How to convert a three-family brownstone to a two-family—and get more space for working at home
When Jay and his wife, Maya, purchased a three-family brownstone in Harlem a few years ago, their original goal was simple: more space. But the pandemic created different needs for their family. Fortunately, they had a plan that would carve out separate spaces to make being home all the time more comfortable.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Maya worked from home full-time. With Jay now working from home too and their two children learning remotely, the timing couldn’t be better to break ground on their Harlem brownstone renovation—which will transform their three-family brownstone into a two-family brownstone.
Currently, the home is organized as an owner’s duplex on the bottom, and two separate units on top. When complete, the Harlem brownstone will feature an owner’s triplex from the parlor level up, with a garden apartment rental.
“When we bought the place, we were a family of three—now we’re a family of four,” Jay says. “Having a dedicated office and four bedrooms will give us flexibility for separate living and working spaces for all of our family activities.”
In addition to layout changes, the family’s other top priority was a state-of-the-art kitchen.
“We cook a lot,” Jay says. “A huge priority is making sure the kitchen is exactly how we want it—including being able to see the living space from an island. We’re super excited about this floor, which is fully open and in view of the stairs that climb to the next floor.”
Challenged by a strange layout
The main challenges in the renovation include a strange layout—the result of a hasty gut renovation in the early aughts—as well as its narrowness (the brownstone is only 14-feet wide).
“A lot of space was eaten up by inefficient stairs, and it wasn’t going to convert simply,” says Jay architect, Peter Holtzman of Downtown Designworks Architecture. “The entire home was chopped up into an inefficient layout. The homeowners were looking for something that would be a really comfortable, enjoyable, and gracious place to live.”
Lastly, all of the existing finishes throughout the building were rental-grade and the homeowners wanted to update them.
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Jay hired Peter in November 2018 for the design portion of his Harlem renovation, choosing him for his reputation and track record in Harlem. When a homeowner contracts separately with an architect and a general contractor, the process is known traditionally as Design-Bid-Build, or as Bolster calls it, Build Only.
Build Only is the most traditional process in the renovation industry. The design firm or architect is first hired by the homeowner to deliver design documents. Once these are complete, the homeowner then solicits bids from contractors to perform the construction work.
Build Only is a good option for homeowners like Jay who have already completed the design phase of their project with an architect. Build Only is also a good option for homeowners who don’t mind being hands-on with different aspects of the project or want to learn every aspect of construction.
Jay is a C-suite, data-driven finance executive, and as such he was mindful of the overall cost of his project. But when he started down his renovation path in 2018, he didn’t have any preconceived notions as to which renovation process would be best for him, Design-Build, Build Only, or Agile.
Jay ultimately decided to proceed with a Build Only process for his renovation for a few key reasons. The first was that he was deliberate about finding his architect through word of mouth. The two had a good rapport, and Jay respected Peter’s deep knowledge of Harlem.
Jay also had the bandwidth to manage his renovation and wished to bid out his project to multiple contractors (for homeowners who are looking for a more hands-off or streamlined approach, Design-Build or Agile renovation may be better options).
The bidding process
Since Jay and his family wanted more space, the original approved plans for his project actually included a penthouse expansion. The bid was sent out to three contractors.
Of the three bids, one came in “super high” and the rest were lacking in detail. Jay was not impressed by the level of detail in the bid, describing the bids he received from the three contractors from the first round of bids as “coarse grain” with large, ambiguous swaths of line items totaling $200,000 or more. Furthermore, Jay and Maya visited some of the projects completed by this first cohort of contractors and were not impressed by the quality of work nor the timeframe in which the renovations were completed.
“I thought, ‘We can do better than this,’” Jay says.
It was clear from the first round of bids that the budget for the penthouse addition was more than the homeowners were comfortable with, so Jay and Maya decided to reduce their scope of work and focus on the three-family to two-family brownstone conversion. With their new plans in place, they decided to go out for a second round of bids. This is when Jay discovered Bolster and decided to get in touch.
“Working with Bolster has been great,” Jay says. “They were super transparent and on point with the bidding process.” Jay was also impressed by Bolster’s “roll up their sleeves” attitude and level of professionalism.
“One of the things we were bracing for was a certain level of non-professionalism of contractors,” Jay says. “Bolster has been quite impressive in this regard. They have been really meticulous and a pleasure to work with.”
Peter, who has a lot of experience in assisting homeowners in the bidding process, agrees.
“Bolster won on price, but also because they have a really nice client-facing system” Peter says. “They’re organized, and the bids were clear and detailed. Without details, it’s hard to make informed decisions on how to allocate funds. With some contractors, it’s never clear where money is going, whereas Bolster backs things up.”
Want to learn more about other types of renovation processes? Check out this article.
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