River Architects: Historic Renovation with Modern Interjection

James Hartford and Juhee Lee-Hartford

Hartford and Juhee Lee-Hartford conduct workshops at Butterfield

By Alison Rooney

James Hartford and Juhee Lee-Hartford have a whole lot of letters after their names: RA, LEED AP BD+C, AIA (him) and |NCARB|LEED AP, AIA (her).  Not just vague education-related credentials, these letters actually speak to their shared avocation, inclination and training. Lee-Hartford, a Pratt-trained architect and Hartford, an English and fine arts undergraduate student who turned to architecture in graduate school, are the principals of River Architects, a Cold Spring firm which specializes in fusing historic restoration with a modern sensibility;  an underlying emphasis on energy efficiency running through it all.  (And, for the record, those letters stand for Registered Architect; Leadership In Energy and Environmental Designed Accredited Professional in Building Design and Construction; National Council of Architectural Registration Boards; and American Institute of Architects.)

The pair has built up a practice, largely from word-of-mouth recommendations, encompassing large-scale projects like the proposed full renovation of interior and façade of Newburgh’s Folk Music Hall of Fame to smaller scale detail work of aspects of historic homes in Philipstown, to the from-scratch design of a LEED-pursuant*, passive solar home, completed last year and located on Old Oaks Road off of East Mountain Road. They have just begun a monthly series of workshops on related topics at Butterfield Library, the first of which, How to Make Your Home More Energy Efficient, a subject of interest to many, took place on March 21.

* Both Hartford and Lee-Hartford are LEED-accredited (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). LEED, a term which seems to crop up more and more, is a building certification program run under the auspices of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) a 501c3 nonprofit organization “committed to a prosperous and sustainable future through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.” According to the USGBC, LEED “provides building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions … LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building, home or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at achieving high performance in key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. LEED has special rating systems that apply to all kinds of structures, including schools, retail and healthcare facilities. Rating systems are available for new construction and major renovations as well as existing buildings. Hartford calls the implementation of LEED “a great change.  People make fun of their checklists, and some critics say the point system is no good, but it’s a matter of what your intentions are in maintaining integrity.  LEED has done a lot to change the public.  Home Depot is now a leading supplier of LEED-sourced products.”

Lee-Hartford knew from early childhood that she had a passion for architecture. “When I was little I drew floor plans in a field of wet sand — that’s how we played house,” she says. At Pratt, where she was the recipient of a National Talent Search Scholarship, she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture with Highest Honor and received an Excellence in Design award.  Apprenticing at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates in Manhattan she worked on such notable projects as the Bridgemarket development, under the 59th Street Bridge overpass, where a complex of shops and a restaurant were created by revitalizing an industrial or abandoned space.  She also participated in the restoration work done at Radio City Music Hall and the renewal of Pennsylvania Station, harbingers of the work which followed, both in New York City and, in recent years, locally and regionally, in the Hudson Valley.

Lee-Hartford received a Fulbright Fellowship in 2000, taking her to South Korea to study Korean architecture, some of the traditions of which she “implements in an abstract way,” she says, “the lessons learned about siting houses and maximizing natural energy are coming through in our architecture and through using natural materials as we try to design ‘smaller’ and become more energy-efficient.” Lee-Hartford’s website bio states that she is an “advocate of progressive, contemporary architecture with great respect for the past. She particularly enjoys bringing out the individuality of each project influenced by the unique personalities of her clients and the parameters of the projects.” In 2002, Lee-Hartford established River Architects, then located in New York City.  The name, connoting “a constantly changing, adapting, and also a reassuring presence.”

James Hartford came to the architectural field a little later than his wife, prompted, in part, by that old “needing to find a profession” reality. After receiving his Masters in Architecture from SUNY Buffalo,  Hartford worked under James Gainfort, AIA, Consulting Architects, as a project manager and architect solving difficult design and performance problems associated with building envelopes and waterproofing systems. He was the project manager for the restoration of the triforium roofs of the landmarked Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. At Thomas Fenniman Architects, Hartford was responsible for all phases of major landmark restoration projects, most notably Carnegie Hall and the Langham Building. He also conducted the initial surveys and base drawings for what became a 10-year-long restoration of the Church of Saint Francis Xavier. During his years at Rogers Marvel Architects, Hartford worked on high-end residences, boutiques, renovations, museums and galleries in New York City and the renovation of the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute.

Joining forces with Lee-Hartford in River Architects in 2005, Hartford’s specific expertise lies in building envelope knowledge and construction experience while Lee-Hartford’s strengths are design direction and project management.  Living in an apartment in Battery Park City until 2005, the Hartford’s call their move to Cold Spring “well-timed” as though their client base changed (they had been working solely on New York City-based projects at that time — their work still takes them to the city frequently, as well as to farther-flung parts of the Hudson Valley, including the Catskills), their background in working on historic structures and districts served them well here, as the economic real-estate development boom was still occurring at that time, and “clients found us online or through word-of-mouth, and identified us as recent transplants able to combine restoration work with a modern sensibility,” says Lee-Hartford.  A major renovation of a house in Newburgh started what has been “an easy transition” for their business.

Now a mix of residential and commercial renovation, additions and full-scale work provides them with plenty of projects to keep their Marion Avenue office humming.  Last year they expanded and added recent Philadelphia University graduate Joe Jaludi to their practice, and they anticipate expanding further.  Locally their higher profile projects have included the Cold Spring Dockside lighting, the slate roof restoration of Garrison’s Bridal Cottage, New York State Council on the Arts-funded restoration work at Manitoga, lighting design at the new Winter Hill Complex off Snake Hill Road, restoration work at St. Basil’s Academy.  In addition, Hartford now serves as a volunteer on the board of directors for the Hudson Highlands Land Trust and Little Stony Point.

Setting up for the talk at Butterfield Library

Asked, in relation to the topic of their first presentation, what some of the common misperceptions are about energy retrofits, Hartford replied, “Getting houses as tight as can be.  It scares people, but the goal is not to make them so tight that no fresh air can enter, but to control it.  There are energy recovery ventilators which exchange heat going out and also work for air-conditioning.  They produce optimized fresh air, filtered for pollens.”

In speaking of “renovation on a tight budget,” their next library talk topic, they speak from personal experience, having done extensive renovation and restoration work on their own Furnace Street home, including replacing a rotting porch, re-installing wood siding and reintroducing the original-style double-hung windows to their property. One key way of keeping costs down, in a place like Philipstown, is “sharing: pool local sources and resources, work on an exchange basis with friends, share child care so you can all get things done.”  They are also advocates of using found materials, Hartford mentioning that recently he was able to use discarded red cedar fence posts, 50 or 60 old, and repurpose them, totally transforming them by using them on a porch.

The outreach to the public, through the workshops at Butterfield, is a “way of giving back to the community,” according to Lee-Hartford.  The topics for the upcoming sessions, all of which are free and begin at 6:45 p.m. are: Renovation on a Tight Budget (April 18) and Renovating a Historic House (May 16).  On June 20 they will present a special program designed for both young children (the couple has two of their own) and teenagers on What Does It Mean To Be an Architect?  To register, visit the Butterfield Library website and click on the calendar.

Photos by A.Rooney

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