The Dwell Harlem House

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Where others saw a blighted structure, Alysia Reiner and her husband David Alan Basche saw a blank canvas. With help and coverage from Dwell magazine, the couple converted the neglected building into a beautiful city home in the heart of Harlem. This would be a typical tale of a neighborhood in transformation if Alysia's commitment to sustainability hadn't informed every step of the process. I caught up with Alysia and asked her about the design considerations that make her house unlike any other on the block.

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Joey Roth: How did Dwell get involved in greening your home?

Alysia Reiner: Well, we had seen an issue of Dwell with a Harlem brownstone on the cover, and were inspired! We were planning to build green, and saw that Dwell has such a great focus on both design and sustainability - and realistic budgeting too. I got us invited to a Dwell event, and while there, we talked for a long time about how much we loved Dwell to a woman who was enthralled with our story. Then she said, "Do you know who I am? I'm the president of Dwell magazine!" We fell in like with each other, and it all progressed from there!

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JR: I'm also interested in the parts that you and your husband did by hand- you mentioned "sweat equity" quite a bit when you spoke.

AR: The radiant heating was going to cost us more than we could afford, so we asked the contractor if we could do some of the labor ourselves. David ended up stapling over 2,000 aluminum sheets to the ceilings around the radiant tubing! David also dug out the whole basement himself, a trench 3 feet deep by 30 feet long - again budget.

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JR: You make the DIY aspect sound like a chore, but I found evidence of how creative it can get. Tell me about the unique handrail I encountered when walking to the second floor.

AR: We were struggling with some dark staircases, wondering how to get light there, and we also needed to have a handrail to meet NYC code requirements, and then there is that budget issue again. And to make a thing of beauty, I thought: "Why not combine the two?" Voila - my first design innovation! Nick at Greenstreet did a gorgeous job of making it a reality.

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JR: How did you gut the existing structure to make room for your plans in a sustainable and cost-effective way?

AR: We did all of our de-construction ourselves - people wanted us to pay 5000 a floor! We took out the sledge hammers & recycled as much as we could. We took the coping stones from the roof that needed to be replaced - hello leaks galore -- c. 1909 - and they are now the paving stones in the zen backyard garden. Did we mention this place was a crack house ( we have the vials & needle stick injury to prove it) and abandoned with huge leaks from the roof. We broke up all the cinder blocks from the previous cellar walls to use as gravel under new patios. We kept the industrial stairs it came with but painted with chalkboard paint so we can write poetry on them, and future wee ones can have a place to draw on the stairs instead of walls - care free.

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