CLOSE AD ×

Only If builds practice through research and context

Only If It's Built

Only If builds practice through research and context

An irregular New York City housing lot on display at the 2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. (Courtesy Only If)

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an interview series on AN. On September 26, 2019, Stewart Tillyer and Aditya Jain, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Adam Frampton and Karolina Czeczek of the Brooklyn-based practice Only If.

This interview has been edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity.

Stewart Tillyer and Aditya Jain: Was starting an office something that you always planned to do?

Karolina Czeczek: Yes, definitely. I’ve always wanted to run a practice. Adam and I were working together at OMA when we decided to leave and start our own practice. Without the opportunity to have a partner, I don’t know that starting a practice at that moment would have happened.

Adam Frampton: I worked for about seven years after school before we started this practice. There was a real advantage to working in one place during that time and having the opportunity to make meaning[ful] contributions to multiple projects. The experience built some confidence in my ability to start and run a practice, but nothing really prepares you for the challenges of having your own office.

Does your experience working at OMA influence your work today?

Karolina: Definitely. In particular, how we approach projects is something that is inspired by our time at OMA. We try to understand the broader issues of each project. We’re not always able to solve that issue solely through building, but our position is embedded in our design. What was also impactful about spending time at OMA was the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility really quickly. We were just not executing sketches of more experienced architects. It was an office environment that encouraged the newest and youngest employees to insert themselves from the start. This collaborative, relatively non-hierarchical environment is something we try to maintain in our office today. We’re not simply handing off sketches to our employees, but are promoting a collaborative effort.

Who would you consider to be the primary audience for your work? Is it colleagues and other professionals, the general public, or someone else?

Karolina: Other architects, no. Of course, they are an audience by default, but we’re not designing for architects, we’re designing for a much broader audience. It’s important to keep that in mind because we have to understand the issues and needs of the general public. We have to understand the economic and political context in which we work to respond more appropriately through design.

Adam: An architect’s obligation is to the public. Even with projects for private clients, there is a responsibility to imagine how a project engages society and an audience beyond who commissioned it. And I agree with Karolina. We do not explicitly design for other architects, but we take pleasure in working on disciplinary issues through drawings, collages, and models… everything that precedes the building.

How does the location of your practice affect your work?

Karolina: We’re based in New York and I think this requires us to focus on New York right now. We’re dealing with the issues that are specific to this context, such as housing, and it takes a lot of time, effort, and expertise to understand and navigate building in New York. We don’t want to pretend we know everything about everywhere, but at the same time, some specific issues we’re working on now in New York could also apply to other areas. Expanding where we practice is on the horizon.

Adam: Having an office in New York as young architects almost seems to entail working on local projects in a very hands-on way. It’s very different from what we experienced previously, where large projects or budgets enable global collaboration: everybody in the office was from a different country, traveling constantly, and working on projects scattered around the globe. But starting an office requires commitment to the place where the office exists. Eventually, we’d like to take on much larger projects, and projects outside of New York, but we’re enjoying working on smaller projects in New York right now. We can be on construction sites, work directly with contractors, and watch projects evolve on a daily basis.

Is your built work more meaningful to you than your unbuilt work or vice versa, or do they hold equal value?

Karolina: We’re definitely interested in building and executing buildings. That being said, we also find tremendous value in working in a more speculative manner on urban-scale projects. We understand that you have to engage projects at a variety of scales and with vastly different objectives in order to execute one project. For example, the Narrow House came out of research on overlooked and irregularly shaped narrow lots in New York City. The research at an urban scale was ultimately realized as the Narrow House, at an architectural scale.

Adam: We know there is value in research and in developing masterplans and working the scale of the city and even the region, but these types of projects can take a long time to be implemented. They afford us space to think and design in a more speculative manner, but in the end, often get passed to others to execute or become smaller scale projects only slightly related to the initial conception. We enjoy the smaller scale projects right now because they can be executed and have an impact quickly.

Do you approach smaller projects differently than larger projects?

Adam: Our approach is different at different scales. Each scale has its own degrees of indeterminacy or looseness. When you put dimensions on the drawing, there are some dimensions you omit because there are always deviations in construction. In small projects, there might be tolerances of an eighth of an inch. In urbanism, there [are] other degrees indeterminacy that need to be built into the project, but the techniques are very different for doing so. Every scale has its own techniques and approaches. We’re also interested in developing ideas for one scale and applying them to another. For example, in a competition for temporary installation, we thought about urbanism playing out within a very small interior. We developed an idea about how a city grid hosts events and activities that unfold over time. The architect or planner cannot choreograph or script everything happening in the space of the city, but they can setup a system or structure in which activities take place. This scenario became the basis for our entry. We like the idea of applying approaches developed for one scale to drastically different scales. 

