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This is a guest post from Alex De Looz of Mesh Architectures. If you’re an architect and would like to have a project considered for publication on Brownstoner, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When a family works, lives and grows at home, space can be tight and it’s true even in a Park Slope brownstone. With their second child on the way, a Brooklyn based creative couple, a painter and a musician, decided to squeeze extra space from their 3 story home. Sacrificing yard space was undesirable and the heavily used basement floor was already dedicated to an open kitchen, living and play area. The only place to explore was the cellar, hard to imagine when faced with a cramped, dark space barely navigable between boxes, old furniture, and a tangle of heating pipes. MESH transformed the low slung, dirt-floor storage area into a bright, open home office and family room, incorporating household storage and accommodating guests.
The owners initially…
…decided to forgo a complete excavation, which can be lengthy and expensive. The MESH team (with structural engineer Michelle Norris) engineered a solution that left the old rubble foundation walls undisturbed, excavating the center of the space and leaving a raised structurally stabilizing perimeter shelf. Cellar renovations often face inconveniently placed plumbing, cables, and equipment, but in this case initial excavation revealed a major challenge in the home’s shallow and uneven foundations. This discovery triggered a change in approach: the existing foundations had to be extended deeper into the earth, known as underpinning, and the cellar fully excavated. For the owners, deciding in favor of a full excavation was both logistically challenging, with the arrival of a newborn, and more expensive, but it offered an opportunity to add volume, bolster foundations and improve the design.
Any brownstone cellar renovation is constrained by the lot configuration and orientation to the street. Spaces are long and narrow. City services like water, gas and electricity enter on the street-side and claim mechanical space, and the structurally important “relieving wall” that divides the upper floors along the length of the stair demands its own supports and footings. In order to create a large usable floor area, MESH replaced the brick piers supporting the relieving wall with slender steel posts and a steel beam that could uniformly support the action of the wall above. We pushed all mechanical apparatus street-side, minimizing pipe runs and ducts and providing a half-bath and laundry room; we opted to heat with an out-of-sight radiant floor and cool with a unique mini-split unit disguised as wall-art. Another major constraint was the existing cellar stair opening. Avoiding costly structural framing, we adapted the tight opening to a new maple stair where integrated LED light-box and translucent resin railings offer a feeling of openness and give the room its signature orange glow, visible from the hall landing above.
Our goal was to turn the cellar into the brightest room in the house: we continued specialized light treatment all along the support beam with a recessed linear fixture. As a result, the beam becomes an active visual element and creates a compositional axis for the ceiling. We painted the posts and beam bright orange to harmonize with the continuous, wall-to-wall natural linoleum floor, emphasizing visual unity and warmth across the room, from wall panels to floor. Special features include a wall unit composed of interlocking, variously sized standard IKEA cabinets which offer ample storage behind an appealing pattern of natural maple and painted panel doors; additional under-stair storage and concealed wet-bar; a magnetic dry-eraser art wall and activity shelf; home office and multi-media lounging area. We also worked closely with the clients to select the appropriate furnishings to complete the space, including large graphic carpets that add focus and are easily cleaned. Finally, as a nod to the old cellar we left rubble stone exposed in the rear coal shoot now accessible by a ship’s ladder, transforming the nook into a sky-lit perch or a day-dreamer’s getaway.