Renovating a Townhouse in NYC

by | Last updated May 15, 2023 | New York City, Renovations, Townhouses / Brownstones

If you are planning to renovate a townhouse in NYC you probably have a lot of questions. This is normal because renovating a townhouse can be complicated.

If you intend to renovate your townhouse in New York City you will need to hire an architect, hire a general contractor, obtain approvals, and permits from the DOB and LPC (if the townhouse is landmarked). The renovation will take planning and evaluation of the existing conditions. This is a major undertaking and requires a team of qualified professionals. 

I am Jorge Fontan, an architect in New York and owner of Manhattan based architecture firm Fontan Architecture. In this post I am going to review some of the basic concepts and frequently asked questions about renovating a townhouse in NYC.

 

Find an Architect for Your Townhouse

The first step in renovating a townhouse in NYC is to consult with an architect. Even just a quick phone call with an architect experienced in townhouse renovations may be able to clear up a lot of your concerns and questions. In our office, many clients call me for a consultation even before they put an offer on a townhouse. We have also on multiple occasions started design before the clients close on the property. It is never too early to call an architect.

Who you work with is very important. You are going to be stuck with them for quite some time. I recommend putting a lot of thought into who you choose for your project team. This is an important decision.

 

Establish a Scope of Work for Your Townhouse Renovation

As an architect, the first thing I want to do is determine a scope of work. This means establish the game plan for the project, the goals, and determine how much work is to be done. For example, is it going to be a full gut renovation or are you making small alterations? I am not going to elaborate too much on this, but setting the game plan early on is important to the overall project success. I always have an extensive conversation about this with my clients early in the process.

 

Is Your Townhouse / Brownstone Landmarked?

Not all townhouses are landmarked, but many are. If you are planning to renovate a landmark brownstone / townhouse there will be additional regulations and bureaucracy involved. If you are renovating a townhouse that is not landmarked, there is still bureaucracy and regulations that apply, but they will be less.

There are many ways to check if a property is landmarked or in a landmark district. This can be quickly established in a preliminary call with an architect who can look up the information for you. If you want to look it up yourself, here is a link to the New York City Landmarks Maps.

 

Can You Renovate a Landmark Townhouse in NYC?

You can renovate a landmark townhouse in NYC as long as you acquire all the necessary approvals and permits from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and follow their guidelines for renovating a landmark townhouse. Additionally, you will need to obtain Department of Buildings (DOB) approvals and permits, as well as other agencies, depending on the scope of work.

LPC has very specific guidelines and as long as you follow these requirements, you can renovate your landmark townhouse or landmark brownstone. Some alterations are more complicated than others with regards to LPC review and approvals. In most cases your project will need approvals from both LPC and DOB. These procedural matters take time, but your architect will handle them.

I always make sure to come up with the best strategy for filing with LPC and DOB for each of my projects. Sometimes it makes sense to break the job up into pieces and file things separately. For example, if you are gut renovating the interiors and replacing windows, I can file the windows in a separate application to LPC. The interior renovation application can get approved relatively quickly, whereas the windows will take a bit longer to get approved. This way you can start the interior gut, which takes longer than installing windows anyway.

 

Assess the Existing Conditions

As the architect, we start every project with assessing the existing conditions. This is especially important in a townhouse renovation. I would look to have a discussion early in the process about what features, if any, are to remain and in what condition they are in. Aside from the decorative and aesthetic details there are many issues we look for in our initial assessment.

Some reoccurring issues we find in townhouses are joists that are in damaged, splitting, pulling out of beam pockets, or separation within mortise and tenon joints. The problem is these are difficult to identify before gutting the entire building. We can do some probes early on. This means opening up a few wall and ceiling locations but with probes we only see a small area. We also look to see how unlevel the floors are if they are sagging that is a sign of necessary work. Almost all stairs in old townhouse have a little sag towards the inside of the building away from the exterior wall. This is also very common.

