In the Silver Jubilee year of New York-based TRA Studio Architecture PLCC, established by Dr. Caterina Roiatti and Robert Traboscia in 1998, I meet Robert Traboscia, the Co-Founder, Managing and Creative Director to explore his amazing journey as an environmental designer. Having graduated with a degree in Environmental Design from the Parsons School of Design, he taught the multidisciplinary program whose approach still informs his work and the studio’s philosophy. Robert started his career with Rambush on the renovation and design of religious buildings. Later, he went onto work with Descon and Griswold Heckel Kelly Associates.
Cobble Hill – Front Façade
Robert Traboscia worked as a Project Designer and Construction Manager with Vignelli Design for 7 long years. He joined Intell Design as a Partner. The association lasted for 4 years. He then joined Highland Associates as an Associate and worked for 5 long years. He reveals, “My interest for the active side of architecture, determining how things go together and my knowledge of craft, non-traditional and multifaceted education allows my work at the studio and my work as an artist to find different solutions to perfection.” Robert Traboscia’s lifetime passion for the arts supports the studio’s work by uncovering unexpected, but effective, design points of view.
Rear Yard Façade
Robert has always been a contributor to the Downtown Community. He coordinated the effort to prepare the Soho Master Plan effort led by Columbia University, served on the Soho Community Board 2 and currently works with several SoHo Local Groups. Robert’s humility is one of his greatest strength in the field of architecture and life. He is always ready to accommodate others’ perspectives to achieve better results of the end product. This one trait really impressed me a great deal during our amazing interaction.
Robert Traboscia and Johnny D have a long and interesting tête-à-tête:
Garden-level View of Garden through Conservatory
What was your childhood ambition? Did you always wanted to be an architect?
I spent many hours in my father’s workshop assembling materials leftover from my father’s handyman work around the house and for family. My father’s workbench in the basement of our family brownstone in Brooklyn provided endless inspirations. I was in-charge there from start-to-finish. I learned that a good outcome was not easy to accomplish. I assisted my father on his endless handyman projects that were, in many cases, renovations of interior spaces. I was a young apprentice. It was gratifying! Till date, my process is the same as my father taught me then.
Regal Living Room
I am still amazed with all the hard work I did under my father’s arm as a young boy. The experience was rich and became the footing for my work in design and construction. When the period of reconstruction ended in my father’s life, I joined the Parsons School of Design and studied Environmental Design. I was taught to approach design as a Generalist. The program echoed my father’s process and gave me an edge in class. The feeling of being on the right track was gratifying.
I graduated from the Parsons School of Design with a Certificate in Environmental Design, an interdisciplinary program for learning interior design and architecture by being a Generalist in the different disciplines of design. It was early 1970 and it seemed what was the norm for the design and architectural profession was being challenged by the program and the emphasis of the program was ‘Design with a capital D’. My early apprenticeship and education led me to identify the problems posed by a project being interdisciplinary trained, it activated my participation and interest.
Library-Fireplace looking at Windows
As an Environmental Designer, what are your perspectives about today’s architecture? Briefly elucidate.
In context of the program taught at Parsons School of design, the word environmental describes all types of built projects. However, the word always seemed to me to be misleading. Although, it might have been the idea that the environment was universal and to understand design, one had to be universal and consider many factors. The word ‘Environment’ encompasses our whole world.
The biggest challenge design and architecture faces today is that it needs to take into account an infinite number of different factors, it entails clarifying and synthesizing, but the increasing amount of information that is out there today makes it more complex and overwhelming. It requires teams of professional to accomplish what might be considered a well-defined project. Given the amount of building going on, receiving a commission to undertake a well-defined project puts a great burden on small firms, who are competing more and more with large firms.
Plan – Garden Level
What really goes in your mind, when the client states the first brief?
Our studio is celebrating its Silver Jubilee. We have gained many insights into working with clients, but it is always the case that clients have requirements and a naïve vision. The client expects their vision to be defined by the studio, usually a new. For any studio, I believe that is where the challenge begins to balance the clients’ understanding of the program and vision. Vision, budget and timeline realities are never what the client understands, so all projects are a challenge that only experience prepares you for, but does it really, when every project awakens the unknown!
Dining Cellar- level
What was the brief of ‘Cobble Hill’ project?
From the beginning, the client wanted to identify the historic elements to be preserved, restored and rebuilt in kind, which included the preservation and restoration of the brownstone and brick façades designed by a Dutch Developer circa 1890 and included, the preservation of the existing wood entrance and cornice, the in-kind reconstruction of the slate mansard roof and wood dormers and windows. The interior preservation project included the restoration of the entire Parlour floor wood and plaster detailing and the four story original wood winding staircase. Throughout the brownstone the interiors were appointed with four marble fireplaces which were fully restored and upgraded.
The interior program respected the original layout of the brownstone. New interior appointments were custom designed for the library, kitchen, bathrooms, dressing room, wine cellar and conservatory. The two level rear yard terrace and garden was separated by a water fall. It was clear from the start that the best way to proceed with the project was to do it as a design-build project. TRA Studio’s design-build experience was essential for this multilayered project. Given the working relationship between the client and TRA Studio and by embracing the design-build methodology, the client was convinced to start the project.
What are the major challenges to execute a renovation project as compared to new-build project on the real grounds?
Renovation projects require more coordination than is estimated by the contractors. Usually, the lack of coordination becomes the architect’s responsibility wheatear or not, the architect should be doing it. When the studio did it, it was to clarify for the client the unnecessary charges resulting from changes due to the lack of coordination around field conditions, poor sequencing of the work, weak interpretation of the contract documents and human error. It is always in hindsight that we addressed these issues. So, we offered a service called “Accelerated” construction administration, which requires proactive interpretation and recommendations during construction that should advance the process with the least impact to budget and schedule.
As time passed, the studio became known for this approach and was contracted by clients at the onset of a project to provide this service to insure the success of the construction. The studio is now engaged in a design-build project in TriBeCa, which is a gut renovation of manufacturing building. The building will house the foundations offices on three floors, which we designed and offer two floors of available office space. The architectural drawings and coordination drawings are all done in Revit.
Master Suite-Dressing Room
How did your team overcome them creatively?
The studio spent more time with the contractors identifying the weak links and making recommendations to sure up the process, including when applicable any design and value engineering recommendations. After providing the recommendations, the studio worked with the contractors implementing the work, while making sure we were looking ahead.
How would you describe the ‘Significance and Elegance’ of ‘Cobble Hill’ project?
The design fully embraces the narrative of Brownstone living, where the spaces are stacked to serve the different needs of the household and accessed by the original historic open wood stair that runs from the lowest level mechanical, laundry, dogs care area and wine cellar. Moving upward through the open stair you enter the Garden Level: Kitchen, Dining Room, Conservatory and Yard with outdoor fountain. The Parlor above accessed from the stoop, the main entrance opens to a vestibule and circulation space that opens to the Living Room, Library and Powder Room.
Suite-view from Master Bathroom
The open historic stair in full view as you circulate through the Parlor Floor original wood and plaster details with new appointments designed to coexist with the history of the building. Above are the houses semi-public and private rooms which include the Media Room, Guest Room and bathroom followed above by the Master Bedroom including the Private Bathroom and Dressing Room. At the top of the house the painting Studio faces north with its own wet room. At the opposite end of the floor is another guest room and bathroom.
The rooms are the backdrop for the curated eclectic collection of paintings and sculpture, landscapes and figurative art and sculpture, antiques and contemporary, often telling a story. Everything that was done to lift the house from the past was not negotiable and key to its successful completion.
Please mention 5 major ‘Sustainability’ features you incorporated in the project.
The studio’s goal on all projects is to create healthy environments by specifying renewable and recyclable materials; improving indoor air quality and installing state-of-the-art VRF climate control. The building envelope, brick façade was restored and the interior decorative elements restored or replicated. Airtight energy-efficient operable wood windows were installed in insulated spaces with wood floors. The conservatory glass assembly incorporates sustainable passive house construction, such as air-tight enclosure and thermal bridge-free construction, rare natural cross ventilation, attention to acoustics, climate control and VRF – Zoned Variable Refrigerant Flow systems, all contribute to shaping an environment that promotes mental wellness.
Other sustainable practices tools include building wide and local water filtration air purifiers and dehumidification systems, the rear garden is cooled by the fountain and the conservatory houses the winter garden.
What is the total area of the project, estimated cost and design-to-finish time period of the project?
The building size is approximately 4,800 sq. ft. The project was completed in 36 months, including the design phase through completion of construction with a budget of $3.6M.
How do you see urban planning and architecture in cities changing to mitigate climate catastrophes in the current scenario?
Professionals need to respond to the urgency of climate change by acknowledging and educating their clients to the prospect that every project has an impact on the environment and no project is too small to ignore its effects.
Top Floor Guest Bedroom
Cities around the world have become saturated to expand further, resulting in catastrophic devastation due to Climate Crisis, especially flash floods and floods. What innovative measures can policy makers, urban planners and architects implement to safeguard cities from natural disasters?
More people are moving to cities, which reduces the carbon footprint in many ways. Professionals need to protect this migration by implementing best sustainability practices, in projects of all sizes and scopes.
Which significant aspects of the global platform ‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ did you liked the most, and why?
‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ highlights the creator, the creative force behind the project. It is exciting to learn the back story from the professional in the lens and fast forward to the present to see that we all face the same challenges. How each of us deals with the challenge is what makes the interviews interesting.
How would you elucidate Robert Traboscia as a leader and a person?
Devoted to the process, unyielding to failure in every step of life and my career is about seeking a better way. The most interesting aspect of working in this profession is that the projects are never the same and they should not be, but as time passes, thanks to experience, their success becomes more predictable.
Is AI a shortcut to creativity or else a boon for architecture?
It is a tool that can offer unexpected surprises, but if you are aware of the world around you it is not original. Used properly, AI can be inspiring!
Rear Yard Conservatory
Please state five recent awards’ win by TRA Studio Architecture PLCC
- TRA studio was nominated as one of the Best Design-Build Firms architects – New York in 2018, 2020 and 2023;
- The firm was ranked in the top 2019-2020 Interior Design Power Grid Top Firms in New York City.
- In 2017, TRA was selected as one of finalists of the AIA NY “Best Community Interiors”;
- In 2009, TRA received the Regina Kellerman Award from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation; and
- In 2008, TRA was selected as one the finalists in the Grand Army Plaza Competition;
Image Courtesy: TRA Studio Architecture PLCC