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The flood-proof house: Bernheimer Architecture in Rhode Island, USA

AR_EA 2015 Commended

Brooklyn-based Andrew Bernheimer has been practising independently since 2011, following a 10-year partnership with Jared Della Valle. He split off to focus on residential work and to teach, currently as director of the Master of Architecture programme at Parsons School of Design in New York. His chief goal is to design affordable housing but he relishes the chance to try out new materials and ideas on smaller commissions. Nothing in his short but productive career demonstrates this better than the Quonochontaug house, a holiday retreat on the coast of Rhode Island, three hours north of the metropolis. 

‘Deceptively simple at first sight, this two-storey black box absorbs the impact of floods and storms’

The clients had bought a nondescript 1980s house overlooking a coastal pond and they decided there was no good way of remodelling it. The architects were challenged to design a small (220 square metre) house that would hold its own on a skinny lot, sandwiched between two traditional mansions. To comply with the flood code, which was strengthened after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the house had to be raised on concrete columns above its 4-metre elevation. The grey concrete panels that clad the base are designed to wash away if there’s a surge from the ocean, allowing water to flow underneath and dissipate its force. The house is well insulated, but sustainability was not a big issue since it is compact and infrequently used.

House USA bernheimer architecture Floor plans

Ground and first floor plan

It’s deceptively simple at first sight: a two-storey black box, as plain as the dark wood saltboxes of Colonial New England. The owners live in the city, where they have to go outside to experience the subtle shifts of light, from hour to hour and through the seasons. In this house the experience is brought indoors, through expansive windows and tapered lanterns that pull light into double-height living spaces. There is an echo of James Turrell’s Skyspaces and Le Corbusier’s light cannons, but the vaults are an integral part of the house: a volumetric extension of the modestly sized rooms. The polished concrete floors reflect the light, and ash cabinets conceal structure, equipment and mechanical services, complementing the white walls.

House USA bernheimer architecture Section

Section through house

‘The vaults included in the house echo James Turrell’s Skyspaces and Le Corbusier’s light cannons’

To bring some of that softness to the exterior, Bernheimer decided to clad the walls with Shou Sugi Ban, custom-milled slats of charred, brushed and oiled cedar, angled on the upper side to shed rain. Traditional Japanese houses were often faced with charred wood to check the spread of fire, and a refined variation on this technique is becoming popular in the United States. It’s ideal for a coastal location: a natural product that weathers uniformly and requires no maintenance. The architects sourced theirs from Delta Millworks in Austin, Texas, and did a series of mock-ups in the office to test different widths and spacing. They wanted to give depth to the facades and create fuzzy edges. By good fortune they had a contractor who assembled the slats evenly, screwing each to a vertical strip attached to the waterproof membrane. Even though the builders achieved exemplary standards of quality, Bernheimer estimates the cost as half what it would have been in New York. 

A similar emphasis on materiality characterises other projects Bernheimer is working on, including a large affordable housing block in the New York borough of Queens. There he is focusing on the colour and texture of the brick cladding to avert monotony – a strategy that Berthold Lubetkin employed in postwar London estates. Though New York is a leader in public housing, too many of its blocks resemble barracks, and Bernheimer hopes to find a few enlightened developers who will allow him to be more inventive. 

House, Rhode Island, USA 

Architect: Bernheimer Architecture

Project team: Andrew Bernheimer, Max Worrell, Aaron Forrest

Engineer: Structures Workshop

Photographs: Jeremy Bittermann

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