We look for masonry cracks and cracks in brownstone that may need to be repaired. There are al sorts of issues that the house can have so we need to do whatever we can to identify these early on. It is important to know that we need to gut the entire house to really understand what is going on. When you do demolition on the interior of a townhouse that is over a hundred years old you will find some problems, and these will lead to addition costs.

 

Exterior Townhouse Restoration

If the exterior of the townhouse is in bad shape it can usually be restored. Brownstone often can flake and deteriorate over time. Townhouses with brick facades can develop cracks where areas of brick need to be replaced. The bricks often need pointing. There can be many things to work on when it comes to the exterior of a townhouse.

Some townhouses in NYC are over one hundred years old and in excellent shape. This will always be case by case. Just know that most things can be repaired, but it is always a matter of cost and time of course. Some features may not be salvageable but we need to assess everything and make a game plan.

Below is a photo of the original front door to a townhouse we renovated in Brooklyn. We had this door taken down, sanded, puttied, and remounted with new hardware. It was a huge improvement.

NYC Townhouse Exterior Restoration

NYC Townhouse Exterior Restoration

 

Designing Your Townhouse Renovation

I am not going to focus too much on actual design of the townhouse in this post, as that is the most subjective part of the project, but I will make a few points on design.

First thing you need is a general attitude on the design regarding the original details. Do you intend to keep these or get rid of them? You can make the home completely modern by eliminating the old interior details and making all the new details sleek and modern. You can keep all the old details and make new items match them, making the home more traditional. Or you can do a transitional design and mix the old and new. Either way, it is good to think about this and have some direction on that subject.

Another point on the design is the layout. You really want to have a good layout to all the rooms. Start off with figuring out how many rooms you need and the architect will work out ideas from there. One big decision is whether or not you want an open parlor floor. There are lots of decisions to make when it comes to the layout of a townhouse. This is a really important part of the process.

 

Refinishing vs Replacing

You need to decide whether you would like to keep or remove original features. This will always be a personal choice of preference and we can do it either way, or a mix of the two. If you have a great looking old floor that can be refinished, this might stay. Maybe there are old details that you like. Or you may be looking to do very modern interiors and want to get rid of everything. This is all up to you and your team to discuss.

In the photo below you can see the interior of a townhouse we renovated in Brooklyn. We refinished the existing floors and found some reclaimed wood to replace areas that were too damaged. You will also see the exposed brick of the fireplace, which we left exposed as a feature. The fireplace was bricked in by a previous owner, but it still looks good with this small area of exposed brick.

Exposed Brick and original floors in a Brooklyn Townhouse

Exposed Brick and original floors in a Brooklyn Townhouse

 

Replacing Windows

You can replace windows on a townhouse whether or not it is landmarked. If the house is not landmarked, the process for window replacement is quite simple. If it is landmarked, we will need to get LPC approval on the windows. Be aware that they can be fussy about the details. Either way windows are costly. There is a wide range of quality, materials, and pricing on windows.

 

Structural Repairs and Upgrades

Some townhouses are quite old and in need of structural repairs. We renovated a townhouse that was built in 1843 and it needed quite a bit of structural work. These old houses have damage to the wood joists or can have joints that are pulling apart. Sometimes the masonry has problems. And sometimes you make changes that require additional structural work, such as adding a roof deck, which increases the load, or removing load bearing walls.

 

Building an Addition to a Townhouse

If you want to build an addition to a townhouse the first thing to do is have an architect review the zoning on the property. The New York City Zoning Resolution regulates the use and bulk of all buildings and homes in NYC. The bulk regulations determine things like how tall it can be, how many square feet you can add, setback requirements, etc.

Any townhouse addition needs to start with a zoning analysis by an architect. I look at these all the time. Sometimes they are straightforward and I can give a pretty good answer quickly, and sometimes they are more complicated. If the zoning does not work, then you may be out of luck, but as I said, this is the first step when discussing an enlargement of any kind to a townhouse. Whether you build up or build back, there will be a long list of zoning regulations to follow. And in some cases it will be impossible.

