It’s the buzz of the New York real estate scene, the condo at 15 Renwick that is being marketed with a Steampunk theme, everyone dressed up in period costumes playing Victorian board games in their parlours. Except they get everything wrong; Victorians didn't dress like that and the building is rather modern. It’s a shame that it is just marketing, because they are really on to something; there is probably a real niche here for a steampunk building that picks up on the best of Victorian building ideas and brings them into the 21st century. A steampunk building might well be the greenest condo in the city; here’s what I would do if I was still a real estate developer.
1) It will have no parking.
Victorian buildings didn’t have parking because people didn’t have cars; they called a Cabriolet. Really, in a city with subways and cabs and Uber and car sharing and bikeshare, who needs to own a car anymore. Lots of new condo projects are being built with no parking for exactly this reason- a lot of people just don’t want to pay for them anymore.
2) It will have a glorious stair and fewer elevators.
Really, think of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade, in that lovely French apartment building with a grand stair going up around a little elevator. Numerous studies have shown that people who take the stairs, from old ladies in New York walkups to old men in Italian hill towns live a lot longer. A building should encourage people to take the stairs. In the real Steampunk condo, a glorious light-filled stair with big landings (with comfy chairs if you want to rest and talk on the way) would wind up around one elevator, although bigger than the one Audrey and Cary were so cosy in.
3) It will have thick masonry walls.
You don’t have to be Catholic to celebrate mass. A lot of thermal mass in your exterior wall slows down heat transfer and keeps you cooler in the day and warmer at night. It’s not as effective in a place like New York where there are not dramatic swings in temperature but it helps, particularly when the power goes out. So does a lot of insulation, which wasn’t used in buildings much in the Steampunk era, but it was used in boats; Fredrik Nansen lined the Fram in a foot of cork. It kept him in the Arctic and subsequently Amundsen in the Antarctic snug as a bug. It’s healthy, renewable and totally natural and still available; Alex Wilson just did his house in it.
It’s the perfect steampunk insulation, carved by craftsmen with big knives who are surrounded by gorgeous Iberian Lynx.
4) it will have lots of opening windows
Windows that actually work at keeping in (or out) heat and noise are expensive, so you want to use them sparingly and make sure they frame a view, rather than just building a wall of them. You also want lots of them for cross-ventilation. There will be transom windows over doors, and a big motorized opening skylight at the top of that stair, so that air can be sucked out of your apartment by the stack effect. Having a ton of insulation and planning for natural ventilation can significantly reduce the air conditioning season. Oh, and those windows will all have awnings.
5) It will have radiant floors for heating.
They had them in Rome and experimented with underfloor hypocaust heating in the Victorian era, but that was primarily hot exhaust fumes from burning coal and wood. The condo won’t need a lot of heat with its good insulation and smaller windows, but a little radiant heat will help. Hot water is preferred.
6) it will be cooled by ice.
This is getting more common all the time; CALMAC and others install giant ice makers on the roofs of buildings to make ice at night when the electricity is cheap and the temperatures are cooler, which melts during the day and keeps the air conditioning condenser cool. The radiant floor would then be used to cool the apartments. (Yes, this works.)
7) It will have a separate and enclosed kitchen.
This was taken for granted in the Steampunk era, the kitchen was in the basement or somewhere away where the scullery staff and the cooks would work. In the modern era, kitchens became open and part of the living space.
This was perhaps a mistake. Kitchens produce a lot of things beside food: smells, moisture, fumes. In China, a lot of high end apartments have their kitchens enclosed in floor-to -ceiling glass; I asked why, and was told it was so that the smells of cooking didn’t go through the whole apartment. In western buildings, the hallways are pressurized so that the smells of cooking (and smoking) don’t get shared with the other apartments. This creates its own set of problems.
The steampunk kitchen will be a cross between the modern open kitchen (visible through glass) and the Victorian (totally separate) giving the best of both worlds.
8) It will have a farm on the roof.
Hey, this isn’t new for New York. The Ansonia on the Upper West Side had one.
“The farm on the roof,” [Developer and owner] Weddie Stokes wrote years later, “included about 500 chicken, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear.” Every day, a bellhop delivered free fresh eggs to all the tenants, and any surplus was sold cheaply to the public in the basement arcade.
A small bear. Now that’s Steampunk.
9) It will have urine separating composting toilets.
If you have a farm on the roof, you need fertilizer and phosphorus. If you want to have hot water heating, you need methane to run the boilers, and you can do that by anaerobic digestion of all the poop and food waste. And most Victorians were used to going to the bog anyway, if you are really steampunk you will get used to it. They are good now, a lot better than the Victorians had.
10) It won’t have 20th century alternating current but will have good old 1882 vintage New York Edison direct current.
Well, it will have direct current, but it will be at 21st century USB 3.1 DC which is good for 100 watts and can power absolutely everything we use today except perhaps our stove and fridge. Or it might have 24 volt DC as proposed by the EMerge Alliance and being used in office buildings. Why waste money on wiring for AC when almost every single thing we use in our lives now runs on low voltage DC? We'll get it from solar panels instead of from Pearl Street.
11) Everyone will dress in many layers of clothing like they did in Victorian times.
There is a good reason for it: clothing is the best insulator there is. Kris De Decker wrote about it:
The energy savings potential of clothing is so large that it cannot be ignored - though in fact this is exactly what is happening now. This does not mean that home insulation and efficient heating systems should not be encouraged. All three paths should be pursued, but improving clothing insulation is obviously the cheapest, easiest and fastest way.
There are a lot of advantages to this steampunk building that should attract a lot of interest. It shouldn’t be that much more expensive to build, given the cost of parking garages and elevators, and should cost a lot less to operate, given the reduced heating, maintenance, fuel and electricity costs. There is the added advantage of resilience; generating much of its own methane and electricity, and being so well insulated, it can survive in times of crisis much better than a so-called modern building.
Yes, it definitely is time for a REAL steampunk building.