When to Hire an Architect for your Townhouse/Apartment Renovation

If you are in the market for a new townhouse in NYC and know you will be renovating, I cannot stress enough the importance of hiring an architect BEFORE you purchase the house. During a standard purchase you have a Real Estate Attorney, Home Inspector and Title Company looking at various aspects of the property. Unfortunately, there are a number of things these entities do not look at that could result not only in significant unforeseen expenses, but even the possibility of not being able to do part of your dream renovation.

A few examples. You will sometimes be told there is available floor area for the building which may lead you to assume you can add that floor area. That is not always the case. That information is typically coming from one of the online real estate sites which find the maximum allowable floor area from zoning maps. However, there are many cases where you can only obtain that floor area by something called “height factor” calculations which may only be possible for a tall skinny building, complying with bonus clauses like providing affordable housing units, or, if none of the above, the house could be in a Landmark District and the Landmarks Commission will not agree to such an enlargement. In another example, I was hired for a townhouse renovation- a new purchase by a client who anticipated only upgrades of interior finishes. They had a home inspection report that stated the mechanical systems were in good working order. What the report did not say was the equipment is within a few years of the end of its serviceable life, and that it contains R-22 refrigerant which is no longer permitted. Replacing this system involves opening up walls and ceilings throughout to the roof, adding very significant costs to the renovation.

None of the usual pre-purchase entities look at anything related to the Department of Buildings (DOB) beyond the Certificate of Occupancy (CofO) and open violations. It is always important to obtain copies of the most recently filed drawings from the Department of Buildings and compare those to what is built. If it was not built according to the drawings, DOB will require you to file the old work as new which will add to the costs of the required filing fees and the work may not conform with code, requiring you to partially demolish and rebuild.

It is important to consult with an architect with experience in the type of property you are buying (co-op/condo, townhouse, etc.). Townhouses require a particular expertise in mechanical systems, structural repair, zoning research and preservation. Most architects will provide this service at their hourly rates.We do not charge for pre-purchase services if we are hired for the renovation. 

Townhouse Rooftop Living

Rooftops on NYC townhouses are greatly underutilized spaces. While backyards are often small and shadowed by surrounding buildings, rooftops offer a larger, light-filled option.

Before embarking on transforming your roof, you need to consult with an architect and structural engineer to advise you on zoning, code and structural issues. The roof framing of a townhouse is never adequate for a rooftop entertaining space. If you are planning a significant renovation, framing the roof to support the increased loads is a minimal increase in cost.  If you are already living there, there are still solutions. If your townhouse is brick it is often possible to install new steel beams spanning side wall to side wall– elevated above the existing roof. This allows you to create a safe platform for the new landscaped space, while leaving the roofing protected below.

There are three fundamental types of landscaped rooftops:

“PLATFORM” DESIGN where the finished surface is raised above the actual roofing surface and typically consists of pavers or a combination of pavers and artificial turf along with raised planters for plants– installed on adjustable pedestals and a structural fiberglass grid.

LIGHTWEIGHT GREEN ROOF where drought-resistant grasses in planting trays lay directly on the roofing surface, also combined with pavers and planters.

FULLY PLANTED GREEN ROOF where the roofing surface is covered with lightweight soil deep enough to grow plants.

There are also code issues to consider.  The work you are doing may require you to do a certain percentage of “green” (planted) roof, or a solar panel installation. Both of these can be waived if you amend your Certificate of Occupancy to indicate the roof as recreation space.

The feature and below photos are examples of a hybrid “platform” rooftop. This rooftop structure in Soho was designed to carry the load of an outdoor entertaining space. In this particular case, the ceilings of the space were high enough that we were able to design large tree planters that allowed the planting of (2) 40’ tall Pin Oak trees. The “grass” is a synthetic turf called “Forever Lawn.” The turf and pavers are installed on raised adjustable pedestals to create a level surface while protecting the roofing below.

Below is a rendering of a rooftop on a Brooklyn Heights townhouse. This house has no yard space as it is located on a corner and has a garage in the back so we obtained permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to flatten the original pitched roof to create a rooftop terrace. The center stair bulkhead divides the rooftop into two outdoor “rooms.”