You’ve stated that you view Narrow House as a prototype for confronting unused narrow lots in the city. What are the qualities of Narrow House that transcend its site?

Karolina: Of course, we do not imagine this to be a copy-paste prototype, because every narrow lot is slightly different, with different zoning regulations and different existing conditions and contexts. The notion of “prototype” corresponds more to a development approach that challenges existing models of building in the city. We are thinking in terms of strategies young architects can employ to be more proactive when it comes to development and construction. We mapped over 3,400 of these narrow lots scattered throughout the city. 600 of these lots are city-owned and also not suitable for development relative to existing financial models. But they are suitable for development if other priorities take the place of simply earning profit, such as helping to ameliorate the housing crisis or inventing new forms of housing. In that sense, we’re thinking about methods and policies that will enable us and others to work in these types of sites.

Adam: Working on Narrow House has allowed us to think about a broader approach to designing in other narrow lots. What’s critical for these sites is not the outward expression or form of the building, it’s about interior circulation and how to deliver light into a very deep floor plan. The strategies we’ve developed in Narrow House to solve these issues can certainly transfer from lot to lot. We’re also excited to now be working with New York City to help develop 23 of these city-owned lots for affordable housing.

Rendering of a house on an infill lot
The front of Only If’s Narrow House proposal. (Courtesy Only If) 

What have been the biggest highlights and challenges that you’ve faced during the design and construction of Narrow House?

Adam: Those are two different things, right!? Well, the biggest highlight will be getting it done!

Karolina: It’s going to be our first completed ground-up project as Only If—definitely a highlight on its own. When we conceived of the project, we didn’t even know if it was legally or logistically possible. I’m not going to go into detail, but we had to prove certain things to show that it’s possible to build on the site within the existing zoning. Receiving the permit was a highlight! With construction, the biggest challenge is getting out of the ground. The specific conditions of the site constrain the staging area as well as space for construction.

Interior rendering of a narrow staircase
Inside of Narrow House. (Courtesy Only If)

Adam: There are hundreds of challenges. The zero-lot condition, where you’re building one structure right up against another one requires layers of legal agreements, seismographs for construction, vibration monitoring, surveys for optical deflection of movements, etc. I’ll share one specific challenge… in New York City, all of the natural gas comes from the Marcellus Shale. It comes through pipelines in an area where it’s becoming more and more challenging to build pipelines. There’s actually a pipeline that the utility company is trying to build right now under Rockaway Beach, but they can’t build it and there’s no more natural gas in Long Island. I was on the phone recently with a gas company asking them where to put the meter when I learned about this. All of a sudden, we have to redesign the building without natural gas, which is a good thing because we’ll be able to transition the building off [of] fossil fuels. It’s a challenge that will ultimately have a positive impact in the design. All things considered, it’s been a very long and challenging process.

What type of projects do you hope to work on in the future? What do you see as the trajectory of your firm going forward?

Karolina: Housing is definitely on our mind and we want to work on housing at a variety of scales… single and multi-family, affordable, senior, etc. It’s something that we’re planning on working on for a long time. But, of course, we have other interests. We understand that housing is not the only component of the city. We’ve been looking at public amenities and infrastructures that also constitute the city.

Adam: Working on public and cultural projects is an ambition. But we’d be happy to do parking garages, too. We’re not thinking of the future of the office solely in terms of typology. We want to work with really enlightened, ambitious clients who see the value of design.

How do you allocate resources for research? Does your research generate revenue or are you using revenue from other projects to fund your research?

Adam: To be honest, we’re not terribly successful in managing time or money in the office. It’s difficult. We both teach and are very fortunate to be supported by academic institutions. We’re not an office that has “bread and butter” work that we don’t publish and that we’re just doing to make money. A lot of offices do that. Our time is very valuable, and we can’t imagine working on something that we’re not invested in simply for financial gain.

Karolina: Research also has potential to create other projects for us. We don’t see it as research for the sake of research. It’s always combined with something that we’re teaching or that we’re personally interested in.

Adam: Maybe not connected to your question, but looking at all the practices that are being interviewed as part of this seminar… everyone is teaching. We have mixed feelings about the role of teaching and academia in our practice. On one hand, teaching and being connected to and supported by an academic environment facilitates and enables research. But on the other hand, teaching takes a lot of time. It’s rewarding on many levels, but it sometimes feels difficult to devote enough time to both ends, as a teacher and scholar in the academic world and as architect, striving to make significant contributions to the built environment.

What’s been the most rewarding moment in your practice thus far?

Adam: Architecture is a very difficult profession. We find pleasure in the act of design, as simple or complex as it may be. Having an opportunity to work on projects is incredibly rewarding in and of itself. We are not motivated by the outward accomplishments. It’s simply the ability to work on complex design problems, struggle through them, find a resolution… when everything clicks, it’s very rewarding.