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Architect who puts his art and soul into housing: Carmi Bee, principal, RKT&B Architects.

Carmi Bee, principal, RKT&B Architects

Architect, Carmi Bee, principal of RKT&B Architects, has been watching intently the jumpstart affordable housing development in the city this past year, hoping that the movement will be a throwback to the late 1960's when he was first starting out in the business.

"That was a time of strong social consciousness and activism, a time when the Urban Development Corporation was just starting up and a lot of affordable housing and middle income housing, like Mitchell Lama housing, was really starting to get off the ground," Bee said. "What's interesting now, is that these things have come full circle and I am talking to developers about building affordable housing and I am thinking to myself, 'We've been here before,'"

In the time Bee worked his way up the ladder at KYT&B, he has juggled many projects, from designing market rate condominiums to hospital lobbies, to the tents for the Big Apple Circus. But his passion for designing affordable housing has stuck with him since he graduated from Princeton University and moved to New York, through the dead years when nobody seemed to be building housing at all, to the present day.

Though he often has to scratch in strange corners to find ways to build cheaply, he has managed to find creative ways of keeping affordable housing projects in Harlem, and throughout the five boroughs, afloat.

"We do these very interesting projects that are challenging and not at all your traditional architectural projects, and have a great time doing it," Bee said.

One of the more creative projects he has worked on to develop affordable housing is developing cheap models that have been replicated in different boroughs to wedge small scale apartment buildings in the "missing teeth" of communities, those rare pockets of backfill that are still undeveloped. The models are able to be built for approximately $150 psf rather than the $200 psf market rate building costs, simply because they are walk-ups and save on elevator costs and utilize efficient ventilation techniques.

"Those models raise a consciousness about how you can actually develop these small gaps in the community, how you can fill in the missing teeth as a way of reweaving the community," Bee said.

Another way Bee has found to compensate for high land and construction costs is to develop market rate housing buildings with a percentage of affordable housing, such as the 300 unit condo project he is working on along the Gowanus Canal--a channel of water in South Brooklyn that has been cleaned of the toxicity for which it was renowned in the late 1980's.

Other housing projects he has worked on include: the Riverrose Residences in Battery Park City, The Turtle Bay Tower Residences on East 46th street, and the North Kamali Building on West 56th Street.

Though affordable housing design is not all necessarily profitable, Bee believes it is crucial for the survival of this city.

"I think the diversity of the city is very, very important to maintain the spirit of the city," he said. "What we are seeing right now is that there is not enough affordable housing available to working class people within a reasonable distance to their work place. We see it in with the sale of places like Stuytown, Starrett City, places that were once the bastions of middle income housing.

"We don't want the city to become one sided, we don't want the city to become a place only for the wealthy, which is what it has become, at least in Manhattan."

Bee has been truly able to ground his commitment to housing through his role as a professor of architectural design at the City College of New York--which started as a stint after graduate school and continued for 37 years.

One of his primary goals as a teacher of students who later went on to become some of the industry's movers and shakers, people such as Frank Sciame, CEO of F. J. Sciame Construction Co., Inc., was to make his students aware of the dry spell for architects of housing that existed for many years.

"There was this incredible gap for years where architects just didn't do housing. It is only in the past five years that it has become a staple of the profession. It is, in many ways, a lost art. Young architects don't know about that. It is the responsibility of those of us that have had that experience to convey it so that kind of architecture can be carried on. As architects, we make social statements with everything that we build," he said.

Bee found he was often able to maintain his integrity and make social statements simply be adhering to commitments he made when he first started working never to build for either the Department of Corrections or the Department of Defense. He regards most of the work he does choose--building firehouses, hospitals, schools and city projects--as positive.

"There are architects who don't necessarily have a strong feeling about the implications of what they do for their clients, it is more of a business. I try to maintain that the kind of work we do has some socially redeeming factor," he said.

As socially redeemable work isn't always the most lucrative, Bee has found creative ways to balance his passions with practical projects. For example, he has found a way to support his love for the arts and his habit for developing artists live/work space which, up until now, has been an unrequited dream, by balancing his losses with successful art projects, such as a 42,000 s/f performing arts center in South Orange, New Jersey.

And just as he will continue to honor his commitment to artists, he will continue to seek out creative ways to maintain his integrity in the future.

"I would like to do more widespread work, to spread our commissions geographically and I think I would like to do more multi-use projects--housing combined with retail, commercial space. I think that is where the future lies," he said.
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Comment:Architect who puts his art and soul into housing: Carmi Bee, principal, RKT&B Architects.(PROFILE IN CONSTRUCTION AND DESIGN)
Author:Wolffe, Danielle
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Feb 14, 2007
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