For this Soho townhouse, our client’s design program was centered on entertaining so we designed a rooftop penthouse for indoor/outdoor living with front and back terraces. The back terrace is covered in a synthetic turf and includes a built-in grill. There is also a dumbwaiter (that comes up from the kitchen level) and services the rooftop. On the upper level, we created an outdoor pool which looks out over the rooftops of Soho.

NYC Townhouse Facades: Wood Frame, Brick and Brownstone

There are many things I enjoy about working on townhouse renovations – not the least being the facades. Restoring, rebuilding, or creating a new facade provides the opportunity to improve the streetscape, as well as the look and feel of the block. There are different types of facades, the basics being wood frame, brick and brownstone- all in or outside of a Landmark District.

Wood frame facade reconstruction in a Landmark District

Probably the most gratifying, wood frame house facades are often the most abused over time. In the Brooklyn Townhouse below (located in the Greenpoint Historic District), all the original detail was gone. We used the 1938 tax lot photo (below) combined with forensic discoveries on site to recreate the original facade. Note, the wood shingles in the tax lot photo were almost never original in pre-1900 houses. In this particular case, we found pieces of the original clapboards, as well as the “ghost outlines” of some of the decorative elements when the asphalt siding was removed. The new clapboards are painted cement siding which will not need another coat of paint for 20 years and will never warp or rot. This project obviously made a tremendous impact on the block. The owners plan to recreate the original stoop and railing in the next phase of work.

Stucco (“Brownstone”) facade reconstruction (Not Landmarked)

“Brownstone” is a term that is often misused or misunderstood. Brownstone is a particular type of facade on a townhouse. There are otherwise no differences between a “Brownstone” home and a “Townhouse.” Brownstone homes were originally large blocks of brownstone quarried in upstate New York. These original block facades were laid one atop the other to create a solid masonry facade. The “veins” of the brownstone ran horizontally and proved to be fairly durable. In later year builders sought to give the cachet of brownstone, but at a lower cost. To do this they built the front walls out of wood studs then faced that with thin (4” thick) slabs of brownstone with the “grain” or “veins” of stone on edge.The majority of brownstone facades are built in this manner. Unfortunately, brownstone is a very porous stone. The original large blocks faired well, however this latter method did not. In the winter, the stone would take on water during warmer days then when temperatures dropped below freezing, the outer layer would peel away like an onion- “spalling.” As a result, the majority of homes built in this manner have since been covered with cement stucco tinted to look like brownstone or limestone. 

This Upper East Side Townhouse is not located in a landmark district. All detail had been lost over time- the stoop, cornice and original detailing were all removed, and the thin brownstone block facade had been covered by painted cement stucco. The townhouse was identical to the one seen on the far right of the photo. For this one, we took the opportunity to design a new facade, again in stucco, but this time using a Limestone stucco.A large opening of steel windows was created on the 2nd floor, detailing added to the surface on the first floor and a half to give scale to the building, projecting details added around windows to create shadow and depth, a limestone stucco planter in front that conceals trash cans below, and a cap at the top to finish the facade.

Brick facade restoration in a Landmark District

The Brooklyn Heights Townhouse below is in the Historic District. The house was originally built around 1830 in the Federalist style with 3 stories and an attic under a pitched roof. In 1881 it was substantially renovated by architect, William Tubby, in the Neo Flemish style- the facade was extended and the attic turned into a full 4th floor. Our client wanted to restore the exterior as pristinely as possible to the 1881 condition. Missing and altered details were recreated, custom bricks were made to match existing, custom cast iron created to match original profiles from the 1938 tax lot photo, and new doors designed and approved by the Landmarks Commission to allow more light into the house.

Advantages of Townhouse Living

While apartments certainly have their perks: staff to greet you, receive packages, provide security, and make repairs; amenities such as gyms, swimming pools, etc., there are still distinct advantages to townhouse living.

I lived in NYC townhouses for 30 years and the last 5 years in a beautiful, new high-rise. While I certainly do not miss cleaning the gutters or shoveling the sidewalk, there are things I do miss:

Silence. No one is talking in the hall outside the door, dropping things on the floor above you, neighbors complaining about noise.

No “wet over dry.” You cannot put a bathroom anywhere you want because you might leak into someone else’s bedroom.

No pulling your hair out coordinating Certificates of Insurance just to get furniture delivered or repairs done.

Seriously, depending on your needs, there are so many things you simply cannot have in an apartment.

