Ithaca Builds

Mapping, photos and information for Ithaca construction and development projects

Commons Rebuild Phase Three: Surfaces Part One

January 13, 2014 // by Jason Henderson

Phase Three (the last phase) of the Commons Rebuild project will start this Spring (bid opening is January 23rd), with the focus on installing the surfaces and amenities for the redesign. The full scope and contract documents run up to the 1,000-page range, so I thought I’d condense a few of the items down with basic explanations on finishes.


Erosion & Soils

To prevent soil erosion and ensure proper drainage, cast iron surface and scupper drains will be put in place, much like the ones that exist now, and current drains will be cleared of any existing debris. The drains are primarily located in the side areas where surface water funnels, since the surface is designed to elevate slightly towards the center, much like a street. Each drain then feeds into the main stormwater sewer via PVC pipe.



Surface Materials

The surfaces will mainly comprise of textured and non-textured granite pavers, mortared granite pavers, concrete pavers, and cast in place concrete paving. The granite pavers will be supplied by J.C. Stone (or equivalent- see Englishman’s Bay), and the concrete pavers will be from Hanover Architectural Products (or equivalent- see PlankStone).





Electric Utility Enclosures

Pretty self-explanatory- there are two different sizes, with various locations.


The final lighting will be mostly a combination of lamp post and cable-suspended (the term is “catenary lighting”) Selux Discera 600 LEDs (along the pedestrian way and Bank Alley), Selux Ritorno LED Retrofit Kits (at gateways), BK Lighting “El Dorado” series (at the pavilion and gateways), and “BK Lighting Integral AriStars” (at the pavilion).

Selux Discera 600:





Here are the full documents:
Set Drawings
Set Spec
Soils Report
Contract Part A
Contract Part B

Part Two will contain details on benches, tables, bike racks, plantings, the pavilion, and water features.

The Longest Night Solstice Towers – Ithaca, NY

January 6, 2014 // by Jason Henderson

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

Amabel Project’s City of Ithaca Parcel Divestment

December 2, 2013 // by Jason Henderson

Members at Wednesday’s Common Council Meeting will be discussing and voting on the divestment by sealed bid of a 3-acre subparcel of 617 Five Mile Drive, the 25-acre City-owned parcel that makes up a portion of the proposed “Amabel” project by Sue Cosentini and Rob Morache of New Earth Living. 22 acres sit on the east side of the railroad tracks, with 3 acres on the west (see map and resolution below).

The plan is to build five small pocket neighborhoods (in a similar vein to their recent Aurora Street Pocket Neighborhood project), consisting of 6-7 small homes per each pocket. The homes will share a common house, food gardens, bike and canoe sheds, and incorporate superior insulation, solar power, rainwater harvesting, and other green features.


Common Council Agenda Item for Wednesday, December 4th:

Some Basic Data on Home Sales & Reported Costs in Ithaca

November 26, 2013 // by Jason Henderson

I generally don’t dig into single-family home development, but for the sake of sharing some basic information, here’s a series of charts I put together not long ago.

Most of this data is from the US Census Bureau, so the term “housing unit” can be confusing. Here’s the official definition:

A housing unit is a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied (or if vacant, is intended for occupancy) as separate living quarters. Separate living quarters are those in which the occupants live and eat separately from any other persons in the building and which have direct access from the outside of the building or through a common hall.

Home sales data from the Tompkins County Assessor’s Office:


And the obligatory comparison to the rest of the nation:


The following three charts are reported data from Building Permits, which can be imprecise due to the inherent incentive to “lowball” the projected build cost in order to decrease the permit fee, since it is based on a percentage of total cost, but I still found it interesting that the double-unit cost has been reported so much lower than single-unit. It’s probably due to a slew of complicated factors like intended market (finish quality), renovation versus new build, etc., but it’s not what I would have guessed.


MSA stands for Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is an area of Census blocks used to form combined statistics. The Ithaca MSA is the whole of Tompkins County.




The 2010 Census Data has scant information at the block level, however, it still has housing stock and population information per each block, so I took a selection of blocks within a 1.75 mile radius from the center of downtown. Although it’s not exactly apples-to-apples, the pricing above takes the 2010 weighted mean City & Town home sale price from the first chart divided by people per housing unit to get us a crude estimate of the cost of housing per person at the 2010 market. So, for a family of three in the City & Town, a $235,000 home price may be typical, which would be about a $2,200 monthly PITI (principal, interest, taxes, and insurance) payment on a 30-year mortgage at 5% with no down payment.


Sources: US Census Bureau, Tompkins County Department of Assessment, City-Data