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Part VI: Polishing the Brownstone Interior

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They strived to simplify the ornamental details, while maintaining the spirit of the original home

The herringbone white oak flooring newly installed in the parlor level. Photo by Buck Projects.
The herringbone white oak flooring newly installed in the parlor level. Photo by 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 this summer as Buck details the highs, lows, joys, and travails of home renovation.

By June of 2014, the brownstone renovation had come a long way. Walls: framed. Systems: installed. Kitchen and millwork: underway. The construction team was now hard at work wrapping up the material finish details, including the flooring, countertops, doorknobs, and exterior work. While those elements represent a modest percentage of the overall project, the finishes comprise the majority of what is seen and touched in the completed house—and the overall perception of the finished project.

We tried, where possible, to favor natural materials. We sought out those with variations and imperfections that would reveal themselves upon closer look—materials with nuance that may not be apparent at first glance. And beyond just thinking about how all of these things would look, I wanted to focus on their tactility, how they would feel.

An original marble fireplace front, stripped (left), and a stripped fireplace front reinstalled in the parlor level living room alongside chairs salvaged from the street (right). Photos by Buck Projects.

In general, Brooklyn brownstones built in the late 1800s contain a multitude of woods. In our house (under layers of paint, tile, and mortar), we found white oak, mahogany, and walnut. Unfortunately, the original flooring in the house was lost to history by the time we arrived; most of the subfloor was too far gone for repair. Since many brownstones were built collectively, in pairs or rows, we were lucky to have neighbors who let us walk through their home to get a sense of the original detailing. It was like entering a parallel universe.

Ultimately, we simplified the ornamental details, but kept with the spirit of the original. We chose three-quarter-inch-thick white oak boards for the flooring and specified that it be sawn with a straight grain (rift and quartered). We selected a herringbone pattern for the parlor floor, which traditionally sported the most elaborate pattern as the most formal area of a brownstone house. For the floors above and below, which typically reflect simpler details, we ran strip white oak boards with a simplified framed border. We used 3"-wide boards for the border while 2 ¼"-wide boards were used to cover the balance. Throughout the house, large solid boards were used at thresholds. Installing the flooring took a lot of coordination, since each room is sized differently, requiring a spectrum of widths and joinery details. The new flooring is quiet, warm, and soft on the feet. To finish the wood, we applied Bona Traffic HD Commercial Matte, a water-based finish that protects the floor while being barely discernible.

Read more:
Part I: The Hunt is on for a Renovation Project in Brownstone Brooklyn
Part II: Designing a Modern Home Inside a Traditional Brooklyn Brownstone
Part III: Bringing a Brownstone Back From the Brink
Part IV: Rewiring from Top to Bottom
Part V: Making a Kitchen From Scratch

The Belgian limestone slabs (left), and a detail of the variegated surface (right). Photos courtesy Buck Projects.

My wife and I made field trips to suppliers to choose large slabs of stone for the bathrooms and kitchen countertops. For the bathroom floors and the master shower, we went with Belgian limestone, a dark stone with fossils embedded in it. The finish is smooth with a slight sheen and wonderful to walk on. Oversize tiles were cut for bathroom floors, and a larger piece became an impressive single-slab shower floor in the master bath that slopes to a linear drain. We selected Bianco Dolomiti, a white marble that resembles clouds, for bathroom walls and counters. This warm, soft white marble with subtle veining is a little more delicate and needs to be very well sealed. For the walls, tiles were cut to a specific height so that only full height tiles were installed. For the shower doors, we installed Starphire etched clear glass by PPG.

Bianco Dolomiti tile against etched Starphire glass in the master bathroom. Photo courtesy Buck Projects.
Selecting the white marble slab for the main kitchen counter on the parlor level.

The main kitchen counter is done in white statuary marble to complement the house's old white marble mantelpieces, and while we sealed it well, we like how marble patinates with age. Outside, we installed exterior bluestone pavers from a New York quarry for the front sidewalk and front and rear yards. The bluestone—which feels heavy and permanent—was quarried and cut specifically for the job. (Worth the cost, since it will last a lifetime.)

Most walls in the house are drywall, though a few remain plaster, which we refinished and then painted. Throughout the interior, we used Benjamin Moore's Decorator's White with a variety of finishes, like eggshell for walls and satin for trim. We're considering a more diverse palette of wall colors someday, but for now, gallery-style white walls are an easy backdrop for the 'stuff' of our life: art, books, rugs, and collections.

Doors installed with trim in progress, and a view down the nearly-complete master bedroom hallway on the second floor.

The rebuilt stair and stripped handrail (left and right) as seen from the second-level (left) and parlor floor (right). Photos courtesy Buck Projects.

Luckily the original mahogany staircase handrail remained largely intact beneath several layers of curious paint colors. Stripping away the shades of muddy brown, mustard, white, and maroon became my pet project. I spent several weekends in the house, with mask and headphones on, stripping and sanding. The work entailed four stories and many hours of work, but it was all worth it in the end: The handrail is beautifully carved and appears as a piece of sculpture as it winds its way through the structure.

As we rebuilt the stairs, we kept in mind that we would be painting the treads and risers and installing a stair runner. The new runner, done in a natural wool, took time to get right. We wanted the serging along the edges to look hand-finished, but of course that would have put us over budget, so we found a machine that could make the edges appear hand-serged.

A machine-finished natural wool stair runner with hand-serged effect. Photo courtesy Buck Projects.

As both the designer and the homeowner, my imprint is on every feature of the house. But I would be remiss in overlooking the fact that every project is a collaboration among many. I use the word "we" to account for the voice of my wife, our contractor, the subcontractors, and all the craftspeople who came together and had a hand in our project's success. For my wife and me, the house just feels right—and that's largely due to the natural materials and meticulous execution that we see and touch every day. —Brent Allen Buck

Check back next week for Part VII of Renovation Diary, as the final details are installed in the Bucks' brownstone. And follow Brent Allen Buck on Instagram for more behind-the-scenes photos!