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 has outlined this summer for Curbed's Renovation Diary series, 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 (which you'll finally see this week!). We've taken an incisive look at the highs, lows, joys, and travails of home renovation, and now, Buck and his wife Katie take us through the finished project.
Brent, how do you separate your professional project management side with your goals for your own house? And Katie, was there any point where it just became too much?
Katie: In my job I have some experience with larger building projects. The difference there is that we don't drill down to the 1/8" or zero in so much on minute detail. For our own house, we wanted it to be perfect. But at least I had an idea of what I was getting into before we started, which was helpful. I think toward the end of the project, the anticipation of moving in… That became the hardest part.
Brent: For me the most difficult thing of the house was—and this is kind of the whole story of the design of this house—that I am a modernist architect trained in a modern method, trained at Tod and Billie's office, in way that everything looked a lot like this kitchen. Trim and historic detail were pretty foreign—
Katie: It was not in your vocabulary.
Brent: So the biggest difficulty was to understand that. And in my mind, to marry what we wanted to do here—which was some very simple, minimalist millwork with a historic Italianate house—we had to understand the Italianate style, understand the scale of it. Once you finally understand the systems of detailing, you can play around a little bit. It took time to see the details, and see where they cheated—I mean, they weren't perfect; these houses were basically some of the first suburbs. So I had to educate myself on all that history and then figure out how to relate modernism to that history.
You're coming at it from slightly different perspectives, but what was the biggest surprise in tackling this project?
Brent: One of the joys of doing this series is a slight re-education of people who [learn about home renovation] just by watching HGTV when it's a $50,000 gut renovation of a house and it's done in 30 minutes after they choose two kinds of tile! There has to be rigor, and it is a struggle, especially a gut renovation in New York City. There's nothing simple about getting the approvals. I allowed it to become a major part of my life, with the risk and the money and the time we put into it. I'm not sure how people could fully prepare themselves to be on the job site every day, doing general contracting, while also having a full-time job. It's difficult, but nothing we can complain about. That's the advice I give to my clients—renovation in New York City is not simple, you're not choosing to do this because it's easy, you have to enjoy it.
Katie: I liked finding surprises here—like uncovering the fireplace downstairs, where the kitchen is. One day I came over and Brent had seen that the upstairs had caught fire at some point. We'll never know that history, but it just adds to the tapestry of the house. Or coming over during the demo phase—that was a really exciting time just to see progress so quickly. There would just be a bird's nest of boards, and you could see straight up to the roof.
On blending styles:
Brent: We weren't going to take this house and make it a minimalist, modernist box. It's not what this house wants to be. I'm not a historicist and I don't forever want to be doing this kind of molding, but I can look at it and see something interesting. The blend of modern and traditional is beautiful. Everyone I went to school with, and every person I've ever worked with, if they heard me say, "Big crown molding is beautiful"… [laughs].
Katie: When we moved into our old apartment in Cobble Hill, it was a bit of a turning point for us because we loved how our modern furniture looked in the old space.
Did you grow up in families who were entrenched in design and architecture?
Brent: My grandfathers both built amazingly humble cottages for their families, with their hands. There's a history in my family of tinkering—one grandfather was a builder, craftsman, Mason. The other grandfather worked on the line at General Motors. They were very enterprising and knew how to build things. As far as educational, institutional creativity, there is absolutely none of that in my family.
Katie: But you've also known that you wanted to be an architect from a very young age. So I feel lucky that I got to go through this process with Brent, because he's always looked at buildings differently, from when he was a little kid. My grandfather was a plasterer, so being in an older house—it's been fun figuring out how to work with it today in a different way.
What have you learned from the process?
Brent: Honestly, for me—this is my profession, this is what I do all day long 10 or 12 or 14 hours a day. Clearly, this house is not perfect and we understand that. We're forced to live with those and/or fix them. I can't just tell the client that the general contractor will handle it! It's been an awesome thing—I've learned so much as a professional designing my own house. It would be a foolish thing to say the whole process was perfect, I mean, every renovation has issues. But we've learned from those, which is hopefully what everyone gets out of the process.
Katie: We were very cognizant of the fact that we were building our own house there's a little extra pressure because you know you have to live with everything long-term.
