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Thermocultural Living

2022 | Academic

Professor John May, Harvard Graduate School of Design

In partner with KIan Hosseinnia

To address housing in Cambridge, the project focuses on two concerns: equitable and thermocultural living. With concern around isolation and cost burdens in modern housing we are looking to financial and relational adjacencies to create greater equity, both financial and social. To address concerns around the thermostatic interior and the modern alienation from environmental context, we are responding to thermodynamics of the site by storing and moving heat and air respectively, and also asking people to move based on seasonal conditions. Select images are to the right, with a comprehensive slideshow presentation below this descriptive text.

The site, 700 Huron Ave, sits between Fresh Pond (a large water reservoir in western Cambridge) and a cemetery on a hill. There are two extremes offered in the property boundary: the existing apartment tower and the parking garage, and their extremely different atmospheres of sky and ground. To look at these different experiences of tower and garage, viewsheds were mapped onto the site that depict the distance by which your experience of the building is understood and looked at those views as they are today.

Tied also directly to the thermal experience, the façade and view orientation drive our interventions and the occupant's relation to the site and its ecosystems. To connect to both Fresh Pond and the cemetery and also create natural ventilation, the original double loaded corridor of the tower was converted to floor-thru units. Exterior circulation was added on the northern part of the tower and the southern facade was pushed inwards to create sun rooms, maintaining the original boundary. In the garage, interior portions of the existing slabs were demolished to create bars of periphery housing dictated by access to light and natural ventilation on both sides. This creates a large courtyard and various pathways which connect to the ground of the cemetery. We have also removed the bottom three floors of the tower to connect Huron Ave and Fresh Pond recreation to the cemetery as well.

While the site offers unique housing in its atmosphere, it is also situated in a unique urban/sub-urban context. Straddling the city border between Belmont and Cambridge, the project is surrounded by numerous conditions: suburban to the west, industrial and commercial on the northern part of Fresh Pond, and more dense residential towards the rest of Cambridge, situating itself in dialogue with issues of density and growth.

Specific financial models address this type of growth in changing neighborhoods and we chose to focus on different types of tenure to understand financial dependencies in housing, specifically looking to Marc Norman's coop community incorporation, which combines payments and types of tenure to subsidize the cost of ownership. In the US, the best way to build wealth is to buy a house, but the problem is you cannot access that wealth until you sell, which drives up displacement and ties up your cash flow. This model relies on economic dependencies between those renting to own and short-term rentals. We are choosing to leverage those adjacencies architecturally, being interested in sharing and maintaining large units with lots of people, and pairing those with micro-units that otherwise are not affordable. Looking at the garage and the tower units, the project pairs larger 3-unit bedrooms with single occupant units such as an elderly person or a student so that those renting-to rent can subsidize those looking to rent-to-own. The units are designed so that there is a connection between the family and single units to provide varying degrees of gathering and interaction.


Jumping back to the site, there are three thermal strategies to debunk the thermostatic interior: buffer zones, cross ventilation, and thermal mass. The building is oriented at 52 degrees,

providing sun exposure to the southwestern facade, which is where we have implemented the sun rooms which are separated by curtains between units. The primary wind is from the west, SW west during the summer, and both the tower and the garage can open up on opposite sides for maximum ventilation. Massive cross laminated timber elements that act as thermal mass and spatial organizers.

The laminations respond to various openings, niches for fixtures and appliances, active radiant heating and cooling, and utilities as needed, and also have appendage platforms that serve as flexible beds and lounges based on seasons. While the CLT is used as thermal mass, its laminar qualities also make it ideal for fabrication and construction as we imagine them as elements that can be craned up and slid through existing slabs of both the garage and tower.


The facade demo'd on the southern part of the tower, which consists of concrete masonry units and brick veneer, is reused as the facade for the garage


Within the thermal mass, each unit has two living areas situated at opposite sides of the unit, asking occupants to move loose furniture and mobile appliances based on season. In the summer, occupants are in the northern part of the unit which would be kept cooler, away from southern heat exposure, and the stove is left out in the sun deck for heat to be dispersed.

In the winter, occupants congregate in the sealed sunroom and the stove is tucked into the mass as an active heat generator. The interventions aim to reduce the energy needed on the site, but also to reconnect people and their living to the site and to seasons with the belief that as a society we have become disconnected from the ground and air. Going back to our initial desire to connect occupants to the site and the cemetery, each floor has a distinct interaction with the ground, from the bottom meadow, to the level of Huron ave, and above.

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