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Habitat's Historic Rehab

Habitat for Humanity revives seven Victorian-era row houses for 12 families in need.

Project: Row Houses, Bridgeport, CT

Architect: Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, Bridgeport, CT; Malena Yrigoyen

Contractor: Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, Bridgeport, CT; Keith Cook, director of construction

By Nancy E. Berry

When the city of Bridgeport, CT, was ready to demolish the vandalized 1898 Armstrong Row Houses, which had sat vacant for more than 10 years, the local nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County (Habitat CFC) stepped in to see if it could resurrect the seven row houses for use as low-income housing. "We had never worked with such a historically significant property," says Malena Yrigoyen, Habitat CFC's architect and site development manager. Nor had it worked on such a large project – the three-story row houses total more than 19,000 sq.ft. of living space. The program called for rehabilitating the row houses into 12 condos while reviving the character of the original buildings, which are central to the fabric of the historical district. An army of 6,000 volunteers from the local community worked on the three-year project.

Once home to more than 500 factories, Bridgeport was a booming center of industry. Built by mill owner Frank Armstrong for his factory managers, the Victorian-era brick buildings featured complex roof designs and handsome interior detailing. "Armstrong's own home sits across the street and was influenced by French architecture," says Yrigoyen.

A striking example of architecture in their own right, the houses have alternating bell turrets with hipped roof projections, granite quoins and projecting round bays. "The original walls are layered brick and the first floor interior has 10-ft. ceilings," says Yrigoyen. "One goal was to save as much as the original structure as possible."

The row houses are located in East Bridgeport Historic District, which is the city's most intact 19th-century neighborhood, boasting 266 row houses on the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood was planned as a totally integrated community with industries, businesses and all classes of housing. By the mid-20th century, the area was in economic decline, and as the neighborhood changed over the years, the Armstrong Row Houses were transformed into 14 units, then 21, and eventually served as a 64-unit rooming house. The structure was finally condemned in 2000 after years of neglect.

In 2007, Habitat CFC offered to complete the rehabilitation started by another nonprofit. Habitat would serve as a mortgagor, contractor, volunteer coordinator and agent on the project – as the organization does in all of its projects. Habitat CFC worked with the city's historic commission for design approval. Because the house is located in an historic district, it was also eligible for rehabilitation tax credits. Habitat CFC worked with the local state historic preservation office to satisfy the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and maintain the integrity of the building. "Even in their dilapidated state, the buildings were still beautiful," says Yrigoyen.

The first order of business was to simply clean out the interior of the building of all debris. One end of the building had been severely burned in the 1990s and most of the flooring and support beams were gone. "Once we could see what we had to work with, we were excited," says Yrigoyen. "We were able to salvage 85 percent of the original building materials – floors, beams and joists." The floor plan was opened to create a more contemporary living environment. "We created one- two- and three-bedroom condos to accommodate both single people as well as families. Each family who was eligible for one of the units had to give 500 volunteers hours to the project.

"Volunteers installed baseboard, drywall, windows, flooring and insulation," and professionals were brought in for the electrical and plumbing. General Electric, whose employees also volunteered on the project, donated Energy Star-rated kitchen appliances.

Once the interiors began to take shape, the team worked on the exterior. Much of the roof was severely damaged and some trusses needed replacing. "We installed reinforcements on each truss, connected the weight to new posts and tied the structure to the main brick building with the help of a structural engineer," says Keith Cook, Habitat CFC's director of construction. "Contemporary materials such as laminated-veneer lumber elements were used to help alleviate the longer spans."

The exterior brick had decayed over the years due to water infiltration and was severely compromised. To address these problems, Habitat enlisted the volunteer assistance of structural engineer Ed Stanley, who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture and operates Edward Stanley Engineers, LLC. Stanley had the brick re-pointed and in some places rebuilt the walls using LVL supports on their interiors. Another challenge was to re-create an eyebrow dormer missing due to decay. "We looked at historical photographs of the building to replicate it exactly as it was," says Yrigoyen. Built as one piece, the new dormer was brought to the site and lifted to its new location. Upper floors where finished with cedar shingles and stained to match the originals.

One unit needed to meet ADA building codes with an accessibility ramp. The design followed the semicircular shape of the turret. A layer of brick salvaged from the building's original chimneys gave the ramp its Victorian-era character. "The ramp meets code compliance and received a unanimous vote of approval from the historic district," says Yrigoyen. For egress and fire codes, corroded fire escapes were removed and new wooden porches with stairs were added. The porch rooflines follow the building's roof pitch. The same wooden shingles of the main building were used for continuity in the design.

Beyond preservation, Armstrong Row is a great example of sustainability at work. Much of the existing material was preserved during the renovation process – keeping tons of debris out of landfills – and if new materials had to be brought in the majority were locally sourced. The rehab is also in a walkable urban community, fostering environmental sustainability.  



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