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Savvy Sisters
A sustainable convent in Harlem.
The facade on Convent Avenue.
Courtesy Vanni Archive

Though a new convent built from the ground up, St. Hilda's House does not stick out from the predominantly brownstone residences of West Harlem. In fact both the project and the nuns who live there make a conscious effort to have a low impact on the neighborhood. The convent’s facade presents a quilt-like series of volumes, delineated by gray-red brick and metal panelling and oversized windows to lend the wall a monastic rhythm. Inside the mixed-use of residential units and religious spaces, light and energy efficiency are maximized while the eight to ten Sisters of the Community of The Holy Spirit who live there use organic produce, have signed up for Zipcar membership, and tend their rooftop gardens for herbs.

Designed by New York-based BKSK Architects, the 11,000-square-foot building is a model of sustainable living, with two green roofs, locally sourced materials, such as an East Coast black granite, and useable, domestic-scale solar shading and cooling devices. “It was a way to rethink sustainability,” said Julie Nelson of BKSK, “coming up with time-tested devices and making it all accessible.” Indeed, it was paramount that the architects respond specifically to the aging population of nuns who occupy the house and who are cared for by younger Sisters. An elevator runs from street level to the upper roof garden, and the 3rd floor rooms all have access to bathrooms and the library. A sitting room has direct access to the lower roof garden. Tall windows let in buckets of light and offer views to the street, where the elder Sisters, most of whom are former teachers, can watch the daily school run.

Left to right: The front facade; the chapel; an accessible roof garden; a contemplation room.
Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

Without maintenance staff on site, it was important to keep systems simple and familiar while also introducing nature and the environment into the nuns’ daily lives. It was also key that the architects install as many green initiatives as the Community could afford, including solar hot water (a new technology, which will be featured in the AIA's upcoming exhibition Buildings=Energy). Their previous living arrangement, which was sold to pay for this new convent, was warren-like, made up of three separate dwellings grafted together, homely and very inefficient. “The pipes were small and the windows were installed in the 70s or 80s,” said Sister Claire Joy. “Much of it wasn't useable, but it had lots of storage; our new place is the opposite.” Though they have had to downsize, the nuns' new convent has a considered program and is more inviting for guests with such swing spaces as an art room and a flexible chapel. “We placed the chapel on the ground floor, immediately to the left as you come in,” said Nelson. “And we made the kitchen spacious with a worktop island, because cooking is a focal point of the Community.” (It’s Sister Claire Joy's favourite room.) Materials such as cork have been used to hush footsteps, and the nuns chose shades of green throughout the interior for a spa-like organic feeling. The new convent has not only shrunk the Community's footprint in terms of size and energy, it has also affected the way the Sisters approach life with ecology at the heart of it. “They were amazing clients, questioning whether things were 'green' enough,” said Nelson. “The real challenge was their own: transitioning and reinventing themselves through a building project.”

Gwen Webber