Interview with Andy Bernheimer
September 21, 2017
Andy Bernheimer is an architect and a teacher. Assistant Professor and former Director of the Master of Architecture Program at Parsons the New School for Design and principal of his own firm, he has worked extensively on affordable housing projects, executing subtle and complex projects within the constraints of New York City construction practices. Providing tangible social impact in the city, he says, means honing an understanding of nearly immutable architectural constraints.
Andy’s fourth affordable housing project is currently under construction, and he has three more on the books. He just finished up explaining the logistics of acquiring and executing these projects over time. One surprising detail we inquired about was the general arc of an affordable housing project, which takes around 4.5 years from conception to completion.
P: There’s obviously both a steep learning curve for affordable housing work in New York City. Are you still getting your bearings or are you feeling limitations and frustrations? I’m surprised that it takes four and a half years to get an affordable project housing done, considering the dire demand the city faces.
AB: No, I don’t think I feel frustration. I think it just takes that long to build buildings. The construction period takes 18 months to 24 months. When you’re building at a scale of 60-, 80-, 100-, 200-thousand square feet, it’s going to take a year and a half to build the building. And it’s going to take a year to draw it. The longest wait is the 7 to 12 months for the city to select a team. The design to construction side takes as long as it takes mostly due to the logistics of the process. There’s a little bit of time in there if there’s zoning changes or complexities due to land dispositions. Sometimes, there’s a ULURP process (Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure). These approval processes often happen in parallel to drawings, so it’s not an extension, really. It’s really the first part where the city says “here’s a piece of land, developers make a proposal” that can take a while.
The hardest things to get your bearings on, which aren’t the architect’s responsibility—though I think it’s good for them to understand—are the financing structures for affordable housing. I don’t understand it entirely, but I’ve gotten better at knowing what comes from where and how you get it. You can be getting money from the city, low-interest loans from banks, federal programs, state programs, and so on. It’s not like getting a mortgage for a house. It’s like getting seven mortgages for all different pieces of the house.
That’s the steepest learning curve. Building a building in New York City has its own set of complexities. With the Department of Buildings, code, zoning, many agencies that have to approve drawings, etc. Ultimately, that’s not that complicated, but it doesn’t happen without the financing. That’s where it gets really complicated.
P: I wonder if you ever considered the design of the financing as a problem that maybe you or architecture at large should be considering?
AB: [laughter] I’m trying to think of a better answer than “no”… Really, I don’t think that’s something… Well maybe there’s someone with a different brain structure than mine that could think up how the architect could design a building beyond use and into where financing comes from… Usually the people in New York City doing this know their stuff. There’s a bit of programming that the architect can assist with so that the developer can afford to build the project. But as far as designing a financing structure—that is pretty far away from the architect’s responsibility. But, being more cognizant of how these things are put together financially means that the architect has more credibility. If we know these things, we have a stronger voice at the table.
P: If not designing the financing itself, how do you deal with budget in the design process? How do you negotiate the tension between size of unit versus number of units? What about material and formal expression? Indeed, this seems to be the space where the traditional practice of architecture can have direct implications on its possibilities.
AB: Building in NYC is so different than in other places. Sites are limited, access to sites is limited, building costs are higher, etc. The simple act of getting a vehicle to a compact site in a dense urban environment typically means that it’s more expensive, whether it’s delivering sheet rock or lifting steel into place. Building costs in the city are incredibly restrictive, which results in two things (and it’s way more complicated than I’m describing). If buildings are more expensive, they need to be built in probably the most common or cheapest way possible. This is particularly true for affordable housing, which prioritizes getting as many units possible in a unit mix stipulated by the city. When the developer submits a proposal for a project, it includes a term sheet—effectively a contract that, if granted the bid, the developer must follow, including specific numbers and types for units. And that unit mix is tied to a financing structure, which is in turn tied to a certain budget. Ultimately, all of these factors can be distilled to a simple problem: how do I build it as simply and cheaply as possible while putting in the units that get us the proper subsidy (sometimes you get subsidy per unit count) and over the long term, pay off loans, and eventually make money on the project?
