Modern Meets Holistic: Designing Healthy Homes


Integrating green spaces into a community is not just an aesthetics decision. Architects are more and more devoted to designing healthy buildings, that not only please the eye, but also offer a sense of well-being. Brooklyn's 550 Vanderbilt and 535 Carlton include biophilic elements that bring nature at residents' doorstep.

For today’s residents, it’s not only about how a place looks but also about how it feels. Baby Boomers—a growing part of the renter pool due to downsizing while moving from the suburbs—want green spaces and gardens alongside the amenities one would usually find in a bustling downtown area.


“It has been well documented that the experience of being in and able to observe nature reduces cortisol levels and provides a sense of well-being,” observed Darin Reynolds, partner at COOKFOX Architects. Serving as partner-in-charge for two residential projects in Brooklyn—550 Vanderbilt and 535 Carlton—Reynolds oversaw the inclusion of biophilic elements and even a garden featuring organic produce.

In the heart of Brooklyn

COOKFOX Architects is behind the 17-story 550 Vanderbilt and the 18-story 535 Carlton, two of the newest residential buildings in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood. “While they are currently the largest buildings on the block, they were not designed to stand out but create a series of steps up to mediate between the high-rise community of Pacific Park and low-scale of the historic Prospect Heights neighborhood,” Reynolds said.

Interior design at 535 Carlton

The 278-unit 550 Vanderbilt is a market-rate community designed to reflect both the eclectic streetscape of Vanderbilt and the materiality of the area’s historic landmarks, according to the architects who worked on the project. The structure displays custom-fired brick and windows evoking the detailing and proportion of neighboring brownstones, while custom planter boxes and biomimetic-patterned screens bring nature closer to residents. The building, while massive, is discrete. The street wall rises 60 feet but continues with gradual terraces and setbacks meant to fit in the existing geometry of Prospect Heights.

Developer Greenland Forest City Partners worked with natural materials such as wood and stone to provide a tactile experience accompanying residents from the street to their homes. This transition is marked on each floor as overall planning offers views of the neighboring Pacific Park through day-lit elevator vestibules.

The community incorporates studios and one- to four-bedroom apartments, four private terraces and a common roof on the eighth floor. An herb and vegetable garden, the highlight of it all, is tended by the staff at Olmsted, a local restaurant known for using fresh daily produce. “In an immediate way, seeing the wind move leaves or grasses connects people to the weather and, in for the long term, it deeply connects residents to the seasons and rhythms of the year,” Reynolds explained.

Affordable green living

Natural light and green spaces are also important design elements of 535 Carlton, a 298-unit, fully affordable Brooklyn community providing studios and one- to three-bedroom floorplans. As with 550 Vanderbilt, 535 Carlton celebrates the craft and workmanship of masonry through its facade details while also respecting the human scale, proportion and texture of the neighborhood. The 60-foot-high street wall continues with terraces and setbacks that include urban agriculture spaces and residential gardens. One of these is located on the ninth floor, where a public lounge opens onto a 7,000-square-foot garden featuring herbs and flowers. Along with day-lit elevator vestibules, the property also features large corridor windows.

Rendering of the garden at 550 Vanderbilt

Natural elements within these communities were planned to the last detail, with no plant left to chance. Both properties include protected outdoor spaces with indigenous plantings on the ground floor/lobby levels. The gardens include water features, so residents can enjoy the soft sound of running water. At 535 Carlton, the landscape includes a small hill. “The change in topography creates a robust walking experience,” Reynolds said.

Architects underline the fact that biophilic design is not an aesthetic choice but a commitment to building healthier homes that tend to the residents’ wellbeing. However, the integration of natural materials and organic patterns is one important approach to biophilic design, especially in spaces that cannot offer direct access to gardens or the outdoors.

“COOKFOX is passionate about integrating garden spaces into buildings because it makes the local ecology stronger and makes people healthier. With good design, we are starting to reknit the urban ecosystem that supports our well-being. Taking it further, it would be wonderful to be able to support green walls within individual apartments, to encourage a healthy lifestyle and to always support urban farming,” said Simon Willet, project architect for the two properties.

Biophilic elements and sustainable features are less common in affordable communities, but the trend is fueled by residents who want to live in healthier homes. “In our work, integration of greenspace into residential projects is essential. Access to nature not only makes us feel better but supports real and measurable positive health outcomes. We believe the market is now starting to demand spaces that support health, and biophilic design is an important tool to achieve that goal,” Willet added.

Both 550 Vanderbilt and 535 Carlton were designed to achieve LEED Silver certification and are part of Pacific Park Brooklyn, a large mixed-use project developed by Greenland Forest City Partners and slated to include 17 buildings.

Images courtesy of COOKFOX Architects/VUW Studio

You’ll find more on this topic in the CPE-MHN Mid-Year Update 2018.

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