The 6 most popular NYC renovation trends right this very moment

By Marjorie Cohen  |
February 1, 2017 - 11:59AM

Is there any New Yorker who doesn’t fantasize about renovating all—or at least part—of his or her apartment? We doubt it. Given that, here is fodder for those fantasies: six NYC renovation trends that are popular at the moment according to experts who help suggest, plan, design and/or supervise renovations in the five boroughs.

1. Combining two (or more) apartments


Some New Yorkers are playing the waiting game, hoping that before too long their neighbors will put their apartment on the market; on the other hand, others buy two apartments from the get-go with the goal of combing them. Anna Karp, founder of, a company that matches New Yorkers with great architects and contractors and provides them with cost information needed for a major renovation (and a Brick Underground sponsor) said that this is a trend “ driven primarily by young families who want to add another bedroom, a family room, expand their kitchen, or create  a roomier entertainment space. Smaller rooms are like the city version of a garage “where you chuck your sports gear.” Adding a second or even third bathroom is another popular option when apartments are combined. (Note: The photo above is of a Bolster apartment combination.)

Karp says that before embarking on this type of ambitious reno project, keep these things in mind: Will it be worth the investment, as in will your property appreciate enough to cover the costs (which include double monthlies)?; vertical combinations are more structurally complex than horizontal combos; a team of professionals will be required—an architect, a structural engineer and a general contractor—all who have done this before. “There will be a lot of cost that is ‘unsexy’ but that can’t be avoided. Be aware that an initial budget is just that, a starting point," she says.

2. Warm and wooden floors


These days, consumers are loving wide-planked, dark, and warm-hued flooring. Wood-style tiles are an “attractive, subtle, unique option to humdrum wood flooring,” says Dana Gehry, owner of Syystema, a lifestyle and household management consultancy.

Karp agrees, saying that homeowners are over and done with parquet or other “dated flooring solutions.” 

Jean Brownhill, founder of Sweeten, a company that connects clients with contractors and helps them through the process of renovating (and, full disclosure, also a Brick Underground sponsor), says that the renovators they’re working with are “increasingly choosing 5- and 7-inch wide plank flooring,” too. They are, however, “paying a premium for that style."  (Note: The photo above is from a Sweeten-designed home.)

“Regular wood sizes can range from as low as a few dollars a square foot (home improvement stores offer options for under $3/square foot) to $15, $20/square foot and beyond. With wide-plank flooring, you're looking at intact sections of wood that are more substantial and therefore higher quality, so it may be hard to find wide-plank options for under $10/square foot, and more likely starting at $15.”

Underfloor or radiant-heated floors are now pretty much required with most projects since “it’s not a game-changer in terms of pricing” as compared to other renovation projects. Karp says, underfloor heating typically ranges from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on square footage and depending on electric radiant (more expensive at $8 per square foot) and hydronic ($6 per square foot).

As Gehry says, everyone likes “warm toes.” A downside to those warm toes would be the possibility that an underfloor pipe might burst which would mean tearing up your floor and, depending on the extent of the damage, repairing ruined furniture or art (though Gehry stresses that this kind of thing is rare).

Architect Erika Belsey of Belsey & Mahla Architects thinks that engineered flooring is an area of real progress, making it possible to install radiant heat under wood, not just under-tile in the bathroom. Then again, she warns, “don’t be surprised at how high the electrical bill is when it comes!” 

When you’re figuring out what you want to do about your floors, you may realize that you have to level the floor before you replace it. If this is the case, get an an expert opinion from a contractor—especially if you are living in a prewar building where that process can be complicated.

3. Open kitchens, with snazzy (and varied) countertops


While the New York Times recently ran a story about the increasing popularity of closed kitchens, some experts say that trend is most common amongst New Yorkers for whom the staff does most of the work in the kitchen. For "regular" New Yorkers, the trend is still in open kitchens, say our experts. That's because New Yorkers "are always trying to create more space within our limited space, and open kitchens can be a great solution to that," says Gehry.

If an open kitchen is out of the question for space/and/or financial reasons, strategic use of islands can “give an open kitchen feel while serving a triple function of storage, cooking, and seating if designed correctly,” adds Karp.

And while the popularity of the open kitchen has been holding pretty steady recently, renovators' tastes in countertops seem to be a bit more fickle. “Granite seems to still be king in other cities and new luxury housing throughout the country, but many New Yorkers have moved on,” says Brownhill. (Pictured above: an open kitchen designed by Sweeten.)

“Until recently, no self-respecting designer would have specified tiles or countertops that tried to look like marble but weren’t,” says Meret Lenzlinger of LOCAL Brooklyn, a design and architecture firm.  “Laminates looked just like what they were—photograph  of stone printed on a substrate…”  Most people agree that marble is beautiful “but it is quite soft and porous and stains and etches easily. I often say to clients…we all love the idea of that old Italian farm sink that’s been worn down by generations of use, but not everyone is up for that.” 

