This article is an in depth look into issues you may want to learn about when renovating an apartment in NYC.
Apartment Renovation NYC
I am an architect in NYC and owner of Manhattan Based architecture firm Fontan Architecture. We have renovated many apartments and below is a series of ideas and tips for renovated covering everything from design, to construction, and logistics. All images are from our projects in NYC.
NYC Apartment Renovation Ideas and Tips
- Remove Interior Walls
- Combine Apartments
- Add Rooms
- Add a Bathroom
- Tub or Shower
- Open The Kitchen
- Replace or Restore
- Add Laundry
- Add Closets
- Think About Details
- Smart Home Devices
- Sustainable Design
- Alteration Agreement
- Understand Your Design Services
- Approvals and Patience
- Coordination & Communication
- Be Mentally Prepared
- Have a Realistic Budget
- Speak Up
- Furniture Plans
- Punch List
Remove Interior Walls
You may want to consider removing interior partition walls in your apartment. Removing partition walls can be a great way to transform your apartment. You can remove a wall to open your kitchen or remove a wall to make a larger living room. Most interior walls will be relatively easy to remove but you will need an architect or engineer to determine if the wall is bearing or has any utilities. You can create an open plan space which means having minimal or no partition walls.
You can see another post we wrote to learn more about Removing Interior Walls In NYC.
Open Plan Living Space
Open plan means minimizing interior walls and having spaces connected and open. For example the kitchen, living room, and dining room can all be one space.
When I started my architecture firm, I was very surprised at how often people combine apartments. We always have at least a few of these we are doing at any given time. We have another post reviewing the logistics for Combining Apartments in NYC. Sometimes it is easier to combine apartments than it is to find one perfect apartment.
Adding a Room
You can build new partition walls to add rooms to your apartment. By reconfiguring the walls you can easily increase the number of bedrooms in your apartment if you have the space for it. There are very specific codes so if you are looking to add a bedroom to your apartment make sure you fulfill all the requirements. You will need an architect for this. To learn more, please see our complete guide to Adding a Bedroom.
Adding a Home Office
I think more and more people will be working from home. This growing trend may want you to consider a separate home office as opposed to just working in the living room. Privacy and a sepration form work and home can be very helpful to productivity.
The photo below is in a loft in Chelsea we renovated. We added a home office with custom black iron and glass doors.
Add a Bathroom
In some buildings you can add a bathroom. In many you cannot. Adding a Bathroom is a great enhancement to an apartment if you can do it.
Tub or Shower
People are constantly replacing tubs with showers. In most of the apartments we renovate people will take out their tubs if they have multiple bathrooms, and usually just have one tub in the apartment. Everyone wants a walk in shower. We have another post on Bath To Shower Conversion in case you want to read more. This does come down to personal taste.
The photo below is taken in a Manhattan Apartment we renovated in the Financial District. This bathroom was originally all white with a tub. The client wanted to replace the tub with a shower and add texture. We made a concrete finish bathroom with a walk in curbless shower with a linear drain.
Open The Kitchen
Kitchens used to be smaller than today’s standards. They were also often placed in a separate room with walls. Nobody likes this anymore. We are constantly removing walls in apartments to make open kitchens. You can create an open plan for the kitchen, living, dining area, which means having no walls between any of the spaces. This will create an open feel and make the apartment seem larger. Kitchen design today is an integral part of an apartment renovation. The kitchen is a feature. You can have a kitchen island with stool seating which creates a really useful space.
Replace or Restore
To replace or restore, that is the question. Sometime you will want to do a full gut renovation in your apartment and replace everything, you may also want to keep some things and restore them. For example, hard wood floors. In most cases, if you have floors that are in bad condition, they can be sanded, patched, and refinished. This can keep some of the original character of the apartment. Additionally, restoring the floors can be a good way to be a little more green and also save you some money. There may be many parts of your apartment you want to consider keeping. This is just one example. In the end, it is your apartment. If you want to rip everything out and start over, go for it.