If your townhouse is landmarked you can still build an addition, as long as the zoning works, but you also have to get approval from LPC. They will have additional regulations beyond those of the Zoning Resolution.

Landmark townhouse additions are more complicated and will take longer, but it is possible to get it done. We recently completed an addition on top of a landmark brownstone where we added a 300 square foot penthouse on top of the existing structure. This was a real endeavor to get approved, but we got it through and it’s all done.

In the photo below you will see an addition to a landmark brownstone in Harlem where we added a small floor on top with a single room and a powder room. If you want to read more on the subject, you can look at another post I wrote about Building an Addition to a Townhouse in NYC.

Adding a Floor to a Brownstone in NYC

Rooftop Addition with a New Floor on a Brownstone in NYC

 

Getting a New Certificate of Occupancy  

If you are changing the use, occupancy, or means of egress of a townhouse, you will need a new Certificate of Occupancy. Adding a floor on top is one example where you will need a new Certificate of Occupancy. Changing from one family to two family will also require a new C of O. Recently there has been a big trend in converting SROs to single family or two family homes, which will also need a new Certificate of Occupancy.

Obtaining a new Certificate of Occupancy adds work for an architect, but also increases the work at the property. For example, if you do not have fire sprinklers, you will most likely need to add them when you renovate your townhouse, if you are getting a new C of O. The C of O requirement triggers a lot of other regulations and additional inspections.

 

Adding a Backyard Deck to a Townhouse

You can add a rear deck to a townhouse, which of course will require permits. You can discuss this with an architect before deciding to move forward. As with any alteration to a townhouse, if it is landmarked there will be more steps to the process.

We will not be going into any detail here, but there are many regulations that will apply to rear decks on townhouses in NYC. If you want to read more on the subject, you can take a look at another post I wrote on Adding a Rear deck to a Townhouse in NYC.

In the photo below you can see a rear deck we added in the backyard of a townhouse in Brooklyn.

Townhouse Rear Deck in NYC

Townhouse Rear Deck in NYC

 

Upgrading Water Service in a Townhouse

If you are adding sprinklers to a townhouse, you will most likely need to upgrade your water service. This will increase the cost of the project, as well as the time. This is just one example of the many things a homeowner may not be aware of when planning a townhouse renovation in New York.

 

Adding an Elevator to a Townhouse

You can add an Elevator to a Townhouse if you like, but be prepared this is a big job and it is costly.

 

Modern HVAC Systems for a Townhouse

We usually add mini split HVAC units on our townhouse projects in NYC. The mini splits are rather friendly as a retrofit for installation. You will need a place outside for the condensers and an air handler for each zone within the home.

These systems are energy efficient and broken into zones, so you can control each room independently. We find that our clients tend to like these types of systems and we predict they will continue to grow in popularity for townhouse renovations. If you are interested in learning more about mini splits we have another post on Adding Mini Splits to an NYC Townhouse.

Mini Split Condenser

Mini Split Condenser

 

How Much Does it Cost to Renovate a Townhouse in NYC?

There are many factors that go into the cost for a townhouse renovation. In order to get a proper price, you will need a full design and a general contractor to price it out. An architect can guesstimate budgets based on previous projects, but these are only guesstimates.

 

Renovating Your Townhouse in NYC

If you are planning to renovate your townhouse you want to start by talking to an architect. Put together a good team and make sure that they explain everything to you so that you understand how to make good decisions.

 


Thank You for Reading Our Blog Post on Townhouse Renovations in NYC.

I hope this was helpful. If you would like to speak with an architect about a potential project, you can contact us at Fontan Architecture directly.

 

Contact Fontan Architecture

 

Jorge Fontan
Jorge Fontan

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 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.