Housing Ecologies

Arverne by the Sea


Few development sites are positioned so literally between natural, legislative, infrastructural, and social extremes as Arverne in Far Rockaway, New York.  Public subsidized housing slabs line the beach to the west; the elevated NYC subway line defines the northern boundary; Ocean Village, a self-contained social condenser from the 1960s, rises out of the almost pastoral landscape to the east; and the Atlantic Ocean is to the south.  These boundaries combined with the fragile ecology of the landscape below and the JFK flight paths overhead establish the immediate context for this architecture and urban design project.

With over 300 acres, the Arverne Urban Renewal Area is one of the largest developable tracts of land in New York City.  Since the area was cleared in the 1960s, and despite numerous proposals ranging from high-density housing to a multimedia gaming park and hotel complex, the site has remained undeveloped.

In 2001 the city identified 100 acres of the renewal area as a site for market rate housing, with a target density of eight units per acre.  Marble Fairbanks (Housing Ecologies), together with Michael Bell Architecture (Stateless Architecture) and Mark Rakatansky Studio (Urbia), formulated a collaborative urban design proposal, with each group developing a sector of the site at densities ranging from the requested eight units per acre on the east end of the site to 28 units per acre on the west end.  The variable densities and their planning strategy as well as the specific architectural design for each sector were developed to respond to the intricate social and urban conditions surrounding the site.

Several natural ecological processes are continually impacting the condition of Rockaway and the adjacent Jamaica Bay wildlife refuge with each additional building on the peninsula further distorting the natural processes. Without intervention, environmentalists have observed the eastern seaboard disappearing at a rate of 1’-2’ per year which directly affects the ocean side of the Arverne site with the runoff from JFK Airport continuing to adversely affect the northern shore. The other constant threat at Arverne is the more sudden but less frequent issue of flooding during tropical storms.

Site Panorama

Far Rockaway, aerial view west over Arverne site

Streets / Sidewalks

The hierarchy between streets, sidewalks and blocks along the east west axis of the site is rearranged to allow for varied, even conflicting uses within each.  The proposed east/west streets extend under the housing bands and lead to parking for the residents.  Sidewalks are extended across the blocks to form east/west passages through the site between the housing bands and correspond to ecological rifts – changes in ground material from sand on the ocean side to scrub trees on the land side.  The main north/south through-streets are maintained to link the adjacent community through the new development to the beach.

Unit / City

The internalization of the city street as domestic parking initiates a sequence of shifting expectations of interior and exterior; unit and city.  In response to the condition of interior anonymity and the prevailing design strategy of planned, demographically determined, housing communities, the unit is reasserted as a generator of the city.  Both the architecture and the landscape are conceived from a sequence of moving from the inside out – through the interior of the unit to the site.

Negotiated Territory

The policy shift of almost all government housing agencies from publicly subsidized rental units to public/private partnerships based on home ownership is largely driven by the premise that ownership will introduce a process of individual commitment and propriety that will overcome the digressive economic conditions of past housing projects.  The flip side of ownership, and one which is very likely on this site due to its being surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of subsidized housing in NYC, is the protection of property by closing off access to surrounding communities.  Housing Ecologies proposes discrete scales of ownership that attempt to link to public zones on and around the site to form overlapping boundaries.

The problem of how to transmit our ecological reasoning to those whom we wish to influence in what seems to us to be an ecologically “good” direction is itself an ecological problem. We are not outside the ecology for which we plan – we are always and inevitably a part of it…Herein lies the charm and the terror of ecology – that the ideas of this science are irreversibly becoming a part of our own ecosocial system.*

*All quotes from Gregory Bateson, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization” (a paper presented in October, 1970 to urban planners from the Lindsay administration in New York City, the year after Arverne was originally cleared for development)

The areas surrounding Arverne, the site of the proposed new housing development, are communities comprised in large part of families relocated from areas around the city obtained for development. They are communities of lower income populations financially unable to voluntarily move elsewhere and brought together as a result of urban redevelopment. The ambition of the new Arverne development is to bring market rate homebuyers into an area with the largest concentration of subsidized housing in New York City and simultaneously avoid exacerbating the already displaced and isolated condition of the existing communities. Our proposal, Housing Ecologies, alludes to the simultaneous realms of material and social organizations of housing – housing as a place (noun) and an activity (verb), understanding them as concurrent processes that in their interrelations, allow them to behave as an ecology.  As such, architecture is proposed here as flexible, collective infrastructure that allows the individual actions of housing to generate up in response to specific organizational anchors (parking, generative voids, circulation cores) finding a place between the reductive efficiencies of market forces and the remaining traces of domestic subjectivity. Ecological processes are utilized here to constructively navigate between aspects of pre established productive forces and occupational desires of housing with the premise that housing communities, as ecologies, can perform most effectively when conditions exist for a degree of self generation and the ability to reorganize over time.

