John Costello (MArch ‘17)

Carpenter brings passion for making and eco-conscious design to architecture studies

John Costello assembles a new roofing system for his home on Buffalo’s West Side. Costello says his energy-conscious restoration is a “playful” and awareness-raising architectural response to the climate crisis. Photo by Mahan Mehrvarz (MArch ‘16)

by Angelina Bruno

Architecture student and on-the-side carpenter John Costello arrived from a jobsite in paint-splattered t-shirt and shorts, a sharpened pencil in hand. It was clear from his constant spatial descriptions and gesturing that he was resisting the urge to draw. When he began to describe the foreclosure house he just purchased on Buffalo’s West Side, he could resist no longer. 

He quickly sketched the three-story frame, and then added wavy lines to indicate where he will replace the front façade with a 20-foot glass curtain wall for passive solar heating. A thermal covering for the glass – extended and retracted via a manually operated wheel – will protect it from the extreme winter cold. A hinged attic floor will create magnificent loft space while supporting heat transfer from the glass façade. Costello also intends to complete the project by repurposing or upcycling materials from the waste stream. 

While the endeavor may seem overly ambitious, it’s business as usual for Costello, who has entered the Master of Architecture program after just completing his undergraduate studies at age 38. The self-taught carpenter who once drove 11 days straight to Costa Rica to surf and re-engineered his Volkswagen to run on vegetable oil has always been comfortable pushing his limits, working with his hands and questioning the status quo when it comes to the environment. 

Costello, who has just received UB’s prestigious Arthur A. Schomberg Fellowship, plans to fold the home rehab into his academic exploration of ecological practices and material culture at the School of Architecture and Planning. It’s also in line with his plans to build a residential-based practice focused on sustainable design, building and living. 

“Instead of dealing with [the climate crisis] like it’s a problem, I’m interested in architectural responses that can both raise awareness about what’s happening and playfully give solutions.” says Costello. Referring to the interactive nature of his glass façade concept, he adds: “You may want to live in the house just to turn the wheel.”

While Costello is certainly at home as an architect, his path to the profession has been anything but direct.

The Western New York native struggled academically in high school, moving to North Carolina after graduation to work for his mother’s paint contracting business. He later worked for a building contractor, developing his skillset in carpentry. After picking up surfing, he set his sights on warmer weather and water.

Fargo House. Bathroom, with floor by John Costello and Kathryn Hobert. The mosaic of hexagonal tiles and other found artifacts (including hexagonal bolts) incorporates a mouse-trap-like drainage system that sends water down a pipe to plants on the floor below. Photo by Biff Henrich

Costello lived in several locales for only months at a time, trading work for necessities. His interest in healthy living brought him back to Western New York in the summers to help host The Living Now Festival of Healing and Transformation, which focused on raw foods, yoga, meditation and alternative building. 

Only after he made a permanent move back to Buffalo to help care for his ailing grandmother did Costello consider going back to school. He had successfully gotten his own contracting business off the ground but was ready for a new challenge, first pursuing his associate’s degree at Erie Community College and then transferring to UB. 

With a passionate interest in design and the environment, and practical experience in building, Costello hit the ground running. He graduated in May with the highest GPA in his class and has already earned several design honors. 

His design concept “House2o” for a residential community in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood earned Costello and classmate Ryan Hughes UB’s Undergraduate Award for Excellence in Research, Scholarship and Creativity. The proposed community is built on inverted planes to naturally aid the site’s filtration system. Rainwater is diverted into low-lying pools to support plant life and water recreation and to mitigate impacts on Buffalo’s combined sewer system. 

Faculty members at the School of Architecture and Planning have taken note of Costello’s talent, engaging him in several experimental design-build projects as well as commissioned work.

I drove from North Carolina to Costa Rica,” says Costello.  “Like Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica—it was intense.

Costello has developed a particularly close working relationship with architecture faculty member Dennis Maher, whose Fargo House on Buffalo’s West Side is a living experiment in material reuse and reconstruction. Maher invited Costello’s participation in “House of Collective Repair,” an installation at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery inspired by the Fargo House. Within the Fargo House, Costello and another student recently built a reconfigurable exhibition space out of plywood panels that can fold out to create shelving or expose windows for flexible lighting. Costello’s spontaneous visit to Maher’s home last summer while he was out of the country resulted in a surprise renovation of Maher’s bathroom floor and a mouse-trap-like invention. 

“We fabricated this thing out of a bed frame, some stainless steel shelving and an organ pipe that collects the water as it drips off your body when you get out of the shower; it funnels down an organ pipe and through a hole in the floor to water a plant below,” says Costello, who worked with Kathryn Hobert (MArch ‘15) on the project. 

As Costello prepares to balance graduate study with his home renovation, likely his most challenging building project yet, he’s undeterred. It’s just another opportunity to push his limits. “The house is a really good opportunity to test things, to see how little energy I can use and how much solar radiation I can capture…I think practice is doing. That’s what I’m interested in.”