In NYC, restoration is common when renovating a Townhouse or Brownstone. To continue the flooring example, we did a townhouse renovation in Brooklyn where the owner wanted to keep the original floors. The floors were in bad shape, so we found reclaimed wood floors to match and he was able to patch and repair the floors.
Original Apartment Characteristics
You should assess all the existing characteristics if there are any unique or architecturally significant aspects. Exposing structure for example looks great in lofts.
If you have a brick wall you may want to expose this or some people choose to cover it up. Loft apartments for example have lots of historic value and architectural details worth consideration. Renovating your apartment comes down to your personal taste and the overall big picture idea of your apartment design.
If your building allows laundry, add the laundry. That being said, water proofing is not to be taken lightly, make sure this is done properly. you need to hire a good team for your renovation.
Adding Washer Dryer to an apartment renovation is a major convenience. Check with your building and see if they have any rules about adding laundry to your apartment.
I do not think anyone living in New York has ever said they have too much storage. There are lots of closet companies that do great closet interiors. You really need to think through your storage space.
Think About Details
Not everyone is good with details, but details are important. Think about details or have your team help you with this. I like to take my clients to showrooms so they can see examples of materials, fixtures, appliances, and details. If you want to look at kitchens, the showrooms will all have several full kitchens set up for you to see.
- Think about kitchen and bath accessories
- Materials and Textures
- Built Ins
Smart Home Devices
There are many smart home devices and systems that you can use. The one most popular smart home devices are the learning thermostats. These learn your patterns to develop a program that optimizes your comfort and reduces energy with an efficient schedule.
Sustainable Apartment Renovation
There are many ways to make a renovation more sustainable.
Ideas for a Sustainable Apartment Renovation
- LED Lighting
- Programmable or smart thermostats
- Zoned HVAC
- Energy Star Appliances
- Recycled or Reclaimed materials
- Low flow fixtures
- Dual flush toilets
- Restore instead of replace
- Low or no VOC paints
- Weather strip and drafty windows
- Build to last
The most overlooked sustainable design technique is building to last. Renovating every 10 years is not very green. I highly recommend building well and with durability in mind for a sustainable apartment renovation.
Read and understand your alteration agreement. This is an agreement between you are your building’s board. See another post we wrote for a deeper look into a building’s Alteration Agreement. Co-Op and Condo boards can be very fussy. So be prepared.
Understand Your Design Services
Not all architects offer the same services. It is important to understand what is included and what is not included in the proposal for architectural services. Are you getting full services and if so how are these defined.
Always ask people what is included in their price and what is not included.
Approvals and Patience
There are a lot of people involved in an apartment renovation in NYC. You will need to get approvals from your building board / management company, as well as the Department of Buildings (DOB). I find the DOB usually is faster than the building management companies. People always complain about the DOB but compared to some of the management companies and reviewing architects, I would say management is more likely to slow down your project than the DOB. Here is a brief overview of the typical process (some buildings have different protocols).
Building Management Review
Once you have a set of drawings and scope of work from your architect, you must first send it to your building management company for review before you can file with the NYC Department of Buildings. These cannot be done at the same time. Your building management or Board Representative will cosign the paperwork, therefore the building review must be completed before filing. The building will have their own architect or engineer I usually call them the building architect or the reviewing architect. This is an additional cost to you beyond your architect who I will refer to as the design architect, The building architect will review the design architects plans and issue questions and comments. We usually refer to these as objections. The design architect responds to the objections and there is a little back and forth.
Eventually the job gets approved by the reviewing architect. You can hen get signatures form the Board or management for your DOB paperwork.
