of our building, adjacency to neighbors, making the most out of tight spaces, etc.

Poetic views of corn and skyscrapers from raad's hotel at Bushwick 1, a mixed-use developmentin the heart of hip Brooklyn. The project’s cultural hub will be a vast warehouse, whose roof will be occupied by New York's largest rooftop farm.

Poetic views of corn and skyscrapers from raad’s hotel at Bushwick 1, a mixed-use developmentin the heart of hip Brooklyn. The project’s cultural hub will be a vast warehouse, whose roof will be occupied by New York’s largest rooftop farm.

raad studio is involved in some huge projects, including the historical lowline project, an ambitious passion project started by your partner, James Ramsey and his friend Dan Barasch.  raad studio is working to convert an abandoned underground trolley terminal into the world’s first underground park.  The plan is to use modern technology to harvest sunlight above-ground and direct it underground.  How is the project coming?

The project is going well. We have secured endorsements from many local politicians, community organizations, etc. Our next step will be to establish the 2nd iteration of our “Lowline Lab.” This is a large scale mockup of the solar technology we currently have under development. We will be making some exciting announcements regarding the details of this very shortly.  You can learn more about the project by watching Dan Barasch in this TED Talk.

The Lowline, located in a one-acre former trolley terminal under Delancey Street, will use proprietary solar technology to become the world's first underground park.

The Lowline, located in a one-acre former trolley terminal under Delancey Street, will use proprietary solar technology to become the world’s first underground park.

Fair enough.  Can’t wait to hear the announcements.  What are you most passionate about when it comes to community planning and sustainable architecture?

At raad studio we are trying to simplify the process of applying sustainable design and construction principles to residential renovations. To this end we really try to encourage our clients and colleagues to consider using environmentally responsible materials and methods of construction. While a lot of firms are doing this the practice hasn’t really saturated the NYC residential construction industry and especially not with smaller design firms that are primarily doing renovations. We have been thinking a lot about the small steps we can take to make some of these sustainability guidelines easier to understand for contractors and for owners and to become part of the DNA of a project. These kind of nuts and bolts details are what excite me more so than the grander gestures that are often associated with sustainable building techniques. While the construction profession, our society and our city have long had some very respectable grand ideas surrounding sustainable design it has proven difficult to put them into practice with your every day contractors and the fast paced environment we work in. For example, the other day we went through all our wall details and modified our standard details to include low formaldehyde or formaldehyde-free building products, we only use low VOC paints and construction adhesives and we are replacing our fiberglass insulation products with either low formaldehyde content batt insulation or recycled cotton insulation. It’s much easier for the workers to work with safely, contains no formaldehyde and is made of recylced denim in some cases. We are really trying to make nuts and bolts type recommendations that are easy for contractors to understand and implement. There are bigger things that you can do such as solar panels and geothermal modifications but those are very high investment moves that are not a reality for most New York City renovators.

Who are some of your role models or inspirations?

There are a few people out there doing some very interesting things where they are integrating their design practices and also doing development and construction. DDG Partners is one of them. They are four partners; a finance guy, a real estate person, an architect, and a lawyer / real estate developer. And they’ve teamed together to develop their own projects.  The type of work they are doing is really beautiful, nicely executed, and does not feel like bottom-line developer-type work. They have figured out a way for architects to have a strong voice in the direction of urban development projects. There is a little bit of a trend in the industry for architects to be not taken seriously in the development conversation because people think that we are blinded by our design values and are not financially astute, and there is probably a lot of truth to that, but these guys are doing some very interesting projects at the cross-section of design and development.

Another person on the development side who is an inspiration for me is Abby Hamlin of Hamlin Ventures.  She is another great example of a successful developer who is building high quality projects that are profitable and also great examples of how the public good can be enhanced via design and architecture. She has an urban planning degree and tries to encourage innovative uses of public space through all of her private development work.

On the art side of things I am very influenced by Gordon Matta Clark and his explorations in “anarchitecture”.  He was a young artist who studied architecture at Cornell but created his own form of architecture by cutting large holes out of floors and walls of abandoned buildings that were soon to be destroyed.

Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society, New York

Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society, New York

What are your design influences?

I am very influenced by high modern aesthetics starting with Frank Lloyd Wright all the way through 1960s Brutalist Architects such as Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn. This movement has always really spoken to me; they use a lot of concrete, steel, and glass and you can see the process of construction clearly evident in the final product. The style is very true to the construction process, and structural members such as walls and columns are celebrated for what they are rather than being decorated or overly stylized. A lot of people criticize the Brutalists saying it is too cold for residential and that’s probably true for many people, so we balance this by adding warmth to our projects to make them livable and cozy. We do this in many ways, most commonly by choosing simple, pure, clean materials and geometries and then layering them plush or colorful with interior furnishings and décor to soften the hard edges.

Glimpses of the dining room and wine cellar in a restrained yet distinctive Chelsea renovation.

Glimpses of the dining room and wine cellar in a restrained yet distinctive Chelsea renovation.

What is your dream project?

I would love to renovate a classic Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright house. On a day to day, though, I am less interested in the type of project or building typology than I am in the constraints of a particular project, whether it’s a hotel or house or apartment or loft. Every project has a specific set of problems that need to be solved an its responding to these problems creatively that makes for a dream project.  

How are your and raad studio’s architectural solutions different from what’s happening elsewhere in NYC and the world?

I think there are a lot of people doing really amazing work in NYC and in the world. One thing that differentiates us is that we are sensitive to clients’ issues so we really get to know the client, what their living environments are, how many kids they have, whether or not they entertain, what types of environments they feel good in, what types of environments they avoid. I like to think that separates us because a lot of architects are attached to their own vision of the project and it is more about them executing their vision rather than meeting the clients’ expectations. There are other archictects who don’t have a style so there isn’t a continuous thread. We are the middle ground: we have an identifiable style which emphasizes the materiality, joinery, and detail of design. UnknownUnknown-2

What does the future of NYC architecture look like?

I’d like to see less of a boundary between architect, developer and builder. I really like this emerging type of practice where the development side is very closely intertwined with the design side. Design can play a much more powerful role in our city if developers use the power of design to really enrich people’s lives and our cities, but the only way to do that in my opinion is to blur that boundary and to lay the designers on the same plane as the developers. I’d love to see that. The future of NY is going to be all about affordable housing and the response to changing climate conditions. We are seeing De Blasio roll out a lot of affordable housing. We are starting to see an apex in terms of very very high end apartments and I think there is a lot of room in the middle and low ends of the market for a lot of interesting design. There are some interesting projects out there such as the Sugar Hill project in Harlem, which is an interesting affordable housing development.

What publications do you read or recommend for learning about the latest architecture trends?

  • DWELL really speaks to the residential modern aesthetic
  • I enjoy the design content in NYTimes
  • NYMag design content is great
  • Elle Décor is good for interiors

Generally, I enjoy well respected non-design publications that happen to be covering design because they have a more objective point of view and they’re not required to constantly churn out articles about design.  

Is there anything you recommend that we non-architects do in our homes to create a more sustainable environment on a small scale?

Integrating some of these increasingly accessible materials into our homes in terms of air quality and their impact on our health and our environment is a great start. Homeowners should consider the following:

  • low VOC paint finishes
  • water based floor stains
  • sourcing material from local sources e.g. The Northeastern US may not be well known for quarry’s or natural stone but we produce incredible slate up in New England. We don’t have to get all of our stone products from Italy, Turkey or Brazil.
  • having environmentally friendly cleaning products, especially in homes with small children.
  • humidifiers and air filters are a great way to increase indoor air quality
  • water quality in NY is good but there are tons of water filters that will hook up to your sink and take out even trace bacteria.

These are all great tips, Mike, thank you so much for your time.

raad studio is located at 5 White Street in Tribeca.  To work with Mike and his team please email info@raadstudio.com or call (212) 254-5490.

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