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Monday, August 04, 2008

Rag Flats

Rag Flats in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Onion Flats

Only a quick glance at the portfolio of the Philadelphia-based design-build firm Onion Flats is required to grasp the talent of the architects and contractors involved. Looking a little closer reveals that this talent is based around sustainalbe principles, both at the level of the building and the city. Rag Flats, the transformation of a former industrial rag factory into a residential garden community, is a good example of this two-pronged approach.

Acting as developer, in addition to their design-build roles, Onion Flats were influenced by the previous use, the way the factory presented "an unobtrusive, even silent face to the entirely residential community adjoining it...masking the 'secret' space beyond." They conceptualized the eleven residential units as a grouping of four dwelling types commonly found in their home city -- the row house, the loft, the "trinity", and the pavilion -- around a new, internal "secret" space. The first two front the street, the silent face of the site's new incarnation, while the last two are removed from the street, taking advantage of the courtyard that each dwelling type shares.

Of the four traditional Philly dwellings, the decision to use the trinity is the most telling. Shunned today (like coach houses in other locales) for the density they embody, trinity houses are three-story (father, son, holy ghost) structures with small footprints that are found in backyards, accessible by narrow alleys. Their small-size and infill character make them a suitable model for a firm striving to emphasize community, density and intimacy in their precepts of urban/philosophical sustainability. The four trinity units are characterized by a varied palette of materials that expresses their massing and outdoor rooms.

The project's "tecnhical/material sustainability" includes many now standard features of buildings aiming to be truly sustainable: radiant heat, rainwater harvesting, bamboo and other "green" materials, porous paving, green roofs, and solar panels. But Onion Flats did not forget the tactics that predate today's sustainability trend -- and, more importantly the mechanical means of treating spces -- namely natural ventilation and the passive heating and cooling that comes with it. This is most apparent in the trinity units and their room-size footprints that allow for lots of outside air. This is also a strong argument for resurrecting the dwelling type en masse in Philadelphia, in place of the "new suburbanism" that can be found in this and other cities.

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