Press New York Times : For an Architect and His Family,a Home and a Laboratory / by Paul Castrucci

THE stacks of the Con Edison plant at 14th Street and Avenue C are just barely visible through the hedgerow of grasses and herbs that top the parapets of 179 Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. It's a view framed by serendipity, and it delights 179 Rivington's architect, Paul Castrucci, who built this tricolored, sawtooth-roofed, five-story building sheathed in zinc, brick and concrete as a laboratory of sustainable architecture and green-building practices.

It's a home laboratory, too: Mr. Castrucci, his wife, Marisa DeDominicis, and their three children live in the top two floors in a four-bedroom apartment that seems to float among the cornices of the Rivington Street tenements. The solar panels along the south-facing "teeth" of the roof draw enough power to make this family's Con Ed bill a wash each month; the garden in progress around the top floor absorbs storm water and forms a soft, green canopy that cools the roof a notch or two each summer; and the skylights and cantilevering aluminum windows draw air through and out of the space, like a natural (and free) air-conditioner.

"It's a bit of a way of life," said Mr. Castrucci, who made public-art pieces forged from iron before he made buildings. This bit of a way of life is an aesthetic, domestic and political mission that cloaks this family in community activism -- Ms. DeDominicis is a program coordinator at the Trust for Public Land -- and self-sufficiency.

"We're just your typical Lower East Side activist family," Ms. DeDominicis said half-jokingly the other day, tipping her new puppy, a winsome beagle-Jack Russell blend named Ginger, from her arms on to the concrete of Mr. Castrucci's ground-floor office. She went on to describe two decades of the grindingly hard work that has led her family to this corner lot, which was one of the last vacant lots in the area.

In the 1980's, Mr. Castrucci, now 46, was living in a storefront on Fourth Street between Avenues A and B. Madonna was said to have lived upstairs, though no one could remember seeing her. He made a gallery in the space with his brother Andrew, who is also an artist, called the A+P Gallery; their rent was $350 a month. He practiced architecture and made art -- muscular iron pieces he forged in the riot of vacant lots that peppered the East Village.

"That was in the 80's, when everyone had a gallery," said Ms. DeDominicis, 42. "There were three on every block."

She had been living on 13th Street, in a 1910 tenement renovated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and then, as so many buildings were in the 1970's, abandoned by its landlord.

Drawn to the unpainted canvas of the area, Ms. DeDominicis was one of a group of squatters and community gardeners who brought the building -- and the neighborhood -- back into the 20th century. (It is now a limited-equity co-op supported by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.)

Ms. DeDominicis threw herself into community life, running a grass-roots recycling program, working as an advocate for the elderly and then the homeless, learning carpentry skills at New York City Technical College and volunteering in community gardens -- "creating order," she said, "out of the chaos of our neighborhood."

She had a carpentry company, Women's Work, and returned to New York City Technical College to teach basic carpentry skills to women. She and Mr. Castrucci met one day as she was gardening in a vacant lot and he was blacksmithing next door. He moved into the 13th Street apartment with Ms. DeDominicis and her daughter Kali, now 15. Their son, Lucca, arrived 11 years ago; their daughter Selene is 9. (That garden has been bulldozed, and his old storefront is now a wine bar.)

Ms. DeDominicis was happy on 13th Street, proud of the work she and her neighbors had poured into the building and the street. But Mr. Castrucci wanted to build. Ten years ago, he bought a 25-by-100-foot lot on Fifth Street, between Avenues C and D, for $20,000 and the back taxes, an additional $60,000.

Within a year, it was revealed that the city had condemned the lot and planned its development as a public park, a rara avis for the area. The situation's denouement, in which the city paid Mr. Castrucci and Ms. DeDominicis $570,000, involved a nine-year legal battle and took care of their lawyer's fees and the purchase price of their 40-by-40-foot Rivington Street lot, which they bought at public auction for $380,000 in 2000.

It was one of the last lots auctioned in the area, before a suit by the Green Guerrillas, community garden activists, and the state attorney general's office stopped the process by which the city was selling off its vacant lots -- many of which had become public gardens -- in the last days of the Giuliani administration.

This lot, happily, was just a lot -- the former site of a pharmacy, with a pawn shop next door -- and with a special feature: it is at the corner of Rivington and Attorney Streets, and its neighbors across Attorney Street to the east and north are a public park and two low-rise public schools, offering a feast of light, air and views.

Mr. Castrucci had spent three years investigating properties at city auctions, captivated by the political theater of various groups, like the one that brought thousands of grasshoppers to an auction, shutting down the proceedings for an hour.

The Rivington Street lot, like so many owned by the city, seemed seriously underpriced in its auction estimate, Mr. Castrucci said, and when the bidding was done, it sold for three or four times the value the city had placed on it. Stunned by the bidding and worn out from nine years of wrangling to recoup his costs from the lot on Fifth Street, Mr. Castrucci was seriously shaken by the end of what turned out to be his final auction. "I could hardly sign my name," he said.

Mr. Castrucci's plan was to build a one-story structure, and maybe build another story each year, as funds allowed. Ms. DeDominicis urged him to be bold. A construction loan of about $1 million was a year in the making. Construction and the attendant research and experimentation -- trying to find the right green insulation (it's cellulose, and you blow it in wet), high-efficiency boilers and more -- took a year and a half.

The street floor holds Mr. Castrucci's architectural practice, an office so soaked in light his associates have taped their plans over the Attorney Street windows. "We're working on that," Mr. Castrucci said.

This building is a calling card for his modern architecture -- a clean, utilitarian form with a clear vision -- which he deploys in a number of community-based projects (limited equity co-ops, a community center nearby) as well as private and commercial work. The middle two floors have four apartments, the rent from which helps pay the mortgage.

In the hot sun one recent morning, 179 Rivington was an extraordinary sight: modern, graceful, perked with color. "I'm really in awe of my husband," Ms. DeDominicis said. "I would not be living here. I would not have had the same focus. So together we have arrived at this point."

Later that morning, two housedress-bedecked women, doubled over with age but grinning wildly -- and each half leaning on, half pushing her foldable shopping cart -- zigzagged past the corner.

"Hey," one of the women yelled. "That's a very beautiful building. Are there any cheap apartments?"

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