Apartment Renovation NYC DOB
When you file with DOB the job will be assigned to a plan examiner. This person is a DOB architect or engineer. Your job will be put on their queue and no there is no way to make it go faster. The DOB plan examiner will issue questions or comments, we call these objections. The design architect will review and respond to the objections. When the objections are all resolved and the architect has proved all the required items the job can be approved. With the exception of being on top of things and responding to the objections as quickly as possible there is nothing the architect can do to make this go faster. There is nothing anyone can do they will not let you skip the line and no the City Of New York Department OF Buildings does not care how much of a rush you are in.
Anyone who tells you that there is some secret to expedite the job is lying to you. The best advice I can give you is to be patient. I have been the design architect for a lot of apartment renovations so please believe me when I say this: Calling your architects office every day asking when the job will be approved is not going to make anything move any faster. I promise you its not going to help unless you think your architect is slacking that’s a different story.
Patience When Renovating
Please do not embark on an apartment renovation without planning to exhibit some patience. This is going to be a multi step process and there is a lot to do. Be reasonable be patient. Additionally do not trust people who only tell you what they think you want to hear and make unrealistic promises. I tell all my clients up front to be patient when it comes to the process of renovating an apartment in NYC.
Coordination & Communication
You should be very concerned if your architect and contractor do not communicate or do not have any coordination meetings. If your architect hands the drawings over and thinks their job is done that means they are not doing a full service job. We always include construction site visits in our proposal. The number of site visits will depend on the size of the job, its complexity, and the fees. I do not recommend you ask the architect to cut this out of their proposal to save money on the design fees.
The following is an abridged construction coordination checklist for proper coordination and communication when renovating.
- Architect and Contractor meet before construction begins
- Architect responds to all contractor RFIs (Request for Information)
- Designated construction foreman and or construction manager
- Contractor calls or emails the architect questions and updates
- Workers on the job everyday
- Coordination meeting after demo
- Shop drawings provided
- Contractor emails job site updates and photos regularly
- Punch List
Be Mentally Prepared
Renovating can be a lot of fun. Most of my clients are very hands on and enjoy getting involved. I have had many clients that literally go to the job site every single day (I don’t advise this bit it’s your apartment). Some people have fun with it but everyone gets at least a little stressed. This is a big undertaking. IT can be stressful.
I was once with a couple yelling at each other over picking out kitchen cabinets. Don’t do that. Stay calm and realize up front this is going to be a big deal. Be mentally prepared for some inconvenience in your life. It will be worth it in the end.
Have a Realistic Budget
You will need to establish a realistic budget when renovating your apartment in NYC. We have another post on NYC apartment renovation costs, so I wont go into detail here. Plan for a contingency budget costs can creep up on you.
When you are renovating your apartment everyone is going to have an opinion on what you should do, especially the people you hire. Speak up and make sure you are heard. It’s your apartment. As an architect I am here to help you and I do have my own design sense but this is going to be your home. You need to communicate and in the end you being happy in your own home is what matters.
You can get help with your furniture layout. As an architect I can show all the furniture on the plans when we renovate an apartment. This can be a great help with figuring out what to buy and how to lay out the furniture. Also you will want to coordinate your furniture layout with your lighting layout.
Apartment Renovation Logistics
At the end of every renovation there is a punch list. This is normal. A construction punch list is a list of all the outstanding items and deficiencies that must be corrected before project closeout. Having a few outstanding items is not a sign of a bad contractor. There is a punch list with every contractor I do not care how good they are. Do not get frustrated with this portion of the job. We can have a walk through with the architect, contractor, and the homeowner to do the punch list. We literally walk from room to room and point out any issues and make a list. At the end the contractor reviews the list and will check things off after they are complete. Upon punch list completion there can be a follow up walk through.
Inspections and Sign offs
You will need to have inspections during the work and at the completion of the job. Most NYC apartment renovation will be filed as Directive 14 which means your architect must do a final inspection and submit a Technical Report to DOB. Additionally there will be sign off paperwork. Upon completion of all inspections and required items the DOB will issue a Letter of Completion.
