If you’ve travelled down Seneca Street in the recent past, you may have noticed a rather unique project going up like nothing else that exists in Ithaca. This is the Longest Night Solstice Tower project by Barradas & Partners Architects, and Ciappa & Marinelli Builders (they built the 2009 GIAC project, and work on many custom houses). Barradas has a particularly interesting design portfolio, and this project is no different: the inspiration for the design comes from several historic precedents that may not be common knowledge for most people, and was certainly not known to me before learning about the project.
To begin chronologically, one of the earliest tower house precedents is out of Shibam, in modern-day Yemen, with towers dating all the way back to the 3rd Century AD. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with tower houses made out of mud brick reaching up to eleven stories high. They were originally designed for defense from Bedouin attackers, and each floor has only one or two rooms.
Another precedent is the famed medieval town of San Gimignano, in Siena-Tuscany, North-Central Italy, also containing a UNESCO World Heritage site: the town center, with 14 conserved towers. Many towns and cities in Italy contained house towers in the past, but San Gimignano provides the most well-conserved example all in one compact cluster.
Towers haven’t always yielded successful and long-lasting settlements however- the bundles of tower buildings that made up the former Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong is a good example of basically what not to do. The close proximity of tall, compacted-footprint buildings with few open spaces forced the development of complex, maze-like pathways from one building to the next, with very little open room to travel, hang laundry to dry, vent air, or deal with waste. Construction was essentially unregulated, and apartments were typically very small, sometimes without any utilities. After a longstanding struggle between residents and the Hong Kong authorities, the inhabitants were evicted starting in 1987 and the city was demolished in 1993.
To turn to a more recent and notable modern example, these two structures sit on the coast in Kobe, Japan: designed by Tadao Ando, the 2003 4×4 House is an iconic tower house project (he’s quite a famous Architect, check out the Church of Light, and the Water Temple). Each level is just one room, with some levels serving multiple functions, much like Barradas’ project.
Now, back to Ithaca..
I had a tour of the Longest Night Solstice Towers project with Architect John Barradas a couple weeks ago, and even though the first tower is not yet finished, it’s an interesting space to walk through.
The design calls for two identical towers connected by an overhead elevated walkway above a shared foundation path. The foundation footers are quite generous, and the foundation walls provide a crawl space for plumbing and maintenance access. The stair tower is located along the northern wall, and the structure itself is all wood framing (with a vertical guy-wire at two corners, and a central framing column along the interior center wall forming the stair tower). There’s room for two parking spaces in the rear yard, and a shared central area between the towers.
All the doors above the ground level open to the inside, with protective outdoor railings, serving as both a window and a door to fresh breeze- essentially making an enclosed terrace out of a room with an open door. The 12″ x 12″ windows are block glass, serving as small clerestory windows on each level. The ceiling joists will remain exposed, and although it doesn’t look it from a distance, the exterior is all wood. The towers will be fully-equipped with sprinkler systems.
The first level of each will contain a living area, kitchen, and a bathroom with toilet, sink and standup shower. The second level will contain two mirrored bedrooms with separate sinks in the shared hallway, and the third level will contain the master bedroom, along with a private bathroom. The top level contains space for laundry and storage at the top of the stairs, and a door to the outside roof terrace, with the stair tower roof designed to collect and funnel rainwater into the terrace garden.
First Level for living space, kitchen, and full bathroom.
Second Level for two bedrooms and two sinks.
Third Level for master bedroom and bathroom.
Top Level for laundry, storage, and the roof terrace.. and a really nice view.
The lot is quite small and skinny (33′ x 93′, 3069 square feet) and is zoned R-3b, so this project is building to the maximum stories allowed, and in addition, the foundation connection between both buildings is an intentional design feature that deems the project a singular structure by code. It allows for the separation and privacy of two separate dwelling units (houses), which would’ve been non-compliant under the current code if they were separate structures, because of the small lot size. It’s a rather clever workaround, and given the immediate area, the project seems to be building an appropriate density. It would be interesting to see how a series of tower houses would function at similar proximity, especially since they could easily be designed differently to accommodate a variety of configurations for small to large families, or for accessibility.
I think what impressed me the most was the focus on getting the most out of each square foot, but still allowing for adequate space at each level. The material choices are modest and pragmatic, and the design of each feature from door swings to closet dimensions is slick and well-thought out. I look forward to seeing this project as it nears completion- it’s an intriguing example of design that “makes things work while still pushing the envelope.”
Special thanks goes out to John Barradas