Leroy Street Studio works with students to design a facade for affordable housing in the Lower East Side

Community Cladding

Leroy Street Studio works with students to design a facade for affordable housing in the Lower East Side

A group of high school students worked with Leroy Street Studio on the design for the metal clad facade. (Todd Mason)

Approaching 302 East 2nd Street from the west, the facade appears as a palette of stucco and aluminum panels. Crossing in front of the building and viewing it from the east reveals that the folded aluminum protrusions on the panels are yellow, which draws the eye’s attention up the facade. Metal mesh abstractions break the geometric array of each panel—their logic is the result of collaborative design process between architects and students.

Located on a former vacant lot, East Village Homes, designed by Leroy Street Studio and developed by the nonprofit Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), is a 100 percent affordable housing building. Rising 14 floors, the building contains 44 units, ranging from studios to two-bedroom apartments. 36 of the units are available via New York City’s housing lottery at 50 percent, 80 percent and 140 percent of the Adjusted Median Income (AMI). The other eight units will house formerly homeless people, at 20 percent and 30 percent AMI, with Section 8 vouchers.

In an area that has been on the forefront of the city’s rapidly increasing rent prices, the 40,000-square-foot building is an important space for longtime residents, 50 percent of the units are reserved for residents of Community Board 3, which covers the area between Bowery, Baxter Street, and Pearl Street from the Brooklyn Bridge to 14th Street. The project is part of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) Neighborhood Construction Program, which supports new affordable housing construction on infill lots.

The building occupies a formerly vacant lot on East 2nd Street. (Christopher Payne)

Construction started in the fall of 2019, and units are almost ready to be occupied. In addition to the apartments, the building contains a community room, bike room, 11th floor terrace—accessible to all residents—and backyard. Part of the ground floor has been reserved for a community organization, with a separate entrance. The entry and stairwell are tiled in yellow and purple—alternating by floor to guide wayfinding—and gray brick that extends from the exterior to interior on the ground floor. The building contains no basement, in consideration of flooding concerns. Resiliency was a significant factor in the project’s design; as per HPD’s guidelines post-Hurricane Sandy—which sought to curb the impact of floods—the building’s mechanical and electrical systems are installed on the ground floor and roof.

The transparency of the mesh presents an abstract design without adding weight to the facade. (Christopher Payne)

The facade contains a pattern of aluminum panels amid gray stucco above ground floor masonry. It was designed in partnership with high school students from around the city. Leroy Street Studio has a history of incorporating community partners in its designs. For East Village Homes the firm worked with Grand Street Settlement’s AmeriCorps program to bring high school students from across the city into the project. Approximately 30 students, the vast majority of whom had no prior design experience, participated in a series of workshops led by architects from Leroy Street Studio, and were compensated for their labor.

As Leroy Street Studio partner Morgan Hare and architect Allen Gillers explained, the workshop taught the students design thinking, culminating in their design of the facade. The workshop led students through lessons on light and shading, collage, and abstraction, addressing questions of not only formal design, but the urban and social context of projects. While having students participate in the facade design was a goal of the workshop, this experience was also an exercise in developing a design language and spatial education, culminating in the realized project.

The students were also asked to think about experiences in their own communities, considering issues such as gentrification, what it feels like to be a member of a community, and who a given space is for. This informed their design for the facade, which was inspired by the local urban landscape. As Gillers said, “anybody walking by uses this building.” The building’s presence, primarily through its facade, is part of a changing community, and alters the landscape for anyone who passes by it.

The yellow-face of the aluminum is hidden when viewed from the West. (Christopher Payne)

Although the workshops were held online during the pandemic, students were eventually able to survey the Lower East Side, where they observed the “layering”of the neighborhood firsthand, taking note of the historic and ongoing patterns of immigration and class change and the visibility of this in the neighborhood’s residents.

The architects worked with Brooklyn-based Juan Alfaro Design on the metal panels, which were designed with an array of normal distribution curve-shaped pieces cut that were folded to protrude out from the building. The panels were machine-cut, with a powder-coated back and anodized aluminum front. The thin, projected pieces of aluminum on the East-facing side were painted yellow to establish continuity with the interior tiling, while the West-facing side remained unpainted. The protrusions in the panels catch sunlight, with their shadows contributing to the abstract geometry of the design, catching the eye without dominating the street’s landscape. Giller described the effect of this as an “unveiling” as you pan across the facade from West to East.

Ultimately, a view of a tree through a chainlink fence became the direct inspiration for the facade of East Village Homes. The 2D shape of the tree was collaged onto an elevation of the facade, with the sections of the tree overlapping the panels depicted in the built project. While the outline of the tree is not immediately apparent in the built form, this was not an oversight, the students who collaborated on the project are aware of its presence. As Gillers explained, the ability for the students to be “in-the-know” in the facade’s design allows them to make a claim to the space. He emphasized the “wow factor” for students in seeing the project come to fruition.

entry of an apartment building
The facade establishes color continuity with the interior entry. (Todd Mason)

The abstractions of the tree were formed with metal mesh, which was installed over the aluminum panels, transferring the “layering” of the Lower East Side to the facade. The architects considered a range of depths and sizes for the mesh, opting for a more transparent look for the mesh atop the panels.

While the students led the design of the facade, Leroy Street Studio’s longterm planning was crucial. The design team initially conceived the facade to be clad in metal panels, and had left a line item in the budget for this with the understanding that students would work on the final design. Balancing a cost-effective design with HPD requirements, Leroy Street Studio carefully threaded a mix of aluminum, masonry, and stucco together into one material design solution. As Hare said, the panels “scale the building down,” particularly in comparison to the older brick building that neighbors it to the West, fitting the new construction into the neighborhood without it feeling overbearing. The final design emphasizes the ability to incorporate community-based design in a project that addresses the housing needs of a community.