Light and Air (L/AND/A) recently completed a gut renovation of an existing 1880s Brooklyn row house. The Switchback House is a new prototype for contemporary urban living that inverts and opens up the traditional row house by replacing a stacked stair with a switchback stair and inserting a dramatic skylight atop the new vertical stair volume.
While townhouses historically tend to be dark, narrow and divided spaces, with each floor visually disconnected, L/AND/A's subtle but strategic transformation prioritizes dynamic visual connections - both between floors and from the inside out. The effect is a light, open, and connected experience inside a traditional row house.
The existing house - in the middle of a brownstone block in Bedford-Stuyvesant - was rundown and dilapidated, with much of the historic interior detailing removed or destroyed. The original layout had been reworked over the years into a rooming house with multiple small apartments, eroding the original grandeur of the space. Most of the existing infrastructure - from plumbing and electrical on up - needed to be fully replaced. "This was an opportunity to try something new - to rethink what a townhouse in the city could be," architect Shane Neufeld commented.
Neufeld's clever addition of a fourteen by six foot skylight, oriented due North/South along the building's length, provides natural daylight throughout, illuminating each level, and eliminating the need for artificial lighting during the day. The efficiency of the switchback design removes the hallway that typically links stacked stairs, creating an opening that gives adjacent rooms access to the light filtering down from above.
Constructing the switchback stair along with the large skylight required significant structural changes. Because of the stair's increased width, a large section of the existing structure had to be removed from the floor diaphragm. In order to achieve this, three wide flange steel beams were inserted at each level, reinforcing the existing one-hundred-and-forty year old joists and effectively doubling the original opening. The result is a thirty-two foot high space visually linking all three floors.
Photography: Kevin Kunstadt