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Heading one of the region’s most prolific architectural firms, Demarest is front-and-center in the Ithaca building boom, with projects ranging from “tiny houses” in the city’s urban neighborhoods, to the State Street Triangle apartment tower proposed for downtown.
Few people have had their hands on so many projects in the area. In this piece, he shares his insights on the recent growth in Ithaca, and how the community can balance the need for new housing with the desire to preserve Ithaca’s quirky character.
Q: So, I’m going to start this off by asking for an introduction. Could you tell our readers a little about your background?
ND: I consider myself a lifelong Ithacan, I moved to Ithaca when I was 2 years old. I studied Design & Environmental Analysis at Cornell as an undergraduate, and stuck around for a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture. I spent some time running my own design business in graduate school with my brother Nate, and then I worked with my other brother Jason (who runs Jason K. Demarest Architect). After that, I relocated to Providence, Rhode Island where I worked with Union Studio Architects, and then returned to Ithaca to work with Trowbridge Wolf Michaels for 5 years before starting STREAM 3 years ago. I am licensed as both an architect and landscape architect in New York.
Q: Given your education and experience, is there any particular reason why you’d choose to practice in a small city like Ithaca, versus a larger city where there are more building projects?
ND: My very first memories as a child are of living a more “urban” life in Ithaca’s Belle Sherman neighborhood near Fairview Heights (coincidentally not far from TWMLA/STREAM’s Belle Sherman Cottages project). I never had a strong desire to work anywhere other than my hometown, and my wife Jen and I moved back when our kids were starting school to be closer to family. Ithaca is THE best place to live.
Something like 80% of STREAM’s projects are located in the Town and City of Ithaca. There are many opportunities for a small firm like STREAM to stay busy just by focusing on Ithaca – as long as we stay small and true to our core values.
Q: As a local architect, you and your team at STREAM Collaborative have been involved in a number of projects, ranging from the Old Library condominium proposal to the redesign of the State Street Triangle apartment proposal downtown. So you’re probably familiar with my next question already – how do you balance growth in Ithaca with preserving and enhancing its unique character? A lot of folks are concerned that these and other projects will damage their quality of life.
ND: I have a fundamental bias towards creating dense, diverse and walkable places where more people can enjoy the sustainable lifestyle that Ithaca has to offer. When I look around this city, I see the aftershock of the urban renewal of the 1950’s and 60’s still lingering with a number of single story older buildings in our downtown core. We lost so many great buildings during that time and replaced them with some really ugly, inefficient ones. Our City planners intentionally wiped out a lot of the density that we once had. We also feel the traffic impacts of all the people who fled the city to develop the suburbs during the later 20th century. Ithaca is changing, but when has it not been?
I think the best way to preserve our unique character is to encourage thoughtful growth in the core, but we need to simultaneously limit growth outside the city. This creates an even more diverse, vibrant and economically sustainable cultural center, and protects our farmland and natural areas at the same time. I think this strategy offers the most options for people to choose either an urban or rural way of life, without one negatively impacting the other.
I also see a very poor older housing stock in some of our most desirable neighborhoods, with porches literally held together with paint, and creeks running through basements (like my own house in Fall Creek). There are thousands of opportunities to spruce up as well as infill new places for people to live, and I believe it can be done in a way that would both preserve and enhance the character, reduce our carbon footprint, and strengthen our tax base. For instance, we are working on a handful of small cottage/carriage house units in the backyards of existing homes. In one case, it will allow a home owner to be able to afford to stay in Ithaca when he otherwise wouldn’t be able to cover the tax burden in the future.
I am not in favor of the “density at all cost” theory, and instead I strongly believe that every project requires a great deal of sensitivity to the surrounding context. I like to consider ourselves to be pretty sensitive considering Ithaca is our home. All of STREAM’s staff live in the city of Ithaca and we are passionate and sincere in our desire to improve our community.
Q: Just for the record, STREAM’s not a very big company, is it?
ND: STREAM is a small company at 5 people (4 full time equivalent). We are growing, but in a very slow and deliberate way.
Q: You guys have a lot work underway for such a small firm. I’m guessing there’s a lot of late nights involved?
ND: I’m worried about over extending myself because I’m an incredibly hands-on principal. Most principals fall into a supervisory role and they lean on a younger, more tech savvy generation to handle production, but in my case I’m very proficient with technology. We are very fortunate to have one of the best designers in Ithaca in Rob Morache, as well as architect Chris Parker, who brings some core production capabilities.
Our staff and I are generally only in the office from 8:30 to 5:00 Monday through Friday. You would be surprised at how efficient we can be at delivering projects without working more than 40 hours a week (not including late planning board meetings of course).
Q: Here’s another community issue – balancing development with energy needs. There’s a debate between clean energy, and aesthetics, and can we reduce energy needs if Ithacans keep building more homes and businesses. I hate to use the word sustainability since it’s a buzzword, but it fits really well here. As someone who designs these new buildings, how do you see energy use changing, and how can Ithaca become a more “sustainable” community?
ND: STREAM was founded on the goals of the Architecture 2030 challenge, which means we are aiming to be 100% carbon neutral for all our buildings by the year 2030.
We need to look at the entire equation of both housing and transportation when calculating energy use. Someone who lives inside the walkable flats of the city uses on average about one-third of the total energy as someone who lives outside the city based on transportation alone. We aren’t going to un-build the suburbs, but we now know that living outside walkable, complete neighborhoods contributes negatively toward the overall carbon equation of Ithaca. We have all the tools we need to make our community carbon neutral right now.
I also really believe that a “green” home doesn’t need to look any different than a traditional home and in fact the longer we can retain a building, the more “green” it becomes. I’m mostly interested in designing projects that people will want to take care of for a very long time.
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