This six-unit condo building in Quincy, Mass., replaces a moribund industrial facility that its neighbors were only too happy to see demolished. “It was a real dump—a haven for trouble,” says Elizabeth Whittaker, Assoc. AIA, principal of Merge Architects. But the ghost of the old building lives on, albeit imperceptibly, in the form of its contem­porary replacement, Penn Street Lofts. “We had to build within the footprint and couldn’t build higher than the old peak,” Whittaker says. As a result, “We had a box.” The main question facing her design team was, “How do we pack the box, both conceptually and literally?”

Usually in multifamily housing, she continues, “there’s this repetitive façade of anonymous windows.” Here, each unit includes an area of double-height living space and expresses itself on the façade via its own idiosyncratic pattern of openings. Four units open onto balconies hollowed from the building’s bricklike mass, and each of the six presents a wide enough swath of glass to make viewing a two-way transaction. “It’s very cinematic from the streetscape,” Whittaker notes.

Reflecting the project’s $100-per-square-foot budget, the finishes are modest: IKEA kitchens, Andersen Corp. windows, bamboo floors. But, Whittaker says, “We tried to get in as much detail as possible.” The interiors represent a triumph of form over frugality, with carefully controlled geometry and generous volumes. Stainless steel railings and lime green returns give the balconies a distinctive presence; bands of flat red cedar siding add texture to the clapboard façade; and garage doors emblazoned with oversized unit numbers endow the building with an almost-audible voice.

As for how her firm produced such an appealing product for so little money, Whittaker explains, “We started off knowing it had to be cheap, so we designed it for that.

project: Penn Street Lofts, Quincy, Mass.
architect: Merge Architects, Boston
developer/general contractor: Touchstone Properties, Braintree, Mass.
project size: 1,100 square feet to 1,600 square feet per unit
site size: 0.14 acre
construction cost: $100 per square foot
sales price: $250,000 per unit
units in project: 6
photography: John Horner