Apartment Renovation Construction
There are some easy mistakes one can make when renovating here are a few tips for ensuring quality construction for your apartment renovation. Quality control requires oversight and coordination.
Construction Quality Tips for Apartment Renovations in NYC
- Wood must acclimate (especially floors)
- Kitchen Cabinet Shop Drawings and Mark Out
- Not all dimmer switches work well with all lights
- Have enough outlets
- Add hard wired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
Wood Floor Acclamation For New Floors
An easy construction mistake to avoid when renovating your apartment is wood expansion and contraction from a lack of acclimation. Wood floors must acclimate. Wood expands when it absorbs humidity and it contracts when it releases humidity. This can cause serious problems. Wood must acclimate to its environment before it is installed. This means you must take the wood out of the boxes and spread them out in the area they are to be installed. Usually this is done by “sticker stacking” the wood planks.
Why is wood acclamation important? Wood acclimation is the process of exposing the wood to the home environment. This allows the wood to adsorb or release humidity to match its environment and to expand or contract with the internal temperature. If wood does not acclimate it can cause floor boards to expand and pop up when they absorb humidity or contract and have open seams when they reseal humidity. Having the boards in proper equilibrium with the home internal environment will prevent excessive expansion and contraction. You should acclimate wood for a minimum of 72 hours or longer if there is high levels of humidity present. Wood should be installed at a normal indoor temperature.
Kitchen Cabinet Shop Drawings & Mark Out
Kitchen cabinets are not ordered from architectural plans! They are ordered based on shop drawings. Shop drawings are drawings and details produced by the manufacturer of the product. You kitchen cabinet company will send someone to your apartment to take measurements and produce their own set of drawings for the kitchen. If shop drawings are produced before demolition they need to come back out and take additional measurements after demo is complete. Additionally many contractors will do a Kitchen Mark Out where they draft the kitchen cabinets on the floor and walls with a marker. This is a great way to ensure your kitchen cabinets will fit and work in the space.
Kitchen cabinets are one of the largest expenses when renovating an apartment and often have the longest lead time. You want the responsibility for the cabinets fitting to be on the fabricator or installer. Even Ikea sends someone to your apartment to measure and do shop drawings for kitchens. Any contractor who orders cabinets without shop drawings or at least a kitchen mark out is an armature. Professionals take precaution and understand the nuance to kitchens. Read more in another post we wrote about Who measures for kitchen cabinets.
Dimmers and LEDs
Not all dimmer switches work with all lights. Some dimmer switches do not work well with LEDs or with certain LEDs. This is a common problem the dimmers need to be selected with the lights not independently.
Add Enough Outlets
You want to make sure to add enough outlets to your apartment. NYC Electrical Code sets a minimum requirement for outlets. I see lots of apartments and one of the biggest electrical problems I see is an electrical panel in a closet. You cannot put the electrical panel in a little closet. It needs clearance by code.
NYC Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Every bedroom in an apartment must have a smoke detector in the bedroom and one outside the bedroom within 15 feet of the door. Additionally you will need a Carbon Monoxide Detector. We use combination Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors for all of them. Additionally I recommend using smart detectors that have self testing diagnostics to ensure proper function of the devices. We install hard wired smoke detectors with battery backups for all new detectors.
Apartment Renovation NYC Renovation Tips and Ideas
As an architect I study the process of renovating apartments, but these are complicated and quite involved issues. In this article we reviewed some of the basic tips and ideas with regards to NYC apartment renovations. This post does not assume to cover every possible issue or condition, but provide a general overview of the topic.
Although we typically do apartment renovations in New York City we think this post should be helpful for anyone planning a renovation. Comment below with your apartment renovation tip.
Thank you for reading our blog post on Apartment Renovation NYC.
I hope this was helpful. Please leave questions and comments below. If you would like to speak with an architect you can Contact Fontan Architecture directly.
This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 15 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.