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What you can’t afford to compromise on when renovating your brownstone

If you’re installing a state-of-the-art HVAC system, it’s probably worth investing in high-quality windows to make your home more energy efficient. 

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2019
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No one wants to start a brownstone renovation thinking about what they can’t do—after all, for many homeowners, it’s a time to dream big and customize their forever family home. 

But more often than not, circumstances call for compromises.

“In all my years of experience, I’ve never seen someone renovate a brownstone and get everything they want,” says Anna Karp, COO & Co-Founder of Bolster, a New York City-based design-build firm that has created a seamless renovation experience by delivering industry-leading expertise and a radically transparent process.

[Note: This is Part I in a two part series. Part II will include areas where you can save and projects you can leave for a later date.]

It’s important to set realistic expectations from the outset regarding what can be accomplished from a budget, scope, and timeline perspective. Compromises in brownstone renovations mostly arise because of budget constraints, which is tied to scope. Simply put, brownstone renovations are big projects. 

“Extensive projects have many moving parts and therefore many opportunities to incur cost. From design, to regulatory approvals, and through construction, each phase has its own specific costs and risks,” says Bolster architect Paul Capece. “Take a step back and think of the project holistically, instead of focusing on the specific things you really want or the ‘must-have’ items on your wish list that may not be realistic.” 

However, there are some areas where you simply cannot afford to compromise on your brownstone renovation. 

NYC Renovation Calculator

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About Bolster's NYC Renovation Calculator: Bolster's Renovation Calculator enables you to easily calculate the estimated cost of a major New York City renovation. All you'll need to know is 1) the scope, complexity, and type of your project, 2) the quality of your desired finishes, and 3) the area being renovated. [Hint: Bookmark this page for easy reference!]

About Bolster: Bolster is a New York City design-build firm that delivers a seamless, radically transparent renovation experience--beginning with a line-by-line cost estimate that empowers you to plan your scope, budget, and schedule.

Standard: The quality of the finish is acceptable with attention to detail but reliant on big-box store sourced cabinetry, MDF etc. 

Mid Range: The quality of the finish is good (grade A) with attention to detail but reliant on big-box store sourced cabinetry, MDF etc.

High Range: The quality of finish is high (grade AA) and customized with fine finishes and materials being used that can last years, if not a lifetime.

Upscale: The quality of finish is the highest possible (grade AAA) and labor-intensive, with every surface bespoke, new, and beautifully finished.

Low: Simple design, no layout or structural changes, elevator in building.

Medium: Average design, moving of some systems and/or structural changes, no elevator in the building.

High: Complex design, complicated engineering, lots of logistics (e.g. boom lifts, suspended scaffolds, etc.), dangerous working conditions.

Small: Changes to surfaces only (e.g. painting, tiling).

Medium: Small + Changes to the finishes themselves (e.g. removing plaster, replacing flooring etc).

Large: Small + Medium + Changes to the building's infrastructure (e.g. replacing all systems, walls, floor joists etc).

Design & Build: Full architectural services including schematic design, design development, construction drawings and approvals from the DoB and full build services.

Build with some Design: Full build services and some design with minimum compliance.

Build Only: Full build services with no design input (performed by another architect or not required at all).

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Total Per SF

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When homeowners envision the end result of their renovation, they often only consider the interior, or how it will look aesthetically. But exteriors and mechanical—especially in older buildings, like brownstones—will need updating, as well. Though its not visible, it will still impact the final look and longevity of the home. 

Your first order of business is to understand what you’re up against—and to accomplish that, you’ll need an architect. 

“An architect should examine the entirety of the building prior to recommending spending the client’s entire budget on cosmetic elements,” says Bolster architect Agustin Ayuso.

This will help to uncover the first area where you can’t compromise: 

Deficiencies in building structure and infrastructure

An initial site visit to a brownstone won’t identify all potential issues, but an experienced architect (paired with a contractor who is well-versed in brownstone construction), can identify many of the major issues common to brownstones. 

“An architect that is well-versed in brownstone design can quickly identify deficiencies in the building structure and infrastructure, propose effective remedies, and offer design solutions that elevate the client’s best intentions for the home,” says Paul. 

A unanimous opinion among the folks at Bolster is that you should never, ever make concessions on anything that will compromise the structural integrity or infrastructure of your brownstone. 

In Paul’s experience, here are the most common infrastructure issues he sees when doing brownstone renovations: 

  • Outdated electrical wiring and receptacles 
  • Undersized and decrepit water mains and/or sewer lines
  • Uneven foundation and joist settlement
  • Improper window and roofing maintenance or replacements

At the very least, you should be assessing the following: floors, staircases, roof, foundation, plumbing, and electric. 

Cutting corners on any of these things will only cause trouble and problems down the road—not to mention they can be incredibly dangerous.

Items at the end of their lifespan or in need of immediate repair

Paul always begins any brownstone renovation by assessing the bones of the building to identify infrastructure issues that simply can’t wait to be dealt with. Most often, this includes things like differential settlement, presence of asbestos, lead water mains, damp basements, leaky roofs, and outdated boilers.  

“One needs to make sure that any essential system that have lived its lifespan, such as roofing, heating, windows, and plumbing, are taken into account prior to dedicating large parts of the budget to non-essential and decorative items,” says Agustin. 

It’s also important to consider anything that is directly correlated to these areas. For example, if you’re spending time and money installing a state-of-the-art HVAC system, it’s probably worth investing in high-quality windows to conserve energy and make your home more efficient. 

Anything that could potentially violate DOB code

You should also take care to do due diligence on anything that could potentially be in violation of NYC or DOB code. NYC code is the most complex in the country, so it’s important to have a solid team in place who can help you navigate it. 

“Brownstones are large, and they typically already come with a number of issues that have to be addressed just to get them up to code,” says Paul. 

The good news? Brownstone renovations are not limited by rules imposed by a condo or co-op board. Since brownstones are independently owned buildings, there is often greater opportunity to add to the structure or otherwise modify the exterior than there would be with a typical condo or co-op renovation.  

“The owner is free to decide on their own what is best for their home, obviously within the limits of the building code and zoning regulations,” says Agustin. 

Any exterior alteration or enlargement work will likely get a great deal of scrutiny from the various regulatory agencies, especially if the property is in a landmarked district. Depending of the scope of work, the landmarks approvals may be as simple as an expedited staff-level approval, which may only add one or two weeks to the project schedule. 

However, in the event of extensive exterior work, the approval process may involve both community board and landmarks preservation commission presentations and approvals, which are known to take upwards of six months. Your architect will work with you to navigate this process.

Anything that would be disruptive if you do it later

Trust us on this one. Though it might be tempting to cut corners now in order to speed up the process or save money, in the long run, you’ll be glad you did it. 

A good example is flooring. 

“If a good amount of the flooring will need replacement soon, then you might as well do it,” says Agustin. “Replacing the flooring will require all the furniture to be removed and the house uninhabitable for quite some time if done down the road.” 

Next month, Bolster will be back with their recommendations on where you can afford to compromise in your brownstone renovation. 

The Bolster Smart Renovation Zero-Risk Guarantee

How can a design-build firm guarantee a Zero-Risk renovation?

Bolster has pioneered Smart Renovation. We apply quantitative analysis along with our  proprietary technology solution to identify and quantify the performance risk on every renovation project. The result is a personalized strategic approach to each renovation that allows us to absorb 100% of the homeowner’s risk. Your home will be beautifully designed, and delivered on-time and on-budget. That is our guarantee.

Smart Renovation & Zero-Risk means that Homeowners are now free to dream.

To start your major home renovation project visit bolster.us

The Bolster Promise video