Historic Harlem House Modern Restoration by MESH Architectures

MESH Architectures designed the restoration to a single-family house, salvaging antique woodwork, while bringing the house up to passive-house standards. The result is a home full of 19th-century detail that is stingy with energy use and full of fresh air. 


Living room Photo credit: Frank Oudeman

This house, in the middle of historic Harlem, had declined to a broken-up three-family dwelling. The owners with four children, wished to restore it to a single-family dwelling, while repairing the extensive original woodwork around the windows, doors, stairs, and fireplaces. At the same time, they wanted to introduce transitional modern elements where appropriate. After learning about the passive house standard that dramatically reduces energy use through insulation, air sealing, and efficient heating and cooling, while providing constant fresh air, it became part of the program as well.


Exterior of the house
Photo credit: MESH Architectures

The house is large by New York City standards: a cellar plus four stories. The kitchen and dining room are located on the ground floor (English basement), leading out to a garden in the rear. The living room and library are on the parlor level. The master bedroom and home office/guest room are located on the 3rd floor, with four daughters in four bedrooms on the fourth. The cellar, which was previously a mechanical space, was excavated and renovated into a home gym and media room.


Custom-built kitchen
Photo credit: Frank Oudeman


Photo credit: Frank Oudeman

Once the rooms were laid out, the house’s historic fabric was catalogued for restoration and, in some cases (doors), relocation. Fixtures are a blend of transitional and historical. The kitchen was designed by the architects and built by a local millworker. The decorated stucco facade (known in NYC as “brownstone,” because it is colored to resemble actual brownstone) was completely restored by specialists, Edson.


Primary bedroom
Photo credit: Frank Oudeman

“This house is an integration of old and new. It is airy and clean, and it responds directly to the needs of a modern urban family. We emphasized the social space of the kitchen/dining room/yard, while making a special effort to preserve the historical elements of the house. The house is full of recent building science technology, yet it feels like a serene, historic Harlem row house. We were happy to learn that the clients had already learned about passive house construction before we met them.”  - MESH principal, Eric Liftin


Primary bathroom
Photo credit: Frank Oudeman

Passive house 

The facades and roof were air sealed and insulated with ample blown-in cellulose insulation. The windows are passive-house standard, triple-glazed from Zola. The gas line to the house was capped, and an efficient electric heat pump system heats and cools the house. An ERV (energy recovery ventilation) system brings in fresh, outside air after conditioning it with the energy of the exhausted, stale air. This all adds up to very low energy use and an exceptionally comfortable and healthy environment. The owners chose not to pursue passive house certification, as it is the performance, not the certificate, that they desire.


Photo credit: MESH Architectures

This house is one of a growing number of old houses retrofitted with the latest energy-efficient technology, demonstrating that passive house is not only for new construction. These renovated houses can preserve the look and feel of a classic row house, while providing healthy air, saving energy, and emitting no carbon (or other pollutants). As energy generation becomes cleaner in the decades to come, houses like this one will approach a zero-emissions footprint.


Library to entrance hall
Photo credit: MESH Architectures


Photo credit: Frank Oudeman

About MESH Architectures

Eric Liftin founded MESH Architectures in 1997 as an innovative, multi-disciplinary architectural practice in both the physical and virtual realms. MESH designs buildings, homes, offices, retail spaces, and art installations. In the last decade, the emphasis has been on sustainability, along with continuing interest in new technologies. The firm has also designed a number of web sites, with the goal of integrating them with architecture and forging connections between people and their environments in the age of the digital network. Recently, the firm has been developing multi-family residential buildings in Brooklyn. The second, which will be the first mass-timber condominium building in New York, will be completed in early 2022.