Flexibility – Processes of Movement

The ability of architecture to adequately respond at the speed with which the criteria for its production changes is unlikely – the 35 year delay in development on the Arverne site, was due in part to the continually changing programming needs in response to rapidly evolving market demands and subsequent public reactions. While “Housing Ecologies” proposes a target density of 28 units per acre over approximately 30 acres of land, it is driven by an organizational logic of flexibility. The proposal anticipates density fluctuations up or down in response to factors ranging from changing household structures (family size) to the frequency of homeowner relocation (approx. every 6 years) to the economic ability and desire of owners to expand or reduce their unit size. Flexibility is intended here to encompass not just the action of change but also the systemic processes that influence change.  Ross Ashby, an early cybernetic theorist, suggests that systems can be understood as being made up of interrelated variables, each having a range or supply of adaptation or flexibility within its own identity that facilitates links to other variables. As variables interact, the supply of flexibility of one expands or contracts in response to pressure from another. If kept within a tolerable range, this fluctuation promotes a productive system (ecology). If the supply is exhausted in any one variable, distortions can occur affecting all others and jeopardizing the stability of the system as a whole. “Flexibility may be defined as uncommitted potentiality for change”.*  Housing Ecologies embraces these processes of change by asserting architecture as an integral part of a social and natural ecological system.

Degrees of Territory – Processes of Negotiation

In an effort to expand the established domains of public / private from an oppositional relationship to a more affirmative, generative gradient, Housing Ecologies is structured around degrees of territory: organizations in which there is a range of spatial and temporal flexibility in the precise location and definition of territorial boundaries. In allowing these territorial boundaries to evolve over time, (architectural) parameters structure flexibility such that public and private coexists. As such, architecture is proposed as a system that structures potential for interrelated desires and tendencies of individuals, communities and the continual play of social and economic forces – in effect, architecture that houses ecologies.

By allowing degrees of territory, the project anticipates a process of territorial negotiation that can construct communities as productive ecologies. This process of negotiation as an active and dynamic variable is integral to the ability of communities to establish and sustain self identity. If territory is a flexible variable within a productive ecology it is the process of territorial negotiation, an exercising of flexibility, that promotes the health of communities and the lack of exercising this flexibility that threatens to destabilize the ecology. Assumed and passive territorial stability will ultimately lose its ability to adapt when inevitable pressures from other variables begin to impinge. Public or private, while giving the impression of clearly defined boundaries and legal jurisdiction, could be seen to contribute to a systemic imbalance between the individual and the collective. Resistance to market forces has become ineffective as a means for architectural production. The quasi-socialist public housing policies of the past have given way to forms of subtle but real market driven programs. What is proposed at Arverne, while being private market rate housing, is in fact, a public / private venture as the city and state will provide land and infrastructure. Being optimistic, this strategy of private ownership within partially public territory will succeed due, in part, to the acknowledged interdependency and negotiable shades of gray between public and private realms, yet in proposing territory as dynamically part of a housing ecology largely driven by market forces, it leaves the question open as to whether these forces can be ecological.


1. Four to five story residential, parking below
2. Three to four story residential, parking  below
3. Two to three story residential, parking below
4. Two-story commercial
5. Charter school, residential above
6. School yard
7. Elevated subway, retail below
8. Retail below, cinema above
9. Outdoor recreation platform, parking below
10. Community center
11. Galleries, residential above
12. Daycare center, residential above
13. Mobile retail, residential above
14. Common residential amenities
15. Recreation street, overflow parking
16. Ecological learning center, residential above
17. Beach parking along street
18. Boardwalks to beach

Unit Flexibility

The base number of units within a 26-foot wide bay ranges from four units in the ocean side building to six units in the furthest land side building and ranges from studios to two bedroom  units.  The prefabricated concrete frame structure and wall panel system allow unit expansion both vertically and horizontally.  The stair core, which serves two bays, also contains vertical shafts for all utility risers with short distribution runs to bathrooms and kitchens.

Base Unit Distribution

Generative Voids

Given the base distribution of units which are oriented either ocean side or land side, cross ventilation and light to each room is achieved by voids within the mass of each housing band.  The floor of the voids is owned and occupied by the adjacent unit while the space above is common to allow light and air into upper units.  The voids are a space of negotiation between neighbors.  For larger configurations, the voids can become the sole domain of a single homeowner.

Split Horizon

The horizon has a powerful presence at Arverne.  The stepped section of the housing bands allows the upper units to view over the roofs of adjacent units toward the expansiveness of the ocean and simultaneously into the immediacy of the voids.  From within the void, the sky is framed by the units above.

While Housing Ecologies proposes a target density of 28 units per acre over approximately 30 acres of land, it is driven by a logic of unit flexibility. The proposal anticipates the possibility of an increase or decrease in density in response to factors including fluctuation in household size, the frequency of homeowner relocation (approximately every 6 years in the US) and the economic ability and desire of the owner to expand or reduce their unit size. The prefabricated concrete frame structure and interchangeable wall panel system allow unit expansion both vertically and horizontally.

Considering the increased mobility, both social and physical, of the modern dweller, it becomes ever more difficult to determine who are the intended subjects of the standard unit of housing in contemporary Europe or the typical tract home in the United States. In either case, these dwellings are usually designed for a phantom “next resident,” someone who statistically conforms to the demand for housing, which is programmed by either the state or the market. The resale value of the American house regularly takes precedence over other priorities. Thus, the bedroom, rather than belonging to its current occupants, always pertains to some statistical “other” who will enact seductions there in the future.

– Richard Ingersoll