Take a Step Inside Manhattan’s Sustainable Gem(ma)

The team behind New York's Gemma Gramercy discusses the community's sustainable features.

Gemma Gramercy is a luxury residential building in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood, an area known for its peaceful tree-lined streets, lush parks and historic architecture. The recently completed 20-story property at 200 E. 23rd St. features a 108-unit collection of sustainably designed studio to two-bedroom rental residences.

The coolest thing about it? Its Passive House standard, which comes with significant long-term benefits and lifestyle improvements, including an 85 percent energy consumption reduction compared to similar structures. But it doesn’t just deliver a high standard of green living, it also translates into superior thermal comfort and indoor air quality. Which all came as must-haves as Gemma is a “pandemic project,” meaning that construction started in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Another unique aspect about this luxury property is that, in January, Fannie Mae provided a $70.6 million loan to its developer and owner, SMA Equities, making it the first property with a Passive House certification financed by Fannie Mae.  

Keeping up with the neighborhood

Gramercy in itself has a demanding allure, enhanced further by the neighboring Kips Bay and Flatiron. So, building here comes with high expectations. And that’s a feeling shared by everyone involved in the project—compelled to create a sustainable, high-performance building.

“When we did our research, we found there is no higher standard than Passive House,” said Samy Mahfar, managing principal & co-founder of SMA Equities. The goal was to build an environmentally sustainable building that would be “ahead of the curve and last the test of time,” he told Multi-Housing News.

READ ALSO: Trends in Multifamily Interior Design

Timelessness also directed the architectural vision, according to Stephen Hill, founding partner at Hill West Architects. That, and its positioning at the intersection of Third Avenue with 23rd Street, one of the most exposed corners of the neighborhood. So the architects designed a dynamic façade when viewed from every angle, one that not only creates an eye-catching structure but also maximizes the residences’ views.

“The façade is composed of ultra-high performance concrete panels with complementing brass-colored elements reminiscent of the iconic mid-century buildings of Kips Bay,” shared Hill.

  • Gemma Gramercy
  • Gemma Gramercy
  • Gemma Gramercy
  • Gemma Gramercy
  • Gemma Gramercy
  • Gemma Gramercy

Most units feature unobstructed, north-facing windows that were planned to frame the legendary Empire State Building perfectly. In addition, although Gemma Gramercy replaced a couple of dilapidated buildings, it doesn’t just “beautify” that corner, but it also provides 28 affordable units, which are highly needed in the city. In fact, the building is one of the last to receive tax abatements under the recently cancelled 421a program.

Sustainability and energy efficiency at Gemma Gramercy

Because airtight construction is pivotal in Passive House construction and maintaining energy efficiency, the building’s envelope is made of insulated cinderblocks designed to minimize heat loss, Mahfar explained. Additionally, the Hill West team included high-performance glazing to optimize window insulation and thermal bridging, thus minimizing heat gain and thermal energy loss, and maximizing comfort, durability and air quality for residents. Bucking the Passive House customary small window aperture trend, the architects committed to maximizing the natural light and the city views without sacrificing energy reduction, Hill added.

Other sustainable features include energy recovery in the HVAC system, aero block technology and thermal bridging. These features translate into year-round, fresh indoor air quality at optimum temperatures, substantially reducing energy use and operating costs.

But there’s more to it. The continuous line of insulation facilitates a quiet interior in a vibrant, bustling neighborhood, generating substantial sound attenuation within the units from the city streets below, Hill said.

Furthermore, the project includes a landscaped rooftop terrace equipped with an outdoor TV, fireplace, two barbecues, a misting shower, a secluded outdoor shower and panoramic views of New York City from all directions. To create seamless indoor/outdoor living, the rooftop also features an indoor lounge and kitchenette designed for entertaining, and a recreation room.

Interior looks

The interior design concept for Gemma Gramercy was also heavily influenced by the neighborhood’s historic design elements legacy, but with a modern reinterpretation, according to Orlando Rodriguez, design director at Whitehall Interiors.

“For instance, the lobby pays homage to the neighborhood’s love of pattern and texture,” he explained. “We furnished a feature wall with tiles of varying thicknesses arranged in an ashlar-esque pattern. The warm hues are reminiscent of the surrounding architecture, creating a natural connection with Gemma Gramercy’s entrance and the neighborhood.”

  • Gemma Gramercy Interior
  • Gemma Gramercy interior
  • Gemma Gramercy interior

A bit of a challenge was designing the building’s smaller lobby. Space constraints dictated the selection of furniture and fixtures, focusing on those that provide substantial design value in small packages. So, instead of a traditional mailroom, Whitehall opted for exposed mailboxes adorned with custom tile walls and linear light sconces. The easily adjustable low-profile light scone enabled creating a light wash over the mailboxes and a sophisticated focal point.

“With other space constraints in mind, particularly in the amenities area, we focused on optimizing every square foot,” said Rodriguez. “Our priority was to ensure maximum functionality without compromising on our vision for sleek and streamlined design.”

Overall, the interiors feature warm wood tones, which help keep the focus on the building’s expansive windows, the bountiful natural light and stunning city views. As such, units have wide-plank white oak flooring, which evokes natural comfort and hygge, and the quartz countertops and full-height backsplashes in the kitchens provide a sleek, durable finish. In line with Gemma’s Passive House standard, all appliances in the residential units are electric, further minimizing carbon emissions.

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