We’ll often get a very stipulated unit count (though there may be variations within that), and we know there is a general market cost of construction which is going to lead us to a very specific way of building materially. In the city, it’s “block and plank”: a concrete and steel base with concrete block and precast concrete planks above. This type of construction has its own limitations for formal expression—that’s why you see all these brick boxes around the city, and why two of the three projects we’re doing right now are brick boxes. So then the question is, “Where is the formal opportunity within the technical system?” You’re not making the Leonard Street tower by Herzog & de Meuron. You simply cannot make affordable housing like that. You can do a building like that which contains within it a certain percentage of affordable units because you can then get bonuses from the city. But that’s not affordable housing, that’s market rate housing with a few affordable units in it. If you’re building [an] affordable housing building, you are very likely to be building it with very specific materials and very specific techniques. It becomes about the clothing on that body: how do you wrap it, how do you compose a facade, how do you find something interesting in that relatively bracketed set of opportunities?
P: If we zoom out, what about addressing the urban policy that sets the stage for these realities? At the scale of urban policy, developers have to put together a collage of financing, but is that system itself worth questioning? Perhaps architects could be more apt at negotiating the system than the pro-forma? Would this level of policy be more effective for us to intervene?
AB: I teach at a school that is highly focused on civic equity, but at times we get too deep into the policy side of things, how to make projects happen. And then architects, who tend to like to conduct processes, try to take on the role of not just designing the building, but [designing] a policy or a process that not only empowers us but makes things better for others. Do we become the politicians? The policy makers? We’re professionally trained to design and make buildings. It’s a question of “scope-creep.” Is the architect the best person to do that? A few of us on faculty at Parsons sometimes get a little frustrated that when you go to a discussion with architects, it becomes an overarching conversation about how architects should be able to impact every part of the process. I’m an optimist, and idealist, and a bleeding-heart liberal, and I want us to do way more, but I’m also very skeptical about how much we can do.
On the policy side of things, we probably have a better chance of changing building code or zoning. Another thing I’ve been doing at Parsons, besides the housing work, is the use and deployment of mass timber. That’s something that is driving me a little bit crazy. I feel like I’m trying to tear down a huge barrier. I’ve actually been talking with someone about trying to get the DOB or the city to allow us to build timber buildings that are lighter, go up faster, fireproof, safe, better for the environment, better for the dwellers, and better for the building industry long-term. I think that’s where we can have impact on policy.
And that gives us design opportunity; it has dual benefit. If we can build out of more systems, then we have more possibilities for formal expression, still at the right budget. If you told a really talented architect to do a building out of block and plank for this price per square foot, I don’t know that they would come up with something that is fundamentally different. It might be better composed or nicer looking, because they’re better designers, but it’s not going to be a fundamental change in the way that we use that material to make the building. But if there were three or four systems by which you could build it, and they would all be on budget, you would get a much more diverse formal language of housing, even knowing that the units are relatively prescriptive (largely because of stringent accessibility code).
P: How have you gone about interfacing with this as an issue? Where do you think the architect’s place is in the conversation?
AB: It’s happening at a level higher than architects. I know SHoP worked on a wood building with funding through the federal government and some private enterprise supporting research in timber construction to try to work through the agencies to open up the possibilities. I think they found it quite resistant, both from union inertia and agency fears with embedded ways of thinking. We might be able to explain to the DOB why a building can be built quickly, safely, occupied safely, with proper fire suppression systems, so we need to be part of that conversation, but it’s also happening at a level higher than that with politicians and other enterprises, probably some private, who have a material and financial interest. The concrete union is protecting labor and the sale of concrete, while the timber industry wants to sell wood. We need to be a part of that because we can narrate the process in a way that’s tangible for people in places like the DOB.