When Pros Design Their Family Home

Two architects draft a colorful co-op in Brooklyn

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With a baby on the way and an energetic dog named Alfie, Terri Lee and Brett Appel needed a larger apartment. The couple had a design advantage from the start: Brett runs his own custom residential architecture practice and Terri works for one of the largest architecture firms in New York. They wanted to find something that they could gut renovate and design to their own specifications. Being in the business was a plus as they turned this rundown co-op into something they could call their own.

architect, gut renovation(Befores) Living room (left), bedroom (right)architect, gut renovationarchitect, gut renovation

The 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath apartment was in an 82-unit co-op in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. It was in terrible condition, which made it easier to rip everything out and redesign the apartment exactly the way they wanted. They found their contractor after talking with friends (one of whom is also an architect) who had used Sweeten and ended up using the same contractor.

When Terri and Brett posted their project on Sweeten, they were upfront about the existing conditions and scope of work. They wanted a contractor who would tell them whether the work could be done within their budget, or if they needed to scale back. “Fortunately, we found the right contractor who was very happy to work with us so we could get everything we wanted,” Brett said.

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The couple’s design vision was to combine shades of gray with natural wood to make the home seem as bright and large as possible without being too monotone. “We also didn’t want the renovated space to compete with our brightly colored furniture,” Brett said. Their primary objective in terms of gaining space was to add a second bathroom, which they achieved by rearranging the bedroom doors and reducing the size of the hallway closets.

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The entry foyer was a bit of a challenge. It’s two steps above the living room and contains the dining space, which was small. They relocated the steps down to the living room from the center to the side and replaced the guardrails with a continuous double-sided built-in bookcase custom-designed by the contractor’s millworker. The raised platform was extended to create a larger dining space, while the closet expanded for more stroller storage. New wide-plank European oak engineered flooring was installed throughout.

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When they found the apartment, the existing walls were plaster—probably at least 60 years old and poorly done. “One of the walls in the living room was so uneven and bumpy, it looked like it was made out of pillowcases,” Brett recalled. They ultimately decided to fur out the walls–a process to construct a new wall in front of the old one. “We attached 1x3s to the existing wall and then put new sheetrock on those. We lost a little space (about 1 1/2″ per wall), but this saved us about $6,000,” Brett said. The other option to straighten crooked walls would have been “demolishing the plaster and lathe, placing new studs, and then new sheetrock,” which would have been more expensive and time-consuming.

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The master bedroom closet was reframed to function as a walk-in. Other details included the custom radiator covers in the bedroom and living room, crafted by the millworker; leftover stone from the kitchen counters was used for the radiator sills.

Terri and Brett designed these covers together. The existing radiators had an old painted steel cover that had not weathered very well. The millworker made the slatted fronts on removable clips so the radiator could be accessed for maintenance. The new millwork needed a top/windowsill but the couple decided that painted MDF would not last very long. Brett had to purchase two slabs of stone for the kitchen to cover the countertops and backsplash. There was a lot of leftover stone that easily fit the sills.

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“We didn’t have a lot of flexibility designing the kitchen and bathroom layouts. It had to be ADA-compliant since we rearranged everything,” Brett explained. They focused on finishes. In the kitchen, they imagined the countertops and backsplash as the “feature” elements with everything else as the background, “which is why the floors and cabinets are all different shades of gray,” he said. The couple loves unique, natural stones and found that quartzites have the most movement and veining, which worked well with their gray cabinets.

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(Above) Master batharchitect, gut renovation

Both bathrooms were made to seem bigger and brighter by making the walls white and using marble tile in the master and subway tile in the guest. In the master bath, Brett said, he “had some fun connecting the shower niche with the existing windowsill.” Terri scoured the Internet to find an aquatic-themed wallpaper for the guest bathroom. Wood shelves were incorporated in each to provide a little warmth.

Brett was most excited about the new rain shower in the added bathroom. “All of my previous apartments—for basically my entire life—only had a bathtub, so it feels very luxurious to shower in a large glass box,” he said.

Before the renovation, Brett had wanted to test out Sweeten’s service to see if he would recommend it to his own clients. After this experience, he said he would. “We didn’t need much assistance from Sweeten because I have experience managing projects like these professionally, but I felt reassured knowing that Sweeten would be able to assist if any serious problems came up. Luckily, our contractor was great and we didn’t have any issues,” Brett said.

After their daughter, Dylan, was born in 2018, “Terri and I are perpetually impressed that we were able to design the apartment exactly to our needs,” says Brett. “Our families come over frequently now and we love that we were able to add a second bathroom. It really helps make ‘our’ space feel more private.” As an architect couple, they worked well together. “It helps to come up with a central concept or theme at the beginning,” Brett said. “There will always be disagreements but we could then ask ourselves ‘does this fit our initial vision’ and make a decision together.”

Thank you, Terri and Brett, for sharing your renovation journey with us!

KITCHEN RESOURCES: Porcelain floor tiles: Price Stone. Custom cabinets: Interiors Palace. Base cabinets in Cement Gray: Benjamin Moore. Upper cabinets in American White: Benjamin Moore. Cabinet hardware: Atlas Homewares. Quartzite countertops and backsplash: SMC Stone. Sink: Franke. Faucet: Grohe. Fisher & Paykel refrigerator: Designer Appliances, Dishwasher: Bosch. Range: Samsung. Dioscuri ceiling light: Artemide.

MASTER BATHROOM RESOURCES: Porcelain floor tile, marble wall tile: Price Stone. Shower fixtures and faucet: Grohe. Vanity: Miseno. Toilet: Toto. Theo 6″ wall sconce lighting: Cedar and Moss. Medicine cabinet: Kohler.

SECOND BATHROOM RESOURCES: Porcelain floor tile, matte subway wall tile: Price Stone. Shower fixtures and faucet: Grohe. Vanity: Miseno. Toilet: Duravit. Theo 6″ wall sconce lighting: Cedar and Moss. Medicine cabinet: Kohler Experience Center. Wallpaper, People’s Underwater World in Graphite pattern: Hygge & West.

LIVING ROOM RESOURCES: Flooring: PID Floors. IC/Air 3 ceiling fan: The Modern Fan Co.

MASTER BEDROOM RESOURCES: Classic Gray paint color: Benjamin Moore.

These architects designed and renovated their own homes with the help of Sweeten.

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