Outdoor Space: rear yard plus rooftop– larger than any terrace or balcony, and you can have proper landscaping (plus no restriction on having a grill) as seen above in our Cobble Hill Townhouse project.


Unusual Spaces: swimming pools- our Soho Townhouse project features both indoor and outdoor pools, as well as, basketball courts, batting cage, golf simulator which are in our Upper West Side Townhouse project that is currently under construction. 


Sheer volume of space: there are large apartments, however, it is quite rare to get one as large as some townhouses.

Storage: no apartment building storage unit equals a complete townhouse cellar worth of storage.

Climate Control: you can have totally independent climate control in every room with no one telling you it is not yet heating or cooling season.

Designing Your Townhouse/Apartment with 3D Technology

When you hire an architect few people would think to ask how they will be presenting their project while it is being designed. Most people assume they will be shown drawings and sketches, maybe a few renderings of key rooms.  Clients are usually given printouts of these as takeaways to think about. During design meetings, as things come up that require changes, the architect usually says they will look into them and get back with the client at the next meeting.

Our studio works differently. All our work is performed within 3D modeling software. When we meet with our clients it is in front of a screen with a “live” model of their home displayed. We move around the model like a video game as we are presenting the latest ideas. When something comes up they would like changed or want to see additional options, we make that change in front of them. While this process often allows them to make a final decision on the spot, other times it is something they need to mull over and take some time to consider. To help them with this, we provide them with a link to the 3D model they can then view at their leisure on their phone, tablet or computer. As the design progresses, the model gets more complete, eventually displaying the exact materials and finishes selected. 

What is even more important and different from the way most firms produce their work, is this model is used to produce all the drawings for construction, then used throughout the actual construction. When stone slabs are selected they are brought into the model for the client to see them in place before they are fabricated. We provide the same 3D model to the contractors when they bid the project, resulting in bids that are much more accurate and alleviate any confusion the contractor may normally have. During construction, the contractor and our team have the same 3D model on our phones which we refer to during every site meeting. All of this in the end benefits our clients as the project runs more smoothly and efficiently.

In the end, we want our clients to have no surprises- we want them to walk into their finished home and say it looks exactly as they had seen and approved in the model.

Optimizing Natural Light in Townhouses

Natural light has a profound impact on our daily lives.  It affects our moods, our sleep patterns, even the way we perceive colors in different rooms. Typically, “long and skinny” townhouses can sometimes feel a bit dark– especially in the middle rooms. In my 35 years of renovating townhouses in New York City, I have found that very few clients understand it is possible to improve natural light in their homes but have been ecstatic when they see the results.


While the NYC street grid is not uniform, most townhouses are usually facing “north/south” or “east/west.” It is important to understand that “east/west” townhouses get less direct sunlight than those that face north or south. If you decide on an east/west orientation understand that the west face will have daylight at the end of the day and the east face in the morning. For north/south houses, the north face will get very little sun at all, however, the south face will get a great deal of light from mid-morning until the end of the day. Understanding this orientation is very important when selecting a house and when designing a renovation. Take for example a “north/south” house. If you prefer to have your living room in the front of the parlor floor and kitchen in the rear, deciding which side of the block to be on (north or south) will determine which of those rooms gets the long afternoon light.


When you make your purchase and are ready to renovate you obviously want to maximize the window area– the taller the window the deeper the light penetrates into the room. One of the more dramatic solutions is to have a double height space in the back of the house or an entire wall of glass which has become very popular. You can see examples of these in our Cobble Hill Townhouse and Upper East Side Townhouse projects. Often overlooked, it is sometimes possible to have “lot line windows” (windows on the side walls of a house). These can be considered if your house is taller than your neighbor or if your house extends further to the rear than your neighbor. Another consideration if you have to go up steps to your yard from the garden level is lowering that to the level of the garden floor to gain taller windows. 



Once you have done all you can about the physical size and number of windows, another important design element is what I refer to as SEEING light. Design the layout of the floor plans so when you walk in you see through to a window in the back as we did in this Brooklyn Townhouse. This can be a tough one because people often want a powder room in the main entry hall that would block that view, but my personal opinion as a homeowner is that I prefer the joy of seeing daylight at the end of the hall every time I walk into my house and let guests walk a flight of stairs for the bathroom. On upper floors, align doors to bedrooms on the stair hall and a window beyond that so when doors are open you experience light in the halls.