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Part I: The Hunt is on for a Renovation Project in Brownstone Brooklyn

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From Fort Greene gem to a decrepit Prospect Heights browntsone

Home sweet home in Prospect Heights. Photo courtesy Buck Projects.
Home sweet home in Prospect Heights. Photo courtesy Buck Projects.

After a decade working for New York City firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, Brent Allen Buck was ready for a change of pace. In 2015, Buck struck out on his own to launch Buck Projects, headquartered in the Brooklyn brownstone he renovated on nights and weekends over the course of two years. That home, whose renovation process Buck will outline in the first ever Renovation Diary series for Curbed, serves as his home base and design laboratory, as well as a backdrop to a complete set of teak pepper mills by Danish modernist Jens Quistgaard. Follow along over the next eight weeks as Buck details the highs, lows, joys, and travails of home renovation.

It was the summer of 2013 when I took the plunge into home ownership with the purchase of a circa-1888 brownstone in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. After years of living in condo towers in Manhattan, my wife and I heeded the call of Brooklyn in 2012 with a move to Cobble Hill. We fell in love with the tree-lined streets and rows of stately Victorian architecture.

Once we decided to look for a property, we started slow, looking at duplex apartments in Cobble Hill and Fort Greene. With time, our ambition snowballed: A duplex became a townhouse, and the highlighted area on our map grew to include most of brownstone Brooklyn. We spent the next year scouring the heated townhouse market for a small project—checking online listings daily, spending weekends walking the neighborhoods block-by-block, and running into the same hopeful buyers at different open houses. Like most would-be home-owners in the market, we experienced nervous excitement (submitting our first bid on a small townhouse on Vanderbilt Avenue), frustration (at being outbid by 1% on a Fort Greene gem), a touch of relief coupled with sadness (when we lost a coveted but very expensive corner property on State Street).

Left: Archival photo from 1940s tax assessment. Right: "Before" facade, photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

We soon realized that we needed to broaden our search, so we asked for help from real estate broker and friend Doug Bowen, who introduced us to a fortuitous off-market property in Prospect Heights.

Of course, there was a catch...or two. First, the house was not in livable condition, needing significantly more work than the other projects we had seen and bid on. (In between its north-south exposures, the house's amazing light was reduced to showcasing large holes in the floor and vines growing through the windows.) Second, the house was designated as a single-room occupancy (SRO), meaning that it had been chopped up into boarding rooms back in the 1950s. In 2013, no one was living in the building, but an SRO status comes with added legal risk that makes financing a challenge and promises that any project will take longer and involve more uncertainty.

BEFORE: the garden-level floor, which will be used as a rental unit. Photo by Aaron Bawol.

BEFORE: a second-floor bedroom. Photo by Aaron Bawol.

The four-story home had no significant structural damage, but the period details had been stripped or had fallen into permanent disrepair—it wasn't just ripe for a major renovation, it was requisite. But the direction could vary significantly depending on our objectives as buyers, our ability to execute, and most important, the overall vision.

Part II: Designing a Modern Home Inside a Traditional Brooklyn Brownstone

Architects are known for being meticulous, and meticulous we were. We walked every block of Prospect Heights to get a feel for the neighborhood. We discussed our decision over coffee at Milk Bar and checked out the nearest subway access, timing our commutes to work. We crunched numbers and crumpled countless sketches and layouts. Ultimately, my wife and I decided that we didn't want to buy someone else's renovation. And after missing out on several properties, we knew to jump at this one. So we purchased the house and signed up for a massive project.

BEFORE the second floor. Photo by Aaron Bawol.

BEFORE: a second-floor bathroom. Photo by Aaron Bawol.

First we dove into the legal and financing ramifications of its SRO status. We met with the owner who shared details about the house's history and successfully negotiated an agreement to have the house delivered with a Certificate of No Harassment. The CNH would be the first—and very long—step to changing the certificate of occupancy, which significantly reduces the risk associated with the property and makes it financeable. But the delay also would prove fortuitous. Waiting for the receipt of the CNH extended the contract period, giving us time to design the renovation plan and secure approvals from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Department of Buildings (DOB), as well as organize the contracting team prior to closing.

I quickly learned that undertaking one's own renovation is quite different than taking on client work—it becomes a 24-hour-a-day project. It's about a passion for where you live, not just a passion for your work. I used something said by architect Tom Kundig of Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects as something of a mantra as I began the design process: "People who build their own home tend to be very courageous. These people are curious about life. They're thinking about what it means to live in a house, rather than just buying a commodity and making it work."

BEFORE: two views of a third-floor bedroom. Photos by Aaron Bawol.

The house's original architect William Flanagan designed two connected Italianate row houses "at a time when improvements in the area's transportation hastened the construction of hundreds of exceptionally fine row houses in Prospect Heights," according to the neighborhood's Landmarks designation report. The house and its next-door neighbor are characterized by a "high brownstone stoop, rounded arched entryway, heavily bracketed door surrounds with pediments, and molded window enframements." The traditions of the Brooklyn brownstone posed an interesting design challenge for me, specifically, how to marry my modernist background with a traditional ruin. And so began our brownstone adventure. —Brent Allen Buck

Brent Allen Buck is an architectural designer who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and runs the practice Buck Projects. Stayed tuned for his next installment of Renovation Diary on Thursday, June 18. And in the meantime, follow his work on Instagram at @brentabuck.