Now that fabricators are beginning to get the “natural look” right, many New Yorkers are going with man-made countertops. Lenzlinger says that manufacturing processes have made great advances in creating more natural-looking materials, producing solid surface countertops where “the veins and speckles aren’t just printed on or randomly mixed in, but embedded in the material in a highly controlled way.”

One man-made countertop material now trending is quartz (not to be confused with quartzite, which is a natural stone). Quartz is durable, won’t scratch, is heat-resistant and is “available in a wide range of colors and shades so it presents many design possibilities” says Brownhill. “You can expect to see seams with a quartz counter but choosing a slab with a dark color will make them less visible.”

Lenzlinger advises that if you are going to go with quartz, make sure that you are shown more than just a small sample: “Make sure the person in the showroom shows you an entire slab or an installed countertop—what often looks like a lot of variation in a small sample can become a very regular pattern on a larger surface and look terribly fake.”

4. Redoing rooftops and upgrading outdoor space


When the weather turns cold in New York City, Karp sees an uptick in interest in renovating rooftops, terraces, and other outdoor spaces: “Manhattanites can’t stop thinking of summer throughout the winter.” 

A rooftop renovation project needs lots of lead time—12 months from the time an architect is hired and three months from when a general contractor comes on board. "You need to get buy-in from neighbors, permission from the Department of Buildings, and maybe even Landmarks.” How are materials going to reach the site? Do they have to be hauled or is there an elevator that reaches up to the top of the building? These are all issues that need to get ironed out. 

For other outdoor spaces, terraces, or gardens, Karp advises thinking of the space “from an architectural and landscaping perspective first, rather than ‘planning for small fixes,’ regardless of how small the space is. Finding a concept for the space will dictate how all the other decisions are dealt with.” (Pictured above: a rooftop by Bolster.)

“Vertical gardens can turn an area green by using the walls only. In New York, we are space-starved and we need more green and this is a fun solution for both. Good outdoor lighting can make a space look special and bigger, and it can be fun to integrate different colors and types of lights. Practical pieces of furniture like benches that double up as storage or foldable tables make a difference when the space is small," she says.

“Good design is important for privacy issues," says Karp. "You want to be able to enjoy the outdoor space without sharing your life with half the city. Landscape gardening can’t be an afterthought." 

And when it comes to furnishing your outdoor cooking/eating area, Karp cautions not to "break the bank to get a stainless steel kitchen. The bulk of your investment should be in good design and construction.”

5. Custom cabinetry


Karp is convinced that “nothing speaks louder of luxury than bespoke carpentry, made to your own taste and needs (the photo above is of one of those). Her clients are increasingly interested in a “truly personal look and utility from cabinets, vanities, bookshelves….If you’re tall, your desk can be made to fit your legs. If you want to hide the TV you can have a ‘secret cabinet’ to do that. If you need a secret bar, why not?”

Brownhill says that many of her company’s clients invest in custom kitchen cabinets because they want durability and fit into small spaces. “Almost all of our cabinetry is custom,” says Belsey, “ since New York City spaces are quirky, and every inch counts." And, Lenzlinger adds that “custom can be worth the cost because you can get the most out of every inch.”

“Updating the millwork in your home,” says Karp,  “can be enough to make it feel like  you have a new home."

When you are choosing a carpenter to do your custom carpentry, Karp says that “ the devil is in the detail.” She says that you should be sure to see the work that the carpenter has created in the past and  “feel free to open up shelves, doors etc., see how these flow, align and feel in terms of weight."

For those who are environmentally minded, finding out about the provenance of the timber chosen is a key point. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified timber is what environmentally minded homeowners are looking for, regardless of the species. The FSC ensures that the forest where the timber is logged is managed sustainably and that the supply chain of the product can be traced back to its original source.

6. Digitizing homes


Gehry’s clients are retrofitting their homes with iPad technology “so that doors lock, lights go on, music plays, burglar alarms get set, and window shades go up and down at the touch of their phone.” She adds that digitizing is most popular with millennials but Belsey thinks of it as more of a “temperamental, not generational, divide. Some clients love to be able to raise and lower their blinds from three time zones away, and others want the old Westinghouse dial thermometer. In our opinion, it really depends on how many consultants you are willing to retain.”

Pros of digitizing: Everything becomes easy access—you can lock your front door from your bed if you’ve forgotten to do it before climbing under the covers. Cons: you’ll be “even more beholden than ever to your smart phone," says Karp.



Marjorie Cohen

Contributing writer

Marjorie Cohen is a New York City-based freelance journalist, editor and author of over seven non-fiction books. Her real estate reporting has appeared in amNewYork, Investopedia, and The West Side Rag. Since moving to New York five decades ago for graduate school at the Teachers College of Columbia University, Marjorie has lived on the Upper West Side, with a brief detour to West 15th Street when she got six months free rent in a new building.

Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.