Davidson Rafailidis has turned a general contractor’s former office space into a small apartment dwelling, in an interior adaptive re-use that treats space as constantly evolving and ever-changing.
Over time, most spaces stray from their original programs and develop lives of their own. While the role of the initial occupant/owner is reduced in the process, the role of a building, by contrast, becomes more prominent, generous and unpredictable. Buildings can often be seen hosting unexpected uses and formal reinterpretations. Even in the short time span of a single year, spaces can offer changing and distinct qualities that require users to engage with them in different ways.
Big Space, Little Space, takes this transformative nature of space as its premise. Rather than dictating specific uses for designated spaces, a variety of spaces that can trigger unexpected uses are offered. These encourage formal re-interpretations and continuous construction by the various inhabitants over time. Big Space, Little Space is an adaptive re-use of a masonry garage built in the 1920’s transformed into an apartment dwelling and workshop for a couple, tucked away in the middle of a residential block in Buffalo, New York.
The square plan of the space offered few windows in relation to the overall floor area. One strategy was therefore to treat the roof (concealed 12” beneath a parapet) as a 5th facade, and insert ten operable skylights and a roof hatch for natural light, ventilation, and roof access.
Instead of clearing out the building and designing the interior from scratch, Davidson and Rafailidis reinterpreted the existing forms/spaces. An existing, partitioned area within the garage space that was recently used by a general contractor as an office was retained. This “Little Space” was seen as the overlap between two bigger, existing spaces: the fenced garden and the garage/workshop. The “Little Space” can be read as part of both, – it can extend into both. The reading of the plan flickers between these different configurations.
Big Space, Little Space does not dedicate spaces to traditional uses. Instead, the project offers spaces that are seasonally responsive and in flux, where inhabitation can retreat into the warm insulated Little Space in the harsh winters, and can spread into the “Big Spaces” – the generous garden, workshop, and roof deck in the warm seasons. In this sense, the living area can be anywhere between 464 sq ft to 5,165 sq ft. There is no stationary plan. The spaces are rather offerings for temporary and informal uses. The objective was to create spaces that are useful for everything and where the meaning and usefulness of each space renegotiates with each new user.
The “Big Space” had a small budget and the “Little Space” had a bigger budget, two-thirds of the entire project budget was invested in the Little Space. The Little Space has fully insulated perimeter walls and is heated with a single radiator. New radiant heating in an exposed new concrete floor was also provided for the bathroom. Five operable skylights offer additional natural light and ventilation to the Little Space. The big workshop, in contrast, has untouched and uninsulated walls. It is updated with five new skylights and a roof hatch with staircase to access the big roof. It is heated with an existing gas garage ceiling heater that is able to temporarily heat up the Big Space when needed in short time. The big garage/workshop acts as a climatic buffer space to the Little Space. The garden is fully fenced, making it feel like a room without a ceiling. The door opening to the garden was enlarged and a 23 foot wide retractable awning was installed, with a 13 foot cantilever, transforming the big garden into an exterior room and providing more privacy. CorTen steel shutters give the Little Space more security during long periods when the occupants are traveling.
Davidson Rafailidis avoided any materials that might read as “residential” so that the space would not prescribe a specific use, but rather, be open for all sorts of different uses. The kitchen, for example, reads more as a technical, abstract grid/frame than a residential kitchen. The most residential element might be the curtain, but its large, almost institutional scale blurs the domestic connotation.
The resulting wide range of finishes and materials, from the raw, cut bricks at the entry door, to highly refined surfaces and materials like the white oak cabinetry, creates an open, transient and generous space where the intervention integrates with those of the past as well as ones that will surely come in the future. The space is seen here as an animate thing with a lively past and an unknown future, where the intervention is just one of many. The space was not ‘remodeled’ to eliminate its messy past, but rather added to in a similar way to participants in the surrealist game, the Exquisite Corpse.