Brent: We're perfectionists on a budget. That's a difficult combination. But it works best under constraints—you find better solutions that way.
Is there anything you would do differently, in terms of process or design decisions?
Brent: The more I work on these houses, I want to see every iteration that we went through. We iterated at the beginning of this process—for this floor we drew ten, fifteen plans. For the bathroom upstairs we drew 20 layouts. Sometimes you get to a point where it's not better than or worse than, it's just different. It would be interesting to just see the manifestation of those different schemes that we actually worked on. In terms of the specifics of this house… I would have ordered the windows a bit sooner. We fell behind on that and it was the one critical path item that slowed us down.
A big part of the process is whittling down—you can't have all the things. So with money and space constraints, how did you figure out what to focus on?
Katie: There were certain areas that were more important to us so we spent a little more money there than in other places. To me, I wanted a kitchen just like this, so we spent more on the marble—it's all a trade-off and you pick where you want to invest the most time and energy.
Brent: Every line item is a compromise, and there are thousands of line items. It doesn't compromise the project in its entirety but you have to understand that you compromise every step of the way to meet a budget.
Let's talk about costs.
Katie: There's a different scope and different timing for every project.
Brent: It comes down to individual condition. Every house is unique, every client is unique, what you want to do with the property is unique, and no two projects are the same. And square footage drives cost. You can do a $200 per square foot renovation but is it going to look like what you see in a magazine? Maybe not.
How did you end up sticking to your budget and saving money on the bottom line without sacrificing quality? Is it possible?
Brent: Yes, because we were honest with ourselves. We had a very good idea of costs and what we wanted to build before we started, rather than kid ourselves that our budget was 20% less than where it would end up. I think when people go "over" budget, their initial expectations weren't aligned with the real costs. It's all about expectations. And work with fair people you trust. If you do, In the end, you'll get value on what you paid for.
Many people have asked how much this project cost. We understand the curiosity, but imagine for a minute we told everyone exactly what our project cost. But that would be misleading, because even the exact same project today would be different in cost. Projects are unique and are born out of specific circumstances, teams, ambitions, and timing. What you see in the finished images is a resolved, well-built, moderately ambitious project. It cost more than a series of drywall boxes with an IKEA kitchen. It doesn't mean that we weren't efficient in sticking to a budget and willing to compromise on our line items. We attacked every single item to change the scope or specification, sometimes by even as little as 5 percent.
What advice can you share with readers about undertaking a renovation?
Brent: Buy the best property you can when you're in the market for your budget. Do your homework. Take inspiration from history and learn about your building, neighbors, and neighborhood. Be honest with yourself and those you work with. Work with people you like. You're doing something stressful (and that few people get to do) and it's ultimately worth it.
Any specific advice for redoing a brownstone, in particular?
Brent: And in brownstones there are a couple of key areas in terms of opening ceilings, if you can before buying the property. We opened certain floor areas to see what condition the joists were in. Before we signed on the dotted line, we went to the third floor, in the rear, where all the water drains and we opened up that ceiling. The joists looked okay. In these old buildings, that's where the water drains so that's where you'd see the damage if there were any.
There are a few areas that are bellwethers for the condition of a property—one would be the back garden level and whether those two or three joists (from the cellar level, when you look up), are they rotted when they hit the joist pockets? Is the party wall shit? You'll also incur expenses if you have to abate asbestos once you rip up the roof and add decking.
How do you carve out a minimalist interior that's also warm and family-appropriate?
Katie: Make a space that you live in, in which your furniture and finishes come alive with patina. We don't want it to feel too precious and look forward to the dings and scrapes from using it all.
How did you go about furnishing the interior? Did you decide on every piece as a couple or is it more to one person's taste?
Katie: The pepper mills are 100% Brent's. The rest are things we found together—on the street, on vacation.
Brent: We don't buy, trade, or sell anything unless we're both on board. That means it's tough for us to buy anything—which is a good thing!
Katie: You could touch anything in the house and it has a story.
What are some of the best furniture/lighting/art finds in your house?
· Breuer S35 chairs
· A pepper mill in the office that we scored at a flea market in Copenhagen
· Walter Bosse hedgehog we scored at a flea market in Berlin
· A vintage "Art Production in America" poster we found at an estate sale