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Part III: Bringing a Brownstone Back From the Brink

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Dead birds, water damage, and demolition

Parlor floor after demolition and floor leveling (left); third floor walls framed out below skylights in the stairwell (right). Photos courtesy of Aaron Bawol.
Parlor floor after demolition and floor leveling (left); third floor walls framed out below skylights in the stairwell (right). Photos courtesy of Aaron Bawol.

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.

Surrounded by a thicket of overgrown vines and within arm's reach of a dead bird, I shattered a champagne bottle over the backyard steps, christening our new house after closing in June of 2013. It was now official. My wife and I were excited, but a little staggered as it settled in that we were really the owners of the house, bird and all. It was the largest purchase we had ever made, the biggest risk we had ever taken. We wondered what surprises we would find behind the walls, since it's what you can't see that causes the most trouble. Having spent hours inside the house before closing, and more hours discussing process, sequence, and cost, we felt we had reasonable expectations.

Pre-demolition still life: dead bird with broken champagne bottle (left). At one point during the demolition phase, you could see all the way through the structure from the garden level (right). Photos courtesy of Buck Projects.

The first step was to abate the asbestos in the roof. It's not uncommon for old roofs to contain asbestos, often buried under layers of new roofing. Prior to closing, we took samples and analyzed the results in order to factor in the roof abatement cost in our initial budget. The abatement process involves careful removal of the existing material: Men in hazmat suits using special equipment made the house feel like an extra in E.T. for a few days. Once the built-up layers of roofing material were removed, we could see the original eight-inch-wide pine roof decking. The decking had minimal water damage, but the wooden gutter box in the rear was shot and left dangling from the facade.

The champagne bottle was the first thing we broke in the house, but certainly not the last. What followed was weeks of demolition, tearing down walls, ripping up floors, building ceiling-high piles of debris, and learning the house's secrets all the while.

We took a week per floor on the demolition—a relatively quick timeframe. The transformation was thrilling, as every day brought visible change. As layers of plaster, lathe, and piping were removed, the house felt lighter. We chose to salvage the original cast iron tub, the fireplace mantles, the stair handrail, and a lucky horseshoe hanging above a doorway in the garden level. We also took a 12-inch slice of each crown, casing, and baseboard profile to save as a historic record. Salvaged items were protected as our team shored up joists throughout the house, finding that two needed to be replaced. These two joists, located at the rear of the garden level, had water damage and were rotted.

One of the brownstone's rear windows, prior to demolition (left), and the original opening for the central skylight as seen from the roof (right). Photos courtesy of Buck Projects.
The master bedroom (left) and master bathroom (right), as seen during demolition phase. Photos courtesy of Buck Projects.

Clearing out the interior walls made the project finally feel real. At one point you could even enter the garden level and see clear through to the roof! We uncovered a fireplace hidden behind a wall on that lowest floor and exposed the brick on the other floors' fireplaces. We considered leaving the floor plates open to make loft-like floors, but while it would save money, it wouldn't be true to the house or our vision. Generating an 'if these walls could talk' moment after stripping down the third-floor walls, we saw marks indicating that one of them had caught fire at some point, a mystery that will never be solved.

During the demolition phase, we decided to build a staircase to the roof to allow for easy access. Luckily, we had included a contingency line item in our budget to cover the cost of surprises, so some of this contingency was used on the stair. We were pleased to find that Jim Valouch, our general contractor, was fair on price and open to the process. The word 'just' gets thrown around in construction/renovation (I 'just' want to add a stair to the roof; I 'just' want to add a toilet). From experience, I know there's no such thing as "just," so we worked with Jim and his construction team to incorporate a simple stair that would get the job done.

Part I: The Hunt is on for a Renovation Project
Part II: Designing a Modern Home Inside a Traditional Brooklyn Brownstone

We also had frequent meetings with the project team during this phase of the renovation. Foreman Sebastian Kulpa was pleasant and a capable leader. With time, the members of the team earned each other's trust and respect. It was important to be available, make decisions quickly, not delay the work, and have a sense of humor. And to ensure a clear line of communication, I visited the job site nearly every day.

Buck shaved off sections of the original molding and trim in order to save them for archival reference later on. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.
The third floor, as seen after demolition as the floors were being leveled. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

As we proceeded to tear down the inside of the house, we were able to coordinate the design drawings to the field conditions. I had measured the existing wall locations prior to demolition in order to coordinate the design exactly to those measurements. Once all the lathe and plaster was removed, we could accurately survey the existing brick exterior and party wall locations. Furthermore, floor and roof joist locations were documented so that plumbing risers and duct work could be properly coordinated. Floor joists were sistered and leveled. Bottom plates were secured to the subfloors and reviewed before all the walls were built, ensuring we could feel the sizes of each space. In some instances, we decided to alter the wall locations by a matter of inches before proceeding. All of which is to say, the construction process informed the final design.—Brent Allen Buck

Stay tuned for Part IV of Renovation Diary, as the Bucks, along with their contractor, foreman, and construction team begin to put the house together again.