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

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The goal of the design was to allow a conversation between traditional details and contemporary design

Sketches for Prospect Heights brownstone renovation, courtesy of Buck Projects.
Sketches for Prospect Heights brownstone renovation, courtesy of 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.

Since I was trained as a modern architect, the design of a late-19th-century brownstone in Prospect Heights posed a unique challenge for me. My wife and I wanted the house to become a home for our family, a container for our life. The architecture would allow objects and personalities to come forward. We envisioned rooms brought to life by the things we collect: modern furniture, art, vintage rugs, books, and unusual objects. The effect would be layered, full of light and warmth.

BEFORE: Existing flooring on the second floor. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

We kept coming back to the words balance and restraint. The idea was to allow a conversation between traditional details and contemporary design—unlike a dinner party where one boisterous guest speaks loudly to drown out other voices.

We considered the context of the house in its place and time, rigorously documenting its original historic details. I wanted each design move to be sensitive to what was there, while balancing historic and modern sensibilities, not allowing one to overwhelm the other. I wanted to create spaces that did not lose the grace of history. One strategy we arrived upon was to use a blend of simple, natural materials—from mahogany to limestone—in order to complement the contemporary and historic architecture and detailing. We wanted to analyze and reimagine all that old detail, then open the floor plans to create a sense of the contemporary.

Plans submitted to Landmarks Preservation Commission, courtesy of Buck Projects.

Plans for window profiles submitted to Landmarks Preservation Commission, courtesy of Buck Projects.

The two of us spent late nights with rolls of trace paper, pencils, erasers, and a few bottles of wine contemplating the idea of home and how our family would eventually use the house. I began by sketching our larger ideas by hand, taking the time to do it right, since my wife and I were confident that the details could be solved without rushing. Our broad wish list entailed some of the following: Get the layout correct. Connect the living spaces to the garden. Utilize the south-facing façade to bring light into important spaces. Use natural materials that, if observed closely, revealed a surprise.

Part 1: The Hunt is on for a Renovation Project in Brownstone Brooklyn

With the vision established, I set to work drawing the program. A triplex over a one-bedroom garden apartment would allow plenty of room for a growing family and provide rental income. A light-filled central stairwell would connect the floors together. The one-bedroom garden-level apartment could easily be incorporated into the triplex for a single-family home.

After various iterations the garden level layout was reversed from what is found in most brownstones (which, pre-renovation, usually puts the living room toward the street, kitchen in the middle, and a bedroom in the rear). I situated the bedroom in the front of the house to allow for the living area and kitchen to face south and open to the rear garden. The garden level can be accessed through a separate entrance underneath the front stoop, and also from a hidden door under the parlor stairs. That parlor-level door under the main stair allows access to the under-stoop area and cellar from the upper triplex, enabling us to leave bikes and future strollers in the garden-level vestibule area.

BEFORE: Existing stairwell, photo by Aaron Bawol. Detail of mahogany stair banister, courtesy of Buck Projects.

Our upper triplex would be accessed directly from the front stoop. With 11.5-foot ceilings, the parlor level is the most impressive space in the structure, as in most brownstones. We had decided from the get-go to open the parlor floor plan, while keeping individual rooms. We inserted substantial trim and molding profiles (to replace what would be removed during demolition), in addition to relining the front parlor fireplace flue to make it functional and wood-burning.

At the end of the design process, which ran through demolition, ½" = 1'0" plans were developed that showed each profile, door detail, and molding, as in the rear parlor. Courtesy of Buck Projects.

We put the main kitchen in the rear parlor, facing south to the backyard. Eventually, this sun-drenched room would open out onto a steel deck and into the garden with a pair of large French doors. My wife's preference for the kitchen involved open shelving above the cooktop to display dishes and glassware and a large kitchen table to share meals with family and friends.

Sketch of plan for master bedroom, courtesy of Buck Projects.

Up the stairs, the second floor was re-envisioned as a master suite with a nursery. The centerpiece of the second floor would be a generous master bathroom carved out of what used to be a bedroom: The original six-foot-long cast iron tub would be saved and refinished and sit in the center of the room. The top floor would contain a media room, a guest bedroom, and future home office.

I completed the schematic design while under contract, which meant we could move on to the next step: budgeting. I created a detailed line-item budget before speaking with contractors, and planned to project-manage the endeavor myself. The budget we outlined included all the items a contractor would provide, as well as work we would supply ourselves: millwork, electrical fixtures, plumbing fixtures, stone, tile, doors, door hardware, ironwork, exterior work, and windows. The budget approached 300 line items with each item intensely detailed underneath. (The door hardware tab alone showed 261 items.)

Choosing the general contractor was a difficult decision. It was critical to choose a contractor who is realistic, easy to work with, and fair—not to mention, someone who wanted to part of a team. So with a good idea of total cost in mind, we met with four general contractors, walking them through our vision for the house and the preliminary drawings. Each then submitted a bid outlining their proposed budget and schedule. The budget numbers varied by about 35% and the projected timelines varied from three months to one year. One contractor arrived to our meeting 45 minutes late driving a brand new Land Rover—he didn't get the job.

The impending renovation included the restoration of the original clawfoot bathtub for the new master bath. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

After vetting the bids and personalities, we felt most comfortable with Jim Valouch of Black Square Builders. We visited multiple job sites, spoke with previous clients of Jim's, and spent a few hours grilling Jim on details and budget. Together, as a team, we would navigate the renovation journey that was about to unfold. With a solid team in place, we were able to capitalize on an extended contract period, getting the plans approved by the Department of Buildings, pulling permits, and starting work on the structure one short week after closing.—Brent Allen Buck

Brent Allen Buck is an architectural designer who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and runs the practice Buck Projects. Follow his work on Instagram at @brentabuck, read the rest of our Renovation Diary series, and stay tuned for next week's chapter: Demolition.