When Pros Design Their Family Home

Two architects draft a colorful co-op in Brooklyn

open living and dining with hardwood floors and white walls and half wall book shelves as room divider partition after renovation

  • Homeowners: Homeowners, and architects, Terri and Brett posted their 1,000-square-foot co-op renovation on Sweeten
  • Where: Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York
  • Primary renovation: Gutting and remodeling a rundown two-bedroom, one-bathroom co-op apartment to fit their wants and needs
  • Sweeten’s role: Sweeten matches home renovators with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and up to $50,000 in financial protection—for free

Written in partnership with Sweeten homeowner Brett

In need of something bigger

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.

Brett sitting on a chair posing for photo near built-in book shelves after renovationA completely gutted remodel

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.

living room with stained hardwood floors and window and a small room with stained hardwood floors and radiator under window before renovation
image of bathroom with small floor tiles and bathtub and single vanity with mirror and image of kitchen with electric range and white cabinets and maple wood undercounter cabinets before renovation
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open living and dining with hardwood floors and white walls and half wall book shelves as room divider or partition after renovation

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.

living room with hardwood floors and white walls and radiator coverred under large window with black frames and recessed lights after renovation

living room with hardwood floors and white walls and radiator coverred under large window with black frames and recessed ceiling lights after renovation

Making the space look bigger

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.

dining with white walls and ceiling girder and hardwood floors and half wall book shelf divider partition after renovation

Challenges in the foyer

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.

dining room with hardwood floors and open to living and half wall book shelf divider or partition and recessed lights and ceiling fan in living with window after renovation

bedroom with beige walls and white trims and hardwood floors and radiator with cover under window with black frame and ceiling fan after renovation

Rearranging the walls

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.

white bedroom with white door and black knob and a double hung window after renovation

bedroom with beige walls and white trims and hardwood floors and radiator with cover under window with black frame after renovation

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radiator with cover under window sill in a room with hardwood floor and beige walls after renovation

Covering the radiator

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.

white kitchen cabinets with gray marble countertop and backsplash and stainless steel appliances and gray floor tiles and flush mounted ceiling light after renovation

white kitchen cabinets with marble countertop and backsplash and undermount stainless steel farmhouse sink and chrome faucet after renovation

light gray cabinets with gray countertop and backsplash and corner base carousel or lazy susan cabinet and gray floor tiles after renovation

An ADA-compliant layout

“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.

gray bathroom floor tiles and white floating vanity with mirror and toilet and bathtub and floor to ceiling wall tiles after renovation
(Above) Master bath

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.

bathroom vanity with mirror and wall mounted light and wood trim and walk-in shower with white subway wall tiles and glass door and chrome shower head and fixtures and dark gray floor tiles after renovation

A recommendation for clients

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.

“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!

Renovation materials

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. Franke sink: Franke. Faucet: Grohe. Fisher & Paykel refrigerator: Fisher & Paykel. Bosch dishwasher: Bosch. Samsung range: Samsung. Dioscuri ceiling light: Artemide.

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

SECOND BATHROOM RESOURCES: Porcelain floor tile, matte subway wall tile: Price Stone. Shower fixtures and faucet: Grohe. Vanity: Miseno. Duravit 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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