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Part IV: Systems Management, or, Rewiring from Top to Bottom

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The driving idea behind the brownstone renovation was to design it so that it could one day be net-zero energy

New Loewen windows being installed during the systems phase of Brent Allen Buck's brownstone renovation. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.
New Loewen windows being installed during the systems phase of Brent Allen Buck's brownstone renovation. Photo 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 this summer as Buck details the highs, lows, joys, and travails of home renovation.

Demolition was fast and exciting, and we could see daily progress. Designing the systems, the guts of the house, is arguably less sexy, but to me it's critical. Long-term, the systems are what make the house comfortable to inhabit. The systems determine if the house is too hot, too cold, if the light switches are in the right place, and the cost of the utility bills.

The driving idea behind our brownstone renovation in Prospect Heights was to design it so that it could one day be net-zero energy. Net-zero energy buildings produce as much renewable energy as the amount of energy they consume, while drastically minimizing (or even eliminating) use of fossil fuel.

Buck had the original brownstone stairwell rebuilt (left) with the handrails stripped (right). Photos courtesy of Buck Projects.

To one day achieve our goal of net-zero energy, the house required a highly insulated envelope and extra-efficient systems. Furthermore, it was important to me that the systems didn't impact the architecture—essentially, that they disappear. And finally, operating the systems should be intuitive. I envisioned electric-based heating and cooling systems. To produce that electricity, we first planned to use solar panels on about three-quarters of the roof—but it would have needed additional upfront investment, so we decided to postpone to a later date.

To achieve our goals, I focused my efforts on the following:

Insulation: Our brownstone did not contain any insulation on exterior exposures (front facade, rear facade, and roof). Once the plaster and lathe was removed, walls were furred out from the masonry and insulation installed. By insulating the roof, front, rear, and party walls (the ones that connect neighboring structures), we created a continuous insulation envelope.

We used a combination of acoustic batt, rigid, and open-cell spray foam, concentrating the open-cell foam on exterior exposures because its highly insulative, less costly than closed-cell foam, and has great acoustic properties. In addition to the insulation a tight envelope requires efficient windows, and it was clear that the original house windows—some of which were shattered— wouldn't cut it. I worked with Loewen windows, a cold-climate manufacturer based in Canada, to supply replacement units. Loewen manufactures windows that meet code and our own insulation standards, while also satisfying aesthetic guidelines for New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission—necessary since the building is located in a historic district.

The lead water main located across the street and underneath the pavement had to be replaced (left). Holding up a template for the new replacement energy-efficient windows by Loewen (right). Photos courtesy of Buck Projects.

Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning (HVAC): I selected a ducted mini-split system by Mitsubishi for both the central air conditioning and heating requirements. From prior experience, I knew the system would run quietly, could be concealed in dropped ceilings, and would be extremely efficient in terms of budget and energy use.

One air handler was installed per floor, so the house contains four separate zones to minimize energy use and duct runs. I spent a significant amount of time figuring out where to locate ducts in order that they not impact the interior architecture. I did not want any strange soffits or exposed air handlers—something you tend to see in many brownstone renovations.

Plumbing being installed in the kitchen (left) and master bathroom (right). Photos courtesy of Aaron Bawol.

Plumbing: We replaced the original lead pipe water main and all the plumbing, an opportunity we had only when the walls were open. We also had to revise the locations of the fixtures since we were updating the interior layout, and most of the existing plumbing was over 100 years old, to boot.

I chose to install instantaneous hot water heaters rather than a traditional gas-fired or electric hot water heater—both of which heat water to be available once a fixture turns on. An instantaneous hot water heater heats the water as needed, so it doesn't have the energy loss associated with a traditional version.

Electrical: Con Edison provided a new electrical feed to the house at no additional charge since the existing conduit was large enough to pull new wire through. We rewired the entire structure as the existing cloth-covered wires needed an upgrade. I created a lighting plan that identified the location and use for each light switch and outlet. All built-in lights were specified as LEDs.

Plumbing for the salvaged clawfoot tub. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

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

During this phase, it almost feels as if there is a lull in construction because the work is going on inside framed-out walls. While discernible progress felt slower, we found ways to make the process fun. A friend created a video art piece using the old cast iron tub and original bathroom as a backdrop. Visiting family enjoyed Franny's pizza on the roof and a Pictionary game on the sheetrock walls.

We came home to drawings, graffiti, and other surprises (including a Red Bull can-decorated Christmas tree) that the construction team had left for us. And as we began wrapping up the systems phase, we even hosted a friend's wedding reception on our plywood-floored parlor when the original venue unexpectedly shut down a few weeks before the event! (As it turns out, a party with loud music is a great way to road-test newly-installed acoustic insulation.) All of these memories are sealed into the walls of the house, and became part of our renovation journey.

Despite a buckle-down mentality, the construction team found ways to keep the renovation process lighthearted. Photos courtesy of Buck Projects.

Throughout the project we tracked our budget. Expenditures were logged in our budget spreadsheet so we could see in real time where we were over or under. Logging costs helped us to make decisions as the project progressed.

Many people have asked how much it takes to do a "gut" interior renovation of a brownstone in Brooklyn. This is a tricky question since all projects are unique, and tastes and scope vary. The New York building industry is busy right now; New York is a uniquely expensive city to build in to begin with.

When starting a project—for a real residence that someone will live in, not a developer-led flip—I offer the following guidelines: $100 per square foot is not possible. At $225 per square foot, a gut reno is possible, but you'll have to make many very tough choices to hew to budget. At $350 per square foot, you can have some fun. And anything above $500 per square foot, well, all projects are unique, and there's a project for every budget. It's important to have priorities; be flexible and understand that building to a budget likely means compromises.

Our project was a combination of fun and difficult choices. We worked with friends and contacts we'd developed over years in the industry, and made compromises for all line items. "Value engineering" is a phrase with bad connotation, but it's entirely possible to find efficiencies to achieve said "value."

For instance, we utilized one mechanical system with a low operating cost for both heating and cooling the house. The systems controls are handled per floor. Since a smart-home-ready master controller for the HVAC system was prohibitively expensive, we went ahead and ran wiring but skipped springing for the unit. Though they weren't exactly what we had in mind, we found boxes of beautiful stone tiles on sale and made a gut decision that allowed us to correctly course out our bathroom wall. For other materials, we went directly to the producer: the quarry, or mill.

One thing that saved on soft costs was the decision not to use consultants. Instead we hired a talented group of subcontractors who helped us resolve and specify the systems, and take care that they wouldn't detract from the finished space. We supplied a relatively large percentage of material for the project ourselves, taking on the risks in doing so. And while staying on schedule isn't a money-saving tactic per se, quickly choosing materials and making decisions helped the project stay on track to avoid overage costs and additional carrying costs.

During this phase of demolition and systems installation, Buck and his team found a fireplace in what would become the garden-level apartment. Photo courtesy of Aaron Bawol.

We've now lived in the house for nine months, and we rarely have had all four air handlers running. The house was cozy in the winter, and cool in the summer without hot or cold spots. Current electricity bills, which include our heating and cooling needs, average approximately $400 per month—for a 20-feet wide, four-story home that figure compares favorably to friends who live on the top floor of a nearby brownstone and pay more than that to cool their one-bedroom space in the summer. But, as mentioned above, we hope to install solar panels on the roof to supply our own electricity—a project for another day. —Brent Allen Buck

Stay tuned for Part V of Renovation Diary, as the Bucks tackle the heart of the home: their kitchen.