Gaining Urban Space: Winner announced in competition to design affordable housing at Sunnyside Yard

Metals in Construction magazine has announced the winner of its 2021 Design Challenge competition, which asked architects and engineers how they would create a new affordable-housing development at Sunnyside Yard in Queens. The competition was speculative, but its design brief was based on proposals set forth in the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan Handbook, a detailed technical guide for exploring the rail yard’s development opportunities, published in March 2020.

“Each year the magazine hosts a competition that challenges designers globally with envisioning solutions to real-world situations that respond to human needs,” said Gary Higbee, AIA, Director of Industry Development for the Steel Institute of New York, co-publisher of the magazine and sponsor of this year’s competition. “This year’s brief drew an array of innovative approaches for capturing the space above Sunnyside Yard to create much-needed affordable housing.” 

The site selected for the competition, which contemplates Phase 1 of a development plan, is located on a portion of the active rail yard between Queens Boulevard and Honeywell Street. Entrants to the competition were asked to envision a structural steel deck that would create a platform for development over the yard, adding valuable urban space to the area. Overbuilding the network of tracks has long been considered a viable way to create more public land and meet the needs of the area’s growing population. 

RKD Architects, the Dublin-based winning team, presented a plan for a platform composed of a 60-by-60-foot structural steel grid aligned to streets on the north and west edges of the yard. The platform’s underlying framework considers different sizes and typologies of housing units, allowing them to be adapted to residents’ changing needs over time. Units can be combined, extended, or renovated within the primary building structure. The first three floors of each building block feature a mixed-use program. A central greenway spine and public square add green space to the plan.

“The competition challenges around affordable housing and sustainability are so critical and must inform how we design healthy, resilient and productive places for people to thrive. Our inspiration was formed from analysis of the complex brief and context. We wanted to provide a solution that integrated the new neighborhood into the existing fabric of Queens in a positive way with pedestrian access and permeability. The streets and blocks provide a variety of urban opportunities unified by greenways, landscaping and an elevated walkway. The hybrid structural steel framework creates volumes that can be inhabited by different housing typologies and uses that are adaptive over time to be suitable for a carbon-neutral future.

The competition challenge has been both exciting and profound for the RKD Team. It has enabled us to embed key circularity principles to offer a place of unique character and opportunity to support the health and wellbeing of its inhabitants.”

The RKD Team

“The competition posed many challenges, including structural, urban design, environmental, and social,” said juror Jack Robbins, partner and Director of Urban Design at FXCollaborative Architects. “The most successful entries responded on all of these fronts, and the winning proposal did so in a way that was innovative, reflected the amazing diversity of Queens, and felt like a part of the city.”   

The competition’s two finalists were London-based DAAB Design Architects working with members of LERA and Buro Happold and a team from New York-based Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects, working with members of Guy Nordenson and Associates and Ken Smith Workshop. The full proposals from each team are available via the links below.

“The entries have shown a wide variety of approaches: it was a true reflection, in my opinion, of how architects and urban planners, along with their allies—the structural engineers and facade consultants—are looking at the challenge and seeking an opportunity to make a difference,” said competition juror Enrica Oliva, Partner and COO of Werner Sobek New York. “It’s encouraging to see that the design teams are coming up with exciting solutions, and that sustainability, renewable energy, and innovative technologies are put at the forefront of the designs.” 

Additional competition jurors included Eli Gottlieb, Managing Principal of Thornton Tomasetti and Shefali H. Sanghvi, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Associate at Dattner Architects.

For more information about the winning and finalist entries and the annual competition, please visit


WINNER: RKD Architects Team

Harry Browne, Paul Davey, Karolina Backman, Rebecca O’Connor, Sinead Keating, David Browne

Click here to view the full RKD Architects proposal


FINALIST: “Minding the Gap” Team

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects: Michael Bischoff, Alberto Montesinos, Michael Lyon, Duckjune Park, Edward Liew, Xiao Qin, Will Garris 

Guy Nordenson and Associates: Guy Nordenson, Gina Morrow, Xiaoxiao Wu, Katie Kennedy

Ken Smith Workshop: Ken Smith, Hardy Stecker, Feixiong Yu

Click here to view the full Minding the Gap proposal


FINALIST: “Loop n Link” Team

daab design Architects: Dennis Austin, Anais Blehaut, David Hart, Dale Ratcliff, Dominika Pilch

LERA Consulting Structural Engineers: Dan Sesil, Jason Stone

Buro Happold: Denzil Gallagher, Varun Kohli, Kenton Phillips

Click here to view the full Loop n Link proposal