The Secret to Year-Round Streeteries? What Greenhouses Can Teach Us

A snowy image of a plywood outdoor restaurant built on a parking spaceThe architecture firms Woods Bagot and ARUP designed a prefabricated, flat-pack, all-season outdoor restaurant design. | Courtesy Woods Bagot

An alternative to those “space bubbles.”

After Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that outdoor dining could continue year-round, there was a cheer — and then worry about a chill. Just how practical can eating in streeteries be when winter sets in?

One attempted solution is the so-called “space bubbles” an Upper West Side café is trying out. But a new concept from the architecture firm Woods Bagot and ARUP might be more scalable and pleasant: a prefabricated, modular restaurant made of plywood, with a simple canopy that could be fitted with vinyl or polycarbonate during the winter, like a greenhouse, or with a shade-giving material in the summer, like a cabana.

Aside from the wood canopy, the streetery concept looks like many of the other plywood enclosures that have popped up across the city already. But the secret sauce is all in how it’s put together.

Woods Bagot and ARUP prioritized designing something that someone could build quickly — important given that construction in the street is challenging and restaurants do not have time for a lengthy build-out — and for not a lot of money. They began by basing the measurements on standard sizes of hardware-store plywood sheets and beams. Next, they used a type of joinery that slots together so that restaurants could assemble them without needing a lot of tools. And importantly: If they decide not to stay open year-round, they can disassemble them and put the parts in storage for use next year.

 Courtesy Woods Bagot and ARUP
During warm weather, the protective materials can be removed.

“You’re putting it together like a 3D puzzle,” says David Brown, an architect at Woods Bagot. He estimates that, once everything is cut, it will only take a couple of hours to assemble. “We’re trying to make it simple so people without construction experience can put it together. We’ve all been stuck with Ikea furniture and an Allen wrench and totally lost, so this has as few mechanical fasteners as possible.”

Restaurants could then either double wrap the streetery with vinyl film — an inexpensive yet effective form of insulation, which is often used on drafty windows — or screw on polycarbonate panels. If a restaurant does have a budget for heaters, the design is flexible enough to accommodate freestanding or ceiling-mounted options. The estimated cost to build one of these? Less than $1,000 for materials. (Heaters not included.)

The concept is one of many from Neighborhoods Now, an initiative from the Urban Design Forum and the Van Alen Institute that explored ways design could help with reopening challenges across the city. Woods Bagot and ARUP collaborated with the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH) on specific ideas for Washington Heights, but the ideas could work across the city.

 Courtesy Woods Bagot and ARUP
The outdoor restaurants comes together like a 3D puzzle. The architects call this a “plug and play” design, which means that depending on the season, restaurants can cover the wood frame with whatever material is most appropriate. Something that offers shade in the summer, and something that lets the sun’s rays warm it in the winter.

While ARUP, Woods Bagot, and CLOTH spoke to businesses in Washington Heights while they were developing the concept, they haven’t yet gotten any bites to actually build one.

“There was some concern about the length of time these could be up,” Brown says. “Now that it’s been announced that open restaurants are permanent, we’re reaching back out. That the design has built-in winterizing would hopefully be more appealing.”