The tightly-knit family of designers and innovators at the Onion Flats collective is raising the bar on innovation for Philadelphia architecture. They have discovered that by taking over the responsibility for everything from a project’s initial conceptual design, all the way to the financing, marketing, and construction, it has allowed them to explore totally new processes for things like water collection and green roofs, without the headache of outsourcing. Completed in 2006, one of their most notable projects are the Rag Flats, a group of modern residential units topped with green roof gardens, solar panels, and lounge spaces, which are built within the shell of a former rag factory.

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The Rag Flat units gained major notoriety because they use water collection systems that were so experimental and highly efficient that the city wasn’t ready for them yet. Rain water is stored tanks housed underneath the parking lot, and is pumped into the units for irrigation. When Onion Flats sought permits for this inventive technique, the city had no way to evaluate this system in relation to most of the older Philadelphia buildings that have single pipe sewers into which all the rain and toilet water drains. Because 60% of Philadelphia buildings operate that way, the sewers overflow and cause raw waste to contaminate the local rivers. The water department has now updated their permitting processed to accommodate projects like the Rag Flats, and they use this design as a benchmark for other developers.

The water system, bamboo flooring, and photovoltaic panels that tile the roof will make the eco design lover jump for joy, but they are not what get most people’s attention from street view. The Onion Flats are artists and craftsmen at heart. We love the details of their metal staircases that emulate garden trellises, and the bold colors of their stucco and steel that seem to come right from the earth.

We look forward to seeing more from Onion Flats who have many other projects underway – most that are expected to be LEED Platinum certifid! This group is successfully modernizing the historic architecture of Philadelphia Row Homes without losing the charm of the closely set buildings and quaint pathways